Facing the wilds – with little knowledge and even less experience

Facing the wilds – with little knowledge and even less experience

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In 1912, a pair of adventure-loving New Yorkers gave up city life to settle on the shores of Steep Rock Lake. Wilderness Wife, Kathrene Pinkerton’s first-hand account of that experience, provides a unique glimpse of life during Atikokan’s earliest days, writes Jacqueline Boileau

Kathrene Pinkerton on her trapline. The photo of their cabin on Steep Rock Lake is from 1913-14.
Kathrene Pinkerton on her trapline. The photo of their cabin on Steep Rock Lake is from 1913-14.

When a young American couple turned up in the tiny village of Atikokan in 1912 announcing their intention of building a cabin in the wilderness, it caused quite a stir amongst the inhabitants. Pioneer/writer Kathrene Pinkerton was amused to discover that rumours about her and her husband Robert ran the gamut from crime to forbidden love.

“We were loading the toboggan for our return journey when Mrs. [Mary Rawn], wife of the hotelkeeper… revealed her own explanation of our presence in the North when she said briskly, ‘Live and let live, I say. Folks who’ve gone to all that trouble to make a home deserve any happiness they’ve taken.’ Apparently she considered our cabin a ‘love nest,’ though it did not seem to affect her opinion of us,” she later wrote.

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In fact, the very legally married couple came here because Robert’s health could not stand a city reporter’s lifestyle, and the two were looking for adventure. They spent five years here, writing and trapping (and apparently mystifying the locals) and Pinkerton, who had never been off a sidewalk nor picked up a paddle, wrote of those experiences in Wilderness Wife, a fascinating tale of her life in the wilds of northwestern Ontario.

“While I looked at that raw hamlet I tried to reconcile it with the clear circle and print on the map, and to remember that, after all, it had chosen us. It was the one railroad stop in two hundred miles that had both store and post office. What we had chosen was the wilderness around it, and that wilderness had receded only enough to permit a station, roundhouse, a few cabins, a store and a bar.”

The pair purchased food and supplies from storekeeper Frank Scheider and set out in their canoe to look for a home site.

“The quest carried us into a big lake connected with the town by a river. It was a logical choice, for it meant no portages. The lake had possibilities. Shaped like an enormous ‘M,’ it extended in long traverses and deep arms.”

That M-shaped lake was none other than Steep Rock Lake, and the Pinkertons soon picked out a spot on Wagita Bay that had everything they needed – a stand of gorgeous white pine, nearby portage, sandy beach, waterfall, and a spruce swamp in behind that promised good hunting. Further exploration revealed a clearing containing an abandoned gold mine camp with two log buildings, still in good shape after 15 years.

The seasoned logs in the old ruins were perfect for building the cabin and meant a huge timesaving for the young couple, who went on a three-week canoe trip to explore their new neighbourhood and give Pinkerton a chance to learn how to paddle and portage. As they travelled, they stopped at the many settlements where people gathered to visit after the lonely winters on the trap lines.

Kaw-win ish-quay!

“My clothes fascinated the natives. Groups gathered around me. I thought it was admiration until the chief of a small band, apparently a wit, convulsed his villagers by pointing at me and repeating ‘Kaw-win ish-quay!’ Kaw-win ish-quay!’

“‘Not a woman! Not a woman!’ Robert interpreted. ‘He means your riding breeches.’ The village roared and shrieked its mirth. That became the summer’s joke. And durable! Years later I would turn a bend in a portage and hear a giggle, ‘Kaw-win ish-quay!’”

During that trip they discovered a ghost town, likely located up at Sawbill Bay north of Marmion Lake, that had been deserted for 15 years.

“We had stumbled on the only ghost town in the Canadian wilderness, an enormous stamp mill, hotel, store, dwelling houses, dam for water power, turbines, two miles of electric light poles straggling through the bush, wires and bulbs in the log cabins. I turned an electric switch, almost expecting light.”

The pair divided to see what they could pick up from the abandoned buildings.

“I had to content myself with odds and ends, grain sacks, glass jars for canning, a few pans and a leather bellows which I carried home in the hope of having a fireplace some day.”

The Pinkertons had many interesting adventures in the north, like watching a friend go for a ride on a moose. It was a feat accomplished by paddling right up to a swimming animal, grasping the horns and easing oneself onto its back, aided of course by the liberal imbibing of alcohol.

Another time they travelled to the other end of Steep Rock Lake with their two mothers, showing off the modernity of their surroundings in a new gas-powered boat. Pinkerton was pregnant at the time and wanted to prove that her new home was safe for a family.

“The launch behaved so admirably we dared make a twenty mile trip to the farthest arm of the lake to see the latest marvel, a farm. Several acres of level tree-less land had been discovered by Mr. [Tom Rawn] when hunting. No one knew by what geological or other force it had been laid bare, but he began immediately to improve it… We visited the farm in its hey-day when it had a cow and calf, some sheep, chickens and a garden.”

That farm was operated by Rawn’s nephew Phillip and his wife Anna, who were also expecting a baby (that baby was Myrtle (Rawn) Leishman, who celebrated her 91st birthday this summer in Atikokan).

Pinkerton went ‘out’ for several months to give birth to their daughter Bobs, and they added on to their little cabin to accommodate her, an expansion that took 40-45 cords of wood a year to heat. Fortunately, timber was plentiful and Robert was not afraid of hard work.

Myrtle Leishman

After five years in this area, the Pinkertons decided it was time to move on. They gave the cabin to the master mechanic at the roundhouse in return for his promise to treat it well and to burn it after he left. That was a promise he didn’t keep, since the building eventually fell into the hands of Sandy and Myrtle (Leishman) Johnson. One of the things they salvaged from the cabin was the leather bellows that Pinkerton had found at the Sawbill Bay ghost town (pictured here).

“My husband Sandy Johnson got the bellows because he bought the original house that the Pinkertons built. It had passed through many hands before he bought it for a summer camp,” said Leishman. “People kept taking things from it in the wintertime and they disappeared eventually, except the bellows, which we took home because we had a fireplace in our camp. Dad used to use it in his workshop.”

The late Myrtle Leishman of Atikokan with a family heirloom: the bellows the Pinkertons found while living at Steep Rock.
The late Myrtle Leishman of Atikokan with a family heirloom: the bellows the Pinkertons found while living at Steep Rock.

During the Pinkertons’ time, Atikokan was a tiny railroad town of about 300 people, with a post office and a general store and a hotel, run by Leishman’s uncle and aunt, Tom and Mary Rawn.

Leishman’s mother Anna came from Sweden at the age of 15, a young orphan hoping to find a job, and she ended up working in the Rawn’s hotel where she met Tom’s nephew Philip. After they married they moved to Steep Rock Lake and became friends with the Pinkertons, who lived at the other end of the big lake.

“[Their daughter] Bobs and I were born, I believe on the same day,” said Leishman. “Mom and Dad were friends of the Pinkertons; we lived out on the Rawn farm about four miles north of Atikokan. The Pinkertons lived in quite a big clearing where they were, near what we called Cedar Springs, which was a favourite picnic spot for the whole town.”

“All of Atikokan’s small members used to go to Cedar Springs for the 1st of July picnic. I remember I used to try to run races on the sand beach. It still exists of course, but when the lake was drained [for the mines] it made a difference in the whole area. It was a beautiful spring. One end of the beach was all cedar trees and it was very special drinking water. They had Indian pow-wows [there] and the whole town used to go. About 50 Native people lived in the area. It was a favourite meeting place for people.”

Leishman’s parents moved into town not long after the Pinkertons left.

“We came in from the farm when I was about four. My brother Lloyd was eight so we came in to go to school. My house [where Fotheringhams live on Clark St.] is the house that my father built when he was a young man working for Uncle Tom and it was the annex to the hotel.”

Wilderness Wife was published in 1939, and was greatly enjoyed by the whole Rawn family.

“I read it many times when it first came out. Mrs. Pinkerton sent us a copy of the book, which someone borrowed from my mother and we never got it back, even though we sent the Mounted Police to get it back. It was signed.”

The book, a fascinating bit of Atikokan history and a Canadian classic, was re-released in 1976 under the title A Home in the Wilds. Copies of the book can be found at the Atikokan Public Library, with the leather bellows clearly shown in the photo inset.

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