Toward the end of his life, my father often spoke about places that were familiar to him from his childhood. Some of them I knew from stories he had told of growing up in the Interlake region of Manitoba in a village called Ashern some hundred kilometres north of Winnipeg. He spoke of Oak Point, Moosehorn and Gypsumville, a town a couple of dozen kilometres north of Ashern. It was the northern terminus of the railway line. The gypsum mined there was shipped to market at Winnipeg and beyond, by train. Indeed in 1911 when my six-year-old father arrived from Ontario with his parents to establish a homestead, the only connection to the outside world was by railway. The place they settled was called the seventh siding. It only became Ashern later. There were no cars. There were no roads, only tracks suitable for horse and wagon.
In the last few weeks of his life, my father became very insistent that he wanted to go to a place I wasn't familiar with, The Narrows. From his description of it and his very intense desire to go there, I realized it must have held a place of great importance in his childhood world. He not only wanted to travel to the Narrows, but, once there, to cross over to the other side. I began to realize that even though, in his state of health it was impossible for him to ever get to the Narrows, he would, very soon, be crossing over to the other side. He did so on November 14 1997.
Last summer when Lisa and I began planning a trip to Saskatchewan and Manitoba we knew we would visit Ashern. I vowed to figure out where The Narrows was and go there too.
Our trip to the west used practically every method of transport known to man. We were in car, on two ships, in three trains, another car, rented this time, then a plane, a bus and back to our own car for the final leg home. We started out from Salvage in car and stopped for gas in Badger. There was a rack of road maps for sale in the garage. One of them was of the four western provinces and I bought it, thinking what a sign of the times it was that there should be a map of the prairies and B.C. for sale in rural Newfoundland.
The mass migration to and from the tar sands makes it perfectly logical for there to be maps of the west in a Badger garage. When I thought about it, I realized that what we are living today is just the most recent wave of an ongoing current carrying easterners to the west looking for better times. It is the same current that carried my father's parents from southern Ontario to a rendezvous between Manitoba's lakes with a parcel of free land. When they removed their rose-coloured glasses they found themselves owners of a low-lying, poorly-drained piece of landscape covered with scruffy bush.
In the same way that people today are finding that Fort Mac is not necessarily what they bargained for, my grandparents had to make the best of it. For an inquisitive six-year-old with little to compare it to, my father thought of it as home, and one of the features that stood out most prominently in his memories 86 years later was The Narrows.
In the car rolling across the island I scanned the map I'd just bought, looking for what might be the Narrows. I found a place just west of Ashern where Lake Manitoba, which appeared to be about 50 kilometres wide at its widest, narrowed to less than a kilometre. It seemed to be about a day's travel by horse and wagon from Ashern. After a short ferry voyage it would be another couple of days wagon ride to Dauphin, which at the beginning of the last century was an important regional centre just west of the Interlake region. It would be the nearest place for my grandfather to pick up staples once a year with his wide-eyed son sitting on the wagon seat beside him.
This must be it, I thought: The Narrows.
But a couple of days later in Ottawa when I was pointing out to my brother the route we'd be taking on the rest of our trip, I saw something on the map I hadn't noticed before. Northeast of Ashern about 60 km at the end of a road leading to no evident settlement were printed the words "The Narrows."
It wasn't possible. It made no sense.
In the days of horse and wagon it would be a trip of several days on a road leading nowhere and no reason to go there. It couldn't be the real Narrows, but there it was in black and white. What were the chances that there would be two places with the same name within 100 kilometres of each other?
Two weeks later we left Saskatoon the westernmost point of our trip under a brilliant sky filled to overflowing with thousands upon thousands of Canada geese. We had started the long return journey home. The project for the day was to find the real Narrows. We crossed into Manitoba and stopped at Dauphin to get some sandwiches for lunch, then pressed on eastward. Rounding a bend in the highway we spied a sign that read " The Narrows of Lake Manitoba 45 kms."
That settled it. My original notion had been correct. Half an hour later we began to see flickers of water through the trees, an exciting event after hundreds of kilometres of dry prairie. We burst out of the woods and there it was; 600 metres of bridge crossing to the other side of the lake at what was certainly the goal we had been seeking. We were there.
It was sunny and cold with a biting wind as we got out of the car at the shoreline. Sometimes you can just feel you are right. Across the water the land extended to a point several kilometres away. The highest object was the top of the trees lining the opposite bank. They blazed yellow, orange and scarlet in the low autumn sun. The sky was open and wide with a vast sense of space. No wonder it had made such an impression on my father. It was beautiful.
I walked to the water's edge unscrewing the top from the jar I held in my hand. I scooped out a handful of the ashes in the jar and threw them up into the wind. The breeze carried the ashes in a northeasterly direction toward the shore before they settled on the surface of the water. Beyond the trees that lined the shore and a day's wagon ride away was my father's native village. I emptied the last few handsful of ashes into the wind and watched them drift down onto the waters of the Narrows.
My father's fervent wish in his last days had been to return to the Narrows. Now he was here.