In Conversation with Johanna Rowe
We met with Johanna Rowe a couple of months back as we passed through the town of Wawa, Ontario. At that point, Wawa had been in our sites for a long time. Not only would it be our first time back on the shores of Lake Superior after several days of following the road as it turned away from the water’s edge in Pukaskwa National Park, but it would also offer us a much anticipated respite with some folks that we were excited to meet with. Johanna was one of those people. We were lucky enough to spend a long morning in conversation with her over coffee as we gazed out passed the mouth of the Michipicoten River towards the Big Lake. What follows is our edited conversation on the history of the northern shore and what it means for a small rural community to move forward from the past’s tough lessons.
You’ve been introduced to us as “the historian.” What is it that brought you to the lake and how is it that you came to tell the story of Wawa?
Well, I guess you’re sitting in the reason that I’m associated with the lake. My grandmother really was the one who would sit on the deck with my brother and I – here at the camp – and point out where the history was and we would take the rowboat over to the sandbar. We would find bits of china or Native artifacts. Even here along our beach and behind the cottage. She would talk about how the archaeologists came and they told us about the history of the area. My grandmother moved here with my grandfather in the late 30s and there were still old-timers here then that moved here when there was a gold boom, and the First Nations people that were involved in residential schools but who were more connected with their family history. So she listened a lot. She’s a very social person, and you were back then. There was no highway, you took the train in here. She would tell us stories about the “good ole days.” So growing up I’ve always been interested in the history of the area and when I had to decide where I was gonna go to university I thought, “Well, I don’t really know but I’ll just take something I’m interested in.” So I took history. I did my four years at university. I had to write a paper in my fourth year and I chose to write my honors bachelor paper on the Michipicoten area. As a part of that I had to travel to the archives in Toronto and I went to Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay Company archives because there’s a Hudson Bay post just up the river here. I went, “Oh my god! There’s a ton of history here and no one knows about it!”
So when I went to the different archives there were these huge sections along the shelf of original documents from factories, from the bosses of the post from the 1700s and the 1800s. They documented everything like the weather every day, and how many natives came in and the “poor little Indian kid who was sick”. Or the explorers that came up like Alexander Mackenzie or Louis Agassiz, the scientist. One of them would be sick or hurt and he would go get the local medicine man and they would come. That information is still there and it hasn’t really been pushed yet. So I’ve just kind of grown into supporting that. I used to work at the tourist information center and the lady who is still in charge of the promotion and marketing and tourism, she moved here and recognized the wealth of what Wawa has. Everything from the lake to snowmobiling to ice fishing to hunting to the history. She’s really great at getting grants and funding for promoting the local history and recognizing that that’s what cultural tourism is, it’s a growing trend. People are interested in that A.Y. Jackson painted here or that Louis Agassiz came through here and Alexander Mackenzie and Étienne Brûlé and [Pierre-Esprit] Radisson and [Sieur des] Groseilliers. All those people. There’s been different projects and different interpretive plaques that we’ve put up around the area.
Extractive industry is a huge part of how many communities around the Lake were built. As we’ve seen in places like Wawa, however, that’s a boom and bust cycle. That cycle has the potential to become a story that we tell people to bring them back though, part of the cultural tourism you mentioned. We’re wondering if you have any perspective on how that looks for the future of places like Wawa?
It’s tough, right? Cause it is boom and bust and all of these communities are based on resources and resource extraction. There are some big scars on the land, so now do we take advantage of those and say, “Okay, we’re gonna interpret that or, can we reinvent that?” Like what Sudbury is doing with the old INCO [Creighton Mine] stuff. They have a neutrino laboratory underground in the abandoned shafts. It’s this amazing scientific lab now that is collecting neutrinos coming from the universe.
That’s not happening here though. I think that it’s a long transition for community memory to get away from that “We need another mine!” or “We need that next mill!” It’s a tough one. Those industries are kind of going by the wayside and they need to reinvent themselves.
David [owner of Naturally Superior Adventures] is on the cusp of providing a different Wawa. Their jobs are seasonal though, you know but, it does add an extra element to the community. There’s a gentleman in town now harvesting blueberries. That’s renewable, much more renewable than forestry and he’s getting into strawberries and raspberries.
It’s probably the same in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Everyone is kind of going through that... Don’t focus on what people can help you do or what people can help you fund to do. Focus on what you can do and prove that you can do it and that’s when you’ll get surprises.
I did a cultural mapping contract for the town and I really enjoyed it. It got the community to come together to tell us what they think all the assets are of the community. Like, what’s our authentic story? The waterfalls, the mining history, the goose, Lake Superior, the hiking, the hunting, the snowmobile trails. So we broke it down into six different cultural components: natural, history, the tangibles like the arena, the marina, stuff like that. Then the social stuff like the churches, the Rotary Club, the Lion’s Clubs, the support networks, the hospitals. I think people really got a look at how much stuff we have here. But then there’s the other side of the coin, like, there’s a lot of infrastructure here but there’s 2,000 less people paying for that infrastructure. Okay, we can’t maintain all of this so what do we tick off the list and try not to piss off as many people as possible. There are six or seven playgrounds but the population is so small. There are some playgrounds that I didn’t even know about but, there’s like 3 or 4 people that use them.
The commercial fishing industry was huge, fur trading was huge, mining was huge, the harbor was huge. But it’s not there anymore, so what do we do?
It’s probably the same in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Everyone is kind of going through that. But you can’t be worried about stuff you can’t fix. Just try to be positive. Focus on what you do have, not on what you used to have or on what you don’t have anymore. Don’t focus on what people can help you do or what people can help you fund to do. Focus on what you can do and prove that you can do it and that’s when you’ll get surprises.
Such a large part of loving the Lake is recognizing that there are these things that happen to it – mills, mines, industry, etc. – that have changed it irreversibly. But you have to love it as it is and move forward with that.
You will learn the lessons. You can’t just sit in your house and wonder, “Oh, where are all the fish?” It’s all changing. The commercial fishing industry was huge, fur trading was huge, mining was huge, the harbor was huge. But it’s not there anymore, so what do we do? What did we learn from having that? There are abandoned lighthouses… but in Canada the lighthouses aren’t being maintained. The government is maintaining the light and the horn but they’ve asked the public to maintain the buildings. But how are you gonna maintain all of these remote locations? It’s great that there are bed and breakfasts down in the states, there are communities right there, but who’s gonna do that here?
As a historian you’ve studied past challenges of the communities around here. What are some of the current challenges of living up here and, looking ahead, how might that landscape change and affect these communities and the lake itself?
We touched on it a little bit… the economy, right? What is it that will maintain or attract new tax-payers and businesses? I think we’re in an exciting time, a transition time. We’re getting away from those big factories and mines and industries that are massive and can pay huge pensions and benefits. People are gonna have to figure it out on their own but they can do it with technology wherever they wanna do it. Maybe not as much with physical labor but the more with things like teaching online… I work at a college out of Thunder Bay and all of our students learn everything through the computer. So they’re all in a virtual classroom. They get their diploma all without ever seeing their teacher. I think the sky is the limit as far as getting the word out goes. Even places that are remote, all of these communities around here, can get the word out about these kind of tools. Whatever people are marketing, you know, blueberry barbeque sauce. They get it on a website and off it goes.
A lot of these communities were built when there was 5,000 people. Now there’s only 3,000… if that. There’s a lot of infrastructure costs that are hard to maintain.
Certainly the remoteness and the cost of living is expensive. We have six hydro dams upstream but we pay the highest transmission rates in the province. It’s a little ridiculous. A lot of these communities were built when there was 5,000 people. Now there’s only 3,000… if that. There’s a lot of infrastructure costs that are hard to maintain. Plus that mine or that mill aren’t here anymore to pay huge levies to the town. There are five schools but it looks like we’re gonna be closing one of those. So that building is gonna be up for grabs but, who’s gonna move into that? I don’t know. So there’s gonna be another abandoned building in town. Can’t tear it down though because the landfill site is full and we don’t have the money to pay for an environmental assessment to build a new landfill. It’s cyclical. It’s costly. You count on business and industry to be a part of communities but I also think that the new norm is maybe gonna be if you want to live in a remote location you’re gonna pay more in taxes and for hydro and for food but, perhaps the cost of living is less because you have everything within your community. It’s whatever your quality of life is in your mind and what your priorities are. If a community can attract those people that are looking for a quality of life where they are out in nature and they live in a safe community then they might move to a town like this. We have classically trained pianists, some kids in this community that can knock Bach off the table and these professional dancers, it’s so cool. So… don’t knock it until you try it.
We think about this kind of thing often as young folks just out of college, trying to balance work and family and also the place we love and want to live. It can be so much harder to do it in a small, remote town. We have to make a choice between moving 2,000 miles away to take a job in Seattle or settling for something else here so we can be closer to these other important parts of our lives.
Again, it depends on what you want access to. If you want to be close to theater and court orchestra and national libraries then sure. But I’d argue that people need access to this kind of nature more than they realize. You can set up a little feng-shui corner in your condo but if you can’t get out and hug a tree within five minutes then, wow… I think that’s a part of the off-kilterness of human society. People are trying to return to their roots.
I read an interesting article about the difficult time First Nations are going through right now in North America. So quickly they were ripped from their roots. It’s so fresh, it’s still in them. They’re trying to desperately get back to it. But Western culture, over centuries, has left Stonehenge and the Celtic ways and the traditional customs and ways of doing things with nature as a part of your decision-making process. But it’s that much harder for our First Nations because it is so fresh. It’s been taken so quickly.
In closing, do you have a favorite historical tidbit that you like to share with people?
The lake was travel, right? This spot right here was instrumental in settlement because the First Nation was here. They were here because they could go up the Michipicoten River, or the Magpie River. They had their transportation route all the way to James Bay. So when the Europeans came looking for that route they stopped here and the First Nation said “Yeah, we can go from here to here to here.” So they put up a post to trade here. This was the transportation route but you don’t see that as much now because of the highway. But the lake used to be so instrumental in getting back and forth along the water. So when the fur trading post setup here it was the only hub, the only main supply depot until Sault Ste. Marie. So anyone who was anybody traveling across the way would have had to stop here.
So these little pockets of communities are based on where the First Nations stayed. It really became the pockets of when gold was discovered. This became the supply depot for the shovels, the mining licenses, the post office. When commercial fishing started it was because the Hudson Bay Post was here so they got into commercial fishing because they weren’t making a lot of money on fur trade. It’s all connected to the lake. The first discovery of gold was a First Nations person who brought the prospectors here. It’s all connected to the people who were connected to the land and now we’re all connected with the land and the lake.