Sunday, August 20, 2017

Exploration: Round Algonquin Park 2017 via TCAT and Cobalt - Part 3

Part 2

Frozen. That was my first night's experience sleeping in my Hennessy Hammock. Not the fault of the hammock, but rather a combination of my own inexperience with the rig, a chronic problem of my rectangular Thermarest pad slipping sideways and sproinging on top of me throughout the night, a sleeping bag that was too light, and temps that dropped to single digits. With nothing to push off of in a free-hanging hammock, trying to adjust the pad and my sleeping bag--or putting on every bit of dry clothing I had--resulted in spasms of wriggling and cursing to try to make the best of the situation. It was a good thing I was camped far from neighbours.

Such is the reward for last-minute planning without a real opportunity to test my sleeping arrangement under more realistic conditions. On order now is a bubble-style pad that conforms better to the unique requirements of the hammock, so I'll give the whole setup another shot and probably upgrade my summer bag.

On the plus side, being uncomfortable in bed is fantastic motivation to start early, so I was packed up and ready to go with my still-wet gear on by around 6:00 a.m. I will admit that breaking the RV park's dawn silence with the putt-putting of my bike felt like mildly wicked retribution for last night's unwelcome reception.

The TCAT picked up on the rail bed which passed in front of the RV park. More loose, squirrely gravel and a steep drop-off to the river below, plus frigid air on my hands face, and wet gear, made for challenging riding that demanded all my attention.

Crystal skies and mist over the water made for a spectacular sunrise. Besides some croaking ravens and a couple of otters that scooted across the trail ahead of me, I had the views to myself.

Soon the rail bed opened up with glorious sunshine. Moments after I took this picture, a giant yellow Volvo mining truck loomed on the far horizon and lumbered towards me.

A few minutes later I reached a formidable rail bridge: long, high, and unguarded on the sides. The TCAT route carried over this bridge, but hazard tape across the entrance led me to look more closely before starting across. No way I was going to try this: several of the ties were completely rotten and ready to collapse, and about 25 metres out at least one tie was missing altogether, creating a gap of at least 3 feet that opened into thin air some 70 feet above the river. Probably not a big deal for sleds when everything's frozen and snow bridges the gap, but I wasn't about to evaluate my trials skills on a loaded bike.

Since the bridge was a no-go, I turned back to a road crossing and embarked on a major detour southwest to try find a way around and either reconnect with the rail route, or re-join the TCAT at Capreol, where I had planned to find breakfast. However, as to be expected when large rivers need to be crossed in remote areas, there are few bridges and roads to provide direct options. Meanwhile, massive storm clouds were gathering in the southwest and heading my way. After making some wrong assumptions about roads thanks to naming discrepancies in my GPS, I ended up riding closer to the north end of Sudbury than I intended, and resorted to hitting the pavement to try to get around the storm front that was sneaking up behind me. This proved to be a good plan, and I arrived in Capreol after experiencing just a few fat drops of rain. 

Capreol is a down-trodden but active rail and mining town with few services and no cafes or restaurants that I could see after a go-around of the main street.     

It's a must-stop for gas and groceries though, as the next leg of the journey is long and passes through one of the most remote sections of my loop where you're really on your own. After breakfast and gas at the Timmy's, followed by stocking up on snacks from the grocery store, it was time to hit the Portelance Rd.

The Portelance Rd. starts out as a wide gravel road that gradually becomes a narrow, rough, and steep dual-track over some 120km until it merges again with active (and more improved) logging roads to the north. In several hours of riding this section I saw three people. Much of the route follows a river valley, with several fine campsites and swimming holes along the way. This was wild country with many signs of bears and wolves on the road.

The logging roads posed hazards of Mad-Max drivers of fully-loaded rigs and choking dust. Caution required!

There's some ambiguity on the TCAT site about whether gas is available at Shining Tree, which at one time was apparently a good place to camp, eat, and fuel up. Most of the settlement appears to be closed up now or at least not offering public services. I didn't see promising signs of activity so I didn't stop there for long. Spruce Shilling Camp a few kilometers further east down the 560 was open with gas and a general store. Since I planned to gas up in Gowganda, I skipped this option and gunned it down the smooth pavement which I had all to myself. 

Gowganda sprang up around a silver mine that got its start when prospectors from the rich Cobalt area began to look further afield. Today there's little left of what was once a bustling community besides cottagers and a general store. While gas was available, no premium as I needed.  

My only option for fuel now was to press on another 40km or so east to Elk Lake (originally another bustling mining town), where I was stymied once again because the only fuel in town, at a self-serve card lock tank as I arrived, didn't have premium either. By this point I'd already burned through 250km in my tank, and had already added my 100km reserve. This would have to get me to New Liskeard, for a total distance of about 330km since leaving Capreol, on what I knew was a 350km range. To add to the excitement, once again storm clouds were chasing me, and the long stretches of flat pavement on the upper flats area northwest of New Liskeard required me to pin the throttle to stay reasonably in line with the occasional kamikaze trucks that blew by. Since leaving Capreol about 5 hours earlier, I'd hardly seen any people or traffic. 

New Liskeard arrived with a downpour and slim margin in my tank. But it was good enough to get me to a hotel on the shore of Lake Temiskaming, where a decent (and lively) attached restaurant provided a much-needed break to dry out and some tasty fettuccini carbonara and craft beer. 

The next day proved to be perfect weather for exploring the historic mining town of Cobalt, a planned highlight of the trip.   

So much can be said about Cobalt that it's hard to know where to start. Anyone familiar with mining history in Canada will know of the town's remarkable story, but given its huge significance in the growth of Ontario, it's shameful how little of this history and its importance is more broadly known or even taught today. Matters aren't helped by our federal and provincial government departments who've done basically nothing to help preserve this unique and rich chapter of frontier history in North America.

So here are some factoids to help put Cobalt in perspective:
  • The Cobalt silver strike in the early 1900s is the fourth largest in the world and the largest in North America, with narrow seams of almost pure silver forming "sidewalks" at the surface of the bedrock, and massive nuggets lying on the ground. Some 330 million ounces of silver were extracted from the area (thousands of tons), worth over $5B in today's dollars. This was more value than generated by the California or Klondike gold rushes. 
  • The vast wealth that Cobalt produced was a major source of funds to drive the economy and growth of Toronto, resulting in the financial capital of Canada shifting from Montreal to Toronto's Bay Street.
  • A 13 square kilometer area including Cobalt was home to some 100 active mines. Although the town today has dwindled to about 1100 people, during its heyday it had a population of 30,000 (compared to some 250,000 in Toronto at the time) and was one of Canada's largest cities.
  • The Toronto Stock Exchange originated in Cobalt. When Cobalt mining stocks were offered in New York City, police there spent three days trying to control the masses of people scrambling to buy shares.
  • Cobalt was home to one of the hockey teams that led to the formation of the original NHL teams. The Montreal Canadiens played their very first hockey game against the Cobalt Silver Seven.
  • A water-driven compressor built at Montreal River 25km from Cobalt delivered compressed air that ran many of the mining operations. It was the largest compressed air plant in the world.  
  • An electric tram service connecting Cobalt to Haileybury and other small communities served 30,000 riders in its first week of service and was the most northern electric tram in the world. 
  • Cobalt was home to one of the first two Ontario Provincial Police posts created when the service was founded. 
  • The unique geology of the Cobalt area and its silver deposits facilitated the rapid development of hard-rock mining methods and technologies, pushing Canada to the forefront of capability in the world and creating an entire new mining economy where none was thought to exist east of the Rockies.    

Today Cobalt is a decaying shadow of its glory days over a century ago, with reminders of its mining heritage literally everywhere you look. In fact, you sometimes have to be careful where you walk because the whole town was part of the mine site and still poses hazards. 

Below is one of the landmark head frames you see when arriving in town.  

This is an example of one of the "smaller" silver nuggets (it's over half a meter long) that was basically found lying on the ground by prospectors. It now lies casually at the front desk of the Mining Museum on the main street. 

The best way to explore Cobalt is to start at the Mining Museum. Run by dedicated and under-resourced volunteers, it provides a glimpse of the geology, artifacts, and life of the mining community as it exploded in growth. From the museum there are three must-do tours to take: a self-guided walking tour of the town; an underground tour of one of the mines; and a self-guided driving tour of the immediate area around town, in which you visit some 19 of the original mine sites. All three options are highly recommended and will fill much of a day. 

The underground tour visits the Colonial Mine site, which is accessed by an adit at the base of a ridge and is some 350 feet underground. It's wet and cold, and entirely representative of the actual conditions as this was a working section of the mine, with many kilometers of tunnels. In this picture, you can see a faint white mineralization in the rock, which is calcite and a sign of where to look for silver. It's hard to see even with the benefit of modern lights. Even harder by candlelight.

In the early days of mining here, all the drilling was done by hand: one guy held a drill bit (seen in the hands of the tour guide), another guy hit it with a sledge hammer. Working this way, it took some 12-16 hours (a full shift) to drill one hole deep enough (about 6') for blasting. Some 29 holes needed to be drilled like this in a particular pattern before they could be stuffed with dynamite and blasted. All of this was done by candlelight, and there were no safety glasses or other protective equipment. Only a few well-financed miners could afford the costly carbide lamps that provided slightly better light, and electric light wasn't available yet. The guy holding the drill had to put a lot of faith in the guy swinging the sledge.

With the advent of compressed air, it was possible to mechanize the drilling process, such as with the drifter (for drilling horizontal holes) shown here. The early versions of these drills created clouds of choking dust until someone invented the hollow drill bit which allowed water to be injected into the hole to cool and lubricate the drill while quenching the dust. The noise must've been deafening: no ear protection existed.

One guy had the lucky job of thawing the dynamite and distributing it under close watch to the miners. He sat all shift at a desk in front of a short tunnel where the dynamite was stored securely, and was paid the same as the miners (about $2.50 a day). The miners tended to hate him as a result of his relatively cushy job. 

Frozen dynamite was inserted into the tubes in this box, and then hot water was poured in the hole on top and circulated around the box to thaw the dynamite. Frozen or partially frozen dynamite was found to have unpredictable detonation. Sometimes after a section was blasted, not all of the dynamite would explode. Miners mucking out the rock could hit unexploded remnants with their tools and cause it to detonate.   

The wooden box behind the thawer was originally a dynamite shipping box, but used by a miner as a portable toilet. While you could basically pee anywhere in the mine, the box was more practical for a #2 and got emptied at the surface after a shift. 

Below is the "Glory Hole", a massive excavation at the edge of Cobalt at the Town Mine Site where you can see a drift (tunnel) in cross-section. 

Here's typical scene, this one at the Little Silver Mine: a narrow vein of silver a few inches wide was chased down from the surface hundreds of feet down and across in the rock, leaving a scar still propped by timber shoring.

There's also an open adit (tunnel) you can step into a short ways. Icy air breathes out from the frozen tunnels which extend kilometers into the rock.

Yet another mine site, yet another scar from following yet another a narrow silver vein. Everywhere you look around town, it's like this.

Here's the landmark head-frame of the Right-of-Way Mine which you first see when you arrive in town from the north. Reiner Mielke, a member of the local historical society and former geologist in the mining industry, happened to be doing maintenance here when I stopped by. He was very kind to unlock the building and show me around inside.

The interior was reconfigured many times during the operation of the mine, so it's not clear exactly how the process flowed from the two-compartment lift and down through the screening, cobbing, and sorting operations. Volunteers have made great strides in cleaning up the interior, making it safe, and mounting an original 1-ton ore cart where one was probably used to trundle ore from the hoist. 

At the Kerr Lake Mine site is a lift that was used to lower miners and raise ore carts down the shaft beneath a head frame. Kerr Lake is remarkable in that the entire lake of 600,000,000 gallons of water and silt was drained to access rich veins of silver that continued down 800 feet below the bottom of the lake. Operations like this would probably not pass today's environmental regulations. 

And here's what it all was for. The top left rock is a typical cobalt-bearing ore, the cobalt mineral having developed a purple bloom when exposed to the air. This was a telltale sign of a valuable ore body. The sample on the bottom left shows a smudge of white calcite, and immediately on top of it a thin sliver of silver ore that has blackened as a result of natural tarnishing. Many of the massive silver nuggets lying on the ground were not recognized as such in the early days of exploration because of their tarnishing. The bottom left sample was a gift to me from Dwight Brydges, another member of the local historical society and a former miner as well. I met Dwight and one of his friends, an old-timer from the local mines, across from the Townsite Mine and glory hole, and had a great chat with both of them.

This whole description barely scratches the surface of Cobalt's history. The best way to learn more is to go visit the town yourself, and be sure to stop in to see Deborah Ranchuk at White Mountain Publications, a bookstore located in one of the original mine head frames on the main street. It's in the grey building on the right in the photo below. 

There you can buy (or have shipped to you) some great books on mining history in Ontario, including the book below (ISBN 978-0-9680354-7-4) which is a definitive, thoroughly researched, and highly entertaining study of the town's history and significance. Of note, the building with the peaked roof in the middle of the book cover still stands (it was the Canadian Imperial Bank). I took the photo above in front of this building, looking further up the street. So much has changed! 

While I could happily spent months or years exploring and researching Cobalt, there was still more to see. The next day I headed out to look for the lost community of Silver Centre, some 30 km south of Cobalt, where some old foundations are visible in Google Earth. However, when I got close I found it had been revived as an active mine prospecting site and was barred to public access. Whether or not there's still viable silver to extract remains debatable: everyone I talked to suggested that the only thing being mined now was investors hoping for a handsome profit.

With more storm clouds moving in, I headed back up to New Liskeard and then through more torrential rain at the top of Lake Temiskaming and then down on the Quebec side to see an old fur trading post built by the French in 1649 and later ceded to the British (and Hudson's Bay Company). While nothing of the original or even later buildings remains today, the site has a Parks Canada visitor centre with some evocative displays of life in the time of the Coureurs de Bois. Well worth a detour.

The road from Temiskaming to Mattawa was an idyllic roller-coaster for carving on a motorbike, and sparsely traveled. Highly recommended to break up the monotony of regular pavement. 

Although I passed through Mattawa on my RAP tour last summer, I didn't fully appreciate its significance in Canadian history and decided to spend the night here before heading home. Here the Mattawa River meets the Ottawa River, the former being the historic gateway to the Canada's west during the early days of the fur trade and exploration. Pretty much every explorer of note including Samuel de Champlain passed through this unassuming intersection en route to Lake Nipissing and the Great Lakes beyond. 

The historic Voyageur Hotel captures some of the original frontier spirit and offers clean, inexpensive rooms, as well as authentic and delicious Thai dinners.

With more time I might've grabbed a movie next door, but instead I had an illuminating and entertaining discussion with a fellow traveler who told me about his former life as an international drug smuggler, doing time in prisons around the world, and running a hash oil operation in the mountains of North Pakistan in the 70's. Way better than Planet of the Apes.

Finally it was time to head for home. With my GPS fried, I couldn't follow the Algonquin Dual Sport route which runs south from Mattawa; too many ways to take a wrong turn based on memory alone,  and end up back-tracking. So I left at dawn the next morning and had the Trans-Canada Highway to myself for the next 170 km as I booted it down to Petawawa where I could get onto back-country roads I knew well.

Old Killaloe and the Opeongo Road offered up a few abandoned gems suggestive of their former glory as vibrant communities, but now just settling back into the overgrowth from which they were originally hewn. 

And that was that. Home again, in one piece, hands sore from the buzz of one 250cc cylinder over 6 days and 2500 km. Finally dry, yet glad for the adventure despite the rain and mud. Lots of time to think about riding the Trans-American Trail next year, but perhaps on a slightly bigger bike.


  1. Great Blog, thanks for taking the time to write up your travels.