In Conversation with Frank O’ Connor
As we neared the end of the easternmost leg of our run, we got in touch with Frank O’Connor, a generous and gregarious local business owner. He offered us a free meal at his restaurant - an establishment that focuses on the bygone lifeways of the French Canadian voyageur that plied the local waterways in centuries past. After our meal we sat down to talk with Frank outside while hordes of beachgoers and summer tourists were in sight all around us. Which was a fitting context while Frank talked about something that many business-owners on the lake deal with - the seasonal swings of tourists and the vital income they represent. Below is an edited transcript from that conversation where Frank shares his relationship with Lake Superior, highlighted both by public tragedies as well as personal triumphs.
How did you end up on the Lake?
Gail and I are from here. Gail is from Batchawana and I’m from Gros Cap. We married then we moved to London, Ontario. I taught school and she worked in business administration. I always had a thing for history - never taught it but always liked it. I read Peter C. Newman’s books. He’s a famous Canadian author he wrote three books one was called Company of Adventurers. The sequel was called Caesars of the Wilderness. I read those books and they really got me thinking about the north shore of Lake Superior. I taught high school business studies - teaching kids to write a business plan to go and start a business, that sort of thing. And here I am teaching this course and I'm telling my kids go and take a risk and some of the bright ones said, “you know what Mr. O’Connor, you're at the front of the room telling us to do that but you should do it!” So we quit our jobs and I gave up a great teaching job and she gave up a great business admin job. We moved our family 500 miles north and we moved into this place on January 30th, freezing cold snowstorm. We had a lot of work ahead of us. My wife is a great cook, you couldn’t do this without someone being from the cooking background. She knew she could handle running a restaurant so we said let's go for it. We dove in head first. We found a bank that supported us.
My kids were supportive I look back and say “you guys could’ve been miserable little bastards but you guys were very good” [laughs].
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do here?
So you’re at the Voyageur Lodge and I'm sure you’ve heard along this shore the stories of the voyageurs and the fur traders. And this is where you are at - the historic pathway of the voyageurs that traded for the Northwest Company (NWC) trading out of Montreal. The group that we replicate and tell the story ofis the NWC. They came from Montreal and they went to Thunder Bay they traded at Fort William and all these waterways were their transport route. So starting in Montreal in the middle of May they would paddle the St. Lawrence Seaway. They went from the Ottawa, the Matthew, the French River, Lake Huron, St. Mary’s River, and then finally Lake Superior and end up at the fort in July for the rendezvous. My wife and I lived here for many many years. Gail is from here, I’m from Gros Cap which is the last point of land before the St. Mary’s River. We met out here and we saw this opportunity to tell the story of these French Canadian voyageurs who paddled their way along this route. So we had a cottage just over there - I was a school teacher for just over 14 years she was a business administrator. This beach was empty, these two buildings were beat up and empty and no one telling these stories. We thought there’s gotta be a business idea so we formalized it and came up with this name. And we’ve been here for 14 years trying to put together the story of the voyageurs. We do re-enactments.
If you read the menu there are lots of things there that are related to the lifestyle of the voyageur. Bannock biscuit is our biscuit and it’s really just a tea biscuit. To do that the voyageurs mixed water with their bag of flour made their dough baked it on a stick over the fire and that was their bread! We have homemade baked beans - it's all part of the voyageur mystique we’re trying to share with people.
We’ve also partnered with Fort William and we have a lot of artifacts that are original from FortWilliam. These shores were so historic and they were landing places for the voyageurs. They had with them birch bark canoes that could never touch bottom so a sand beach was ideal for them. They could park out there 30 feet, unload and carry the boat in. We talk about that when we do our voy paddle. I have a group called Batchawana Brigade. It's me and eight guys and we dress up like the voyageurs. We bring a big festival in August in Sault Ste. Marie and we’re paddling down the canal and we have a Frenchman on board that leads us in song - we have fun it's just goofing around but we have fun.
The three main companies that traded for fur were Hudson Bay Company (HBC) out of James Bay and they claimed Rupert's land - all the waters that drained into Hudson's Bay were claimed for the King of England. At one point he owned most of North America because most of the continent drains that way. Then the NW company came out of Montreal, a group of Scottish merchants to compete with the HBC. In the northeast it was the American Fur Trading Company and all companies hated each other. They would sabotage each other, they would steal each other’s trading partners, they would do all sorts of dirty things to each other. But all three companies employed the French-Canadian. The French Canadian was short and stout, if anyone was over 5 foot 4 he could paddle. Everybody dreamed of staying short two hundred years ago. You don’t see that happening for grade seven boys today [laughs]. All three companies had French Canadian voyageurs paddling their boats.
When did you start to decide to do more of those community-based group events?
In Canada we celebrate something called Victoria's Day. It’s the week before your Memorial Day weekend. Victoria Day is the Queen's birthday and we light fireworks off. I went and bought a little kit of fireworks and we lit them off on Victoria Day and that was our first community event, a little forty dollar box of fireworks. And now this year my show had about 400 people at it during Canadian Day and I do a full firework show across the bay. We played a lot of Canadian roots music in the restaurant: fiddles, french horns, that kind of stuff. Music was such a part of the voyageur lifestyle, we need to showcase music. So we started with a little music. Now I have a full stage wired for sound, a bandshell and we can put up to 500 people in there for shows in the evenings. And then all the artsy, cultural, crafty kind of stuff just sort of came to be ‘hey we need to showcase the work of Canada's artisans,’ so we started an art festival. It’s all part of having fun and showcasing Canadian roots musicians, Canadian artisans on this shore. There’s so much going on here that so many people don't realize that's happening.
When you’re running down this highway you have to imagine that every 150 feet at the beach front there's a cottage from here to Havallind Bay. Every 150 feet someone has a cottage down there.
What does your season look like here?
We’ve been open year round in the past but now we’re going to a seasonal operation because Gail and I are tired and we’ve been doing it for 14 years. We’re gonna close for Halloween and open for Easter. What happens in the winter time here, you guys are from Wisconsin so you know, so there's a lot of snow and cold here it comes across the lake and blows right in here and it’s whiteout conditions. In the summer the beaches are full of people. In the winter no one wants to be here. They want to be in Sault Ste. Marie or Wawa or Thunder Bay. They want to be in a community where there are hotels, they don't want to be stuck in a snowstorm. The winter time here is done after 3 p.m. So we battled being open for 14 years, its very high in terms of energy. Energy costs are huge, plowing is huge. I'm here at 4 a.m. trying to get it plowed. So we just got tired and said “you know what it's so busy in the summer, let's just focus on the summer.” It's very busy in the fall for the fall colors.
And you know what Lake people are very special people and it's the same on your side. I went around and met so many wonderful people. You live on Lake Superior, man. You’re on the grandaddy, there's nothing bigger, there's nothing fresher, there's nothing cooler, there's nothing deeper.
I was at a silent auction in southern Ontario when I lived there. There was a sign that said ‘welcome to the lake’. I’m bidding and this other couple is bidding all night long. The auction closes and we got the final bid. We paid $100 might’ve been worth $25. The other couple that were bidding, we never knew who they were, we never saw them put their bid down. The other couple comes up and the woman says so you’re the couple that won the bid. So this gal says “well, I certainly hope you have a nice lake to put that on.” Just like that. In a real condescending way. The whole table starts to laugh and I said, “well ma’am we have the coldest, deepest, and largest lake in the world to put it on.” She said “we’re on [Lake] Erie, where are you? And I said ‘we’re on Lake Superior” [laughs].
Its an amazing place. It generates its own weather patterns it does whatever it wants. I've seen it whip up in November, we got walls of water coming at us. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is just out there you're really close to it now. I hope when you get to the American side, I hope you get to do the coastal route and see the Shipwreck museum. The bell of the Fitzgerald is at the museum, it's a special kind of place. The day of the wreck is very close to us here. 1975 is very close to everyone - so many people can still remember the storm, the wildness of it. I was in Gros Cap, I was a twelve year old. And in Gros Cap the waves were 50, 60 feet up the next day after the storm. I was standing up on those bluffs and those waves were crashing over us. That's how immense that storm was.
Could you explain the Three Sisters? It’s something we hear about when people talk about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
They’re three waves. There's a theory that three sisters hit the Edmund Fitzgerald. The first, second and third hits it and sinks it. They say the waves hit it and opened the hatches just by the sheer force. I think it was probably human error. Those boats were designed for water to go right over the decks and not sink but once water gets in then you're in trouble. That’s an Ojibwe theory - the legend of three giant waves - tidal waves in size. That was the captain’s last voyage. He was retiring three weeks later when they got home, after 40 years on the Lake. Last year was the 40th anniversary of the wreck. And I went out to the lake and I played the Gordon Lightfoot song, I play it on the 10th. It was a beautiful morning which was uncharacteristic in November - November here is real ugly. There was no traffic it was quiet and the water was glass, It was beautiful.
She’s the boss. Don’t muck with her. I’ve been in it with a sailboat with my dad. He’s a terrible sailor. He loved the lake and I thought we were in peril many times [laughs]. He’s sailed his whole life through there. But he's made it through and he’s retired now and sold his boat.