Around the year 1220, John of Holywood (Johannes de Sacrobosco) wrote De sphaera mundi (Spheres of the world) to introduce ideas from Ptolemy's Almagest to medieval Europe. His slim volume explained lunar and solar eclipses and presented evidence that Earth is indeed a sphere. The pages shown below are from a 1577 printed edition.
Reproduced from the collections of the Library of Congress
In the summer of 1956, my parents, Arnis and Zelma Peterson, my younger brother, Evalds, and I moved from the mining town of McKenzie Island to Caribou Falls, located on the English River in northwestern Ontario, near the Manitoba border.
Caribou Falls was to be the site of a dam and generating station, built by the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (Ontario Hydro).
Caribou Falls in the fall of 1956. Several newly constructed buildings are visible on the far shore, the beginnings of the temporary town that would serve as headquarters for the two-year, dam-building project.
Why my brother and I were so formally dressed for this occasion in such a remote location is a mystery to me.
We were among the first families to arrive for the Caribou Falls project, and initially there wasn't anywhere for a family to stay near the construction site.
We spent the first few weeks in a motel in the town of Minaki, just a handful of train stops west of Vermilion Bay, the nearest station to Red Lake and McKenzie Island.
Our next stop was a tent cabin, just down the river from Caribou Falls and accessible only by boat.
Later in the fall, we lived in a housekeeping cabin at a hunting and fishing camp, several miles downstream from Caribou Falls. The camp catered to wealthy sportsmen, mainly from the United States, seeking a wilderness experience and plentiful game. In the meantime, I was missing the beginning of third grade.
My father started off as a surveyor's assistant (chainman), before becoming a surveyor himself, then a draftsman. He was to remain a draftsman for the rest of his working life, retiring in 1990 as head draftsman for an engineering company in Toronto.
One of his tasks, early on, was to check gauges at various locations along the river to monitor water levels as dam construction proceeded.
A boating party near a water gauge (right) for monitoring river levels.
Spanning the river at the start of dam construction at Caribou Falls.
By the beginning of 1957, like dozens of other families, we were settled in a trailer home along a makeshift dirt road in Caribou Falls.
It also meant starting school, which was 20 miles of gravel road away in the somewhat larger but still temporary town of Whitedog Falls, the location of another dam-building project, which had begun before the Caribou Falls effort.
Initially, a van served as the school bus. Later, as the number of students grew, a full-size bus carried pupils to and from the primary school in Whitedog Falls.
To my relief, I discovered that I could keep up with the class, even after missing several months of third grade. Getting eyeglasses (finally) helped a great deal, too. With four grades (three to six) and just one teacher in the same room, I could readily sample and benefit from lessons taught in higher grades.
After I finished my assigned work, I could also slip to the back of the classroom to read. The available collection of books was a bit limited and quirky, but I particularly liked the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries (original editions, with roadsters and other quaint artifacts of long-ago decades).
Fall 1957: Waiting for the school bus, lunch boxes in hand.
Atop the Caribou Falls dam after most of the concrete had been poured.
New Year's Eve 1957: Even in a trailer in a remote community, we still celebrated Christmas Eve and New Years's Eve (and birthdays) as special, formal occasions.
My parents loved dancing and took advantage of the few times, such as New Year's Eve, when they could get to a dance. My mother was quite stylish and made her own dresses and other clothes.
A major source of entertainment for all of us was evening movies shown regularly in the town's cafeteria/recreation hall. Watching the projector operator fumble with changing reels or repairing film breaks right there in the hall was often entertaining in itself. Saturday mornings, if the package of reels arrived in time, meant a string of cartoons, cliff-hanging episodes of serials featuring Gene Autry and others, and various other short films. To add to the fun, serial episodes did not always come in the right order.
By the summer of 1958, the Caribou Falls dam and generating station were nearing completion. Water levels below the dam were already considerably lower than before, baring a rocky shoreline. Workers and families were starting to move away, some to other hydro projects. However, many, including my father, had to find new work elsewhere.
So, in the fall, my mother, brother, and I traveled to the city of Kenora, while my father wound down his work at Caribou Falls. We stayed in a motel, and I enrolled (starting the year late) for grade five in Kenora's Central School.
Central School, Kenora (photo taken in 1974), The school was demolished in 1977.
My most vivid memory of the two months that I spent at Central is of fire drills. From our classroom on the third floor, we would "escape" by entering a chute with a slide (cylinder to the right in the photo above) that whirled us down to ground level in seconds. It was a thrilling ride.
Evalds and I returned to the Caribou Falls Generating Station in the summer of 1974. The gravel road to the dam was still there, but nearly all signs of the town had been obliterated, the site overgrown with brush and other vegetation. A rough road led to a few primitive campsites near where our trailer had once stood.
Summer 1974: Caribou Falls Generating Station.
Downriver from the Caribou Falls dam, 1974.
We ended our stay in Kenora in November 1958, leaving northwestern Ontario behind. Next stop: Toronto.
Welcome to an occasional series devoted to "cool stuff" that I encounter while browsing the world of mathematics and computer science. I'll peek at new developments in math and its applications, and I'll revisit old puzzles, famous problems, and historic events—anything mathematical that happens to catch my eye. I hope you'll find something of value in these brief, informal forays into the world of math.
Ivars Peterson is a freelance writer and editor. He was Director of Publications at the Mathematical Association of America from 2007 to 2014. As an award-winning mathematics writer, he previously worked at Science News for more than 25 years and served as editor of Science News Online and Science News for Kids. His books include The Mathematical Tourist, Islands of Truth, Newton's Clock, and Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Math and Art.