January 2, 2018

McKenzie Island

My parents, Arnis and Zelma Petersons, and I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on March 14, 1950, as third-class passengers aboard the Cunard ocean liner Samaria (below).

Passport photos (1950):

Arnis Petersons (1926-1992), b. Vecpiebalga, Latvia, d. Ottawa, Ontario.

Zelma Alide Petersons (nee Zosens) (1923-2012), b. Lasi, Daugavpils, Latvia, d. Toronto, Ontario.

Ivars Petersons (1948-)

We traveled by train, car, and boat to reach the tiny community of McKenzie Island, part of the municipality of Red Lake in northwestern Ontario.

McKenzie Island was the site of a gold mine (McKenzie Red Lake Mines), and the years right after World War II brought a great influx of immigrants and displaced persons from war-torn Europe to work in the mine. My parents had been preceded to the area by my father's younger brother, Gunars Petersons (1927-1984), and other Latvians. On the other hand, my mother's three brothers, Arturs, Voldemars, and Ernests Zosens, and their families all set off for Australia to begin new lives there.

My father (above right) worked as a miner underground, drilling holes, setting dynamite, blasting, then loading the rubble for transport to the surface.

We initially stayed in a rooming house (above) on McKenzie Island's main waterfront road.

Here we are, walking along McKenzie Island's main road, with its only general store, a Hudson's Bay Company outpost, on the right.

By the fall of 1950, we were in a house (below) in Finntown (Cottage Cove), a few miles away on the island.

But that also meant a long, daily walk for my father to and from his job at the mine.

My brother, Evalds Alfreds Petersons, was born on June 20, 1951, at Red Lake Hospital.

Red Lake Hospital, 1951.

We arrived home with Evalds by boat (above). The boat was decorated with foliage in honor of the Latvian summer solstice celebration known as Jani.

Christmas was always a major celebration, with a decorated tree, lots of singing, special foods, and gifts on Christmas eve. Evalds (clad in his christening gown) was christened on Christmas 1951.

The following spring, we moved to a somewhat larger house in the community of McKenzie Island, much closer to the mine where my father worked.

Evalds taking his first steps at our house in McKenzie Island, June 1952.

The house had running water, but an outhouse served as the toilet. My parents worked hard to make a lot of improvements over the years, digging out a basement (though the underlying rock was never far below the surface) to make room for a wood-fired furnace, turning a front porch into a living room extension, painting, adding a backyard vegetable garden, planting flowers and trees, constructing a wooden walkway to the house, and much more.

Planting spruce trees, each representing a member of the family, near the front gate to our house.

Winters were long, and whatever snow fell tended to stay around a long time.

Mountains of snow outside our house, winter 1953.

Springtime had its own suspenseful moments and challenges, when the ice road to the island broke up but the ferry and water taxis couldn't yet operate, leaving the island population isolated. Such a service interruption also happened in the fall, when the water started to freeze.

Ivars and Evalds holding gifts, Christmas 1952. In later years, we sang a verse or recited a poem, in Latvian or English, for each gift that we received.

There was no local radio or television, but the town did have a little movie theater, which we attended often. It also had a butcher shop, a barber shop, and a few other businesses. For more serious purchases and for medical attention, we had to take a boat across the lake to Cochenour, then find transportation to the town of Red Lake.

At a beach, summer 1953.

Summers, though short, meant boating, playing on sandy beaches, fishing, and picnicking on distant shores.

Roasting wieners on a shoreline campfire, summer 1955.

There were always books and magazines around the house. I knew my alphabet and numbers before I got to school. Receiving in the mail the latest issues of magazines such as Humpty DumptyChildren's Digest, and Jack and Jill was always a great treat.

Ivars and Evalds intent on their reading, 1955.

My parents subscribed to a Latvian-language newspaper, and, to help learn English, magazines such as Life, Maclean's, and Photoplay.

My father dreamed of becoming a civil engineer and spent whatever little free time he had studying. I was intrigued by the study guides, with their distinctive blue or green covers, that arrived regularly by mail from the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Summer flowers at the front steps to our house, summer 1955.

On our way to church on our last Easter in McKenzie Island, 1956.

In the summer of 1956, we moved to Caribou Falls, where my father had a new job with the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (Ontario Hydro), which was building a power dam on the English River in northwestern Ontario.

Nearly 20 years later, Evalds and I returned to McKenzie Island during the summer of 1974, a year before Evalds died. The house we had lived in was still there, though somewhat shabby in appearance.

The house had been raised to allow for a larger, more extensive basement. And a nondescript building filled what had been a side yard to the left.

The elementary school (above) that I had attended for first and second grade was also still there, on the other side of town. The school had three rooms, two upstairs, and one downstairs. When I was in the second grade, in the downstairs classroom, I enjoyed listening in on what was being taught in the higher grades just a few rows away.

The McKenzie Island Mine (above) had closed in 1965, but exploration and gold prospecting continue in the area to this day. The several mines in the Red Lake district have proved to be among the richest gold-yielding mines in the world.

The most visible feature on approaching or leaving the island is the massive mountain of waste rock (above) left over from the mining operation.

Despite the scars left by mining, however, the area retains much of its stark beauty, with its crystal lakes, rocky shores, and vast forests.

Next: "Caribou Falls."

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