My dad, Bill Ritchie, was a great story teller who never seemed to be at a loss for a relevant story to drop into the conversation whether it was around a campfire or the dinner table. In the shot below, taken by my brother Al on one of our family moose hunting trips, it seems to be a funny story, likely of some misfortune that happened to him as he was often the brunt of his own humorous tales.
However, this posting is about a story that never got told, that mixed native folklore with Northern Ontario unsolved mysteries, and a natural phenomenon that has be come known as Pothole Park between Chapleau and Wawa Ontario.
My dad ran a hunting and fishing operation and clients, mostly from the US, would sit for hours around the dining hall table, or later around a campfire on the Woman River a listen to him tell stories of past hunts or strange things that had happened in the "bush" as we called the woods in our area.
Discovery of the "Potholes"
Somewhere around 1975, around the time the picture on the right was taken, my dad, a hunter-client and another guide named Clarence Sailors, were tracking a bear shot by the client. As they were nearing the spot where the bear succumbed to his wound, they heard fast running water. As well-traveled woodsmen, dad and Clarence were certain there were no know rapids or waterfalls around this particular area, close to the Missanabie Highway on Highway 101 between Chapeau and Wawa. They eventually found the bear but wanted to seek out the source of the running water which sounded pretty significant since it was also the time of the Spring run-off. So they ventured a little further south and they came to a relatively large opening where there the sound of the rushing water was quite thunderous and the rock formations seemed odd to say the least. They walked a little closer to the center of the clearing, stepping carefully over the moss and mist-covered rock and they saw an impressive sight; perhaps one that had never been seen by modern man otherwise it would be documented and well-known in the region.
What they found was a small river running through an area of rock where the water had carved a 30 foot around and 30 food deep "pothole" in the rock. There was also a smaller pothole on the other side of a large out-cropping of rock that somewhat resembled a whale's head. Its an amazing location and it makes you wonder how long the water must have been turning around in this particular location to create such a situation.
My dad wanted to buy and preserve the spot as crown land could be purchased at the time from the province. However, once the Ministry of Natural Resources (I believe it was Tim Cicile and a Ken LeClaire) saw it with him, they immediately said, "this is too precious to be sold, it will have to be set-aside as a potential park property". It later was turned into a park and named Pothole Provincial Park, but this is not the untold story.
Tales of Northern Mystery
As I said earlier, my dad was a great story-teller and the North has left a lot of stories to be told. There was the unexplained disappearance of George Weeden and Merle Newcome, both seasoned hunters and woodsmen, who went missing without a trace in October, 1959. There was also the story of a trapper, who went missing, with his own prepared dinner found on this table in his empty trapper's cabin. There were many more unexplained stories that my dad and other elders in the Northern Ontario area could recall but sadly, these stories are passing into 'the un-remembered' at this point.
Two friends, Tim Bryson and Daniel Bourgeault, and I, also experienced a mysterious event that would have played well into the mix. We were on a Grade 9 canoe trip with a large party in about 10 canoes. Somewhere out on Henderson Lake, part of the river system joining Chapleau with the James Bay region, we saw a yellow canoe, between us and the other pack of 8 or 9 canoes behind us, turn sideways and then apparently tip over. All three of us discussed what we saw and decided we must turn back because we may be closer than the others to aid the capsized group. We raced backwards towards the larger group only to find out that there was no problem, and there was no yellow canoe between us and the other group. I recently reached out to Tim to check with him whether this was only in my imagination or did he really see it too. He confirmed the story, now 40 years later and said that "he often recalls it when discussion turns to the unexplained".
Enter the Spirit World
Being of native Cree decent, my dad often spoke of folklore that was discussed around the campfires as they hunted and fished in the bush. They talked about three beings from the spirit wolrd, Wendigo, Whitigo and Robidu that differed in their personalities from light-hearted prankster to hell-fire evil. Robidu, my father told us, was the prankster; he would do things like throw sticks at your tent in the middle of the night or set off your traps so you would catch nothing. Whitigo was a bit more of a trouble-maker; he would do things like untie your canoe so that you would have to swim after it or retrieve it though some other means. However, Wendigo one was a bad-ass spirit. He would do things like burn down your tent or rearrange your trap sets so you would get caught in your own trap. These definitely made for spooky stories for a young lad when you were sitting around the fire or later still when you were in your tent, trying to fall asleep.
The Culmination of Nature, Spirits and Mystery
Long after my dad had discovered the potholes, and as he approached retirement, he often talked about how he would like to write a book that intertwined all of the above dimensions. He wanted to tell of how the three native spirits would come together each year at the pothole “conjuring place” as they had for thousands of years. They would speak of the things that they had done over the last year and what surprises they had in store for the coming year. My dad wanted to weave in the mysteries that had happened in Northern Ontario as events that were planned and executed by these spirits.
Unfortunately, that is where the story ends. Our father unfortunately passed away only one year after he retired and sold his fishing lodge on Prairie Bee Lake. These were the early days of computing with the Commodore 64 and the Mackintosh. We talked about buying him one so that he could finally begin to write his stories down.
The shot below, taken by Jackie Riley, of my dad and I strolling on Mackinaw Island is one of the last of the two of us and it is also one of my favorite shots of him. I can no longer remember what we were talking about but it was sure a fine day with a very fine man.
Our youngest son Jared, who is pursuing game development, recently told me that he would like to do something in the gaming medium that was similar to what my dad had planned to write. You never know, maybe this his how my dad's legacy of story-telling was meant to play out.