Book Reviews

Book Review: Prehistoric Lakeheaders – The 90-Century Story of Pre-Contact Thunderbayans by Alan Wade

Alan Wade is giving a talk about his book on Saturday, March 30 at 2:00 pm at the Waverley Library in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Prehistoric Lakeheaders – The 90-Century Story of Pre-Contact Thunderbayans  is available at in both paperback and kindle and at

This book is not a technical, scholarly treatise, but rather a practical guide written in language non-experts can follow and learn from. A couple of decades ago Alan knew very little about the early human history of the Thunder Bay area– just like many of the people who will read this book – and his book is primarily geared toward this audience. Alan is not an archaeologist but he has learned much about the prehistory of this area by reading and by talking to professional archaeologists, amateur archaeologists, historians, and anyone he encountered who is interested in this topic.  His book is a summary of what he has learned. In addition to the text, he has a very large index and many references to allow people to learn more about items that interest them. To make it more relevant to younger people who have grown up with computers, he has notes at the end of each chapter with specific references to YouTube videos and suggestion for topics to ‘Google’ to learn more.

Alan tells the story of the early settlers of the Thunder Bay area in three acts. He calls these chronological stages 1) the stone tool Thunderbayans 2) the copper tool Thunderbayans and 3) the pot maker Thunderbayans. Alan has written a book in layman’s language that begins with the first people to inhabit this area. We don’t know what they called themselves but archaeologist call them Paleoindians. Their descendants – Native Canadians, Indians, aboriginals or whatever term you prefer – lived here almost 9,000 years before Europeans and other others entered this area. It is astounding that the human history of this area is primarily the history of Native Canadians and that only the last 4% is the history of both Native Canadians and European descendants. Alan refers to the years before the arrival of European explorers as the “missing years”. There has been relatively little written about these early people and almost all that has been written has been by professional archaeologists – virtually all of whom are European descendants – and very little by Native Canadians.

Bill Ross, who was the Regional Archaeologist for the Ministry of Culture for over a decade, has noted that most archaeologists write and produce papers for other archaeologists. These specialized papers are usually loaded with technical terms and some are so jargon-filled that they are very difficult for the average person to follow. Alan writes that they are as interesting to read as a phone book and strives to write jargon free. Susan Martin, a Michigan archaeologist specializing in the study of prehistoric copper and its uses by the Native People of the Lake Superior region, has written that most archaeologists “spend so much time categorizing and comparing artifact types that they confine their audience to what other archaeologists think and forget the humans who created the record they are studying.” Alan uses Susan and Lakehead University archaelogist Scott Hamilton as examples of professionals in this area who write scholarly articles as well as books that non-experts can understand.

Alan writes extensively about the Cummins site, a Palaeoindian site on the edge of Lake Minong, a post-glacial lake swollen by melting glacial ice that was a predecessor to Lake Superior. The site is located ten kilometres from Lake Superior on a former Lake Minong beach. It was found over fifty years ago by volunteers working under the guidance of Hugh Cummins. At a ceremony dedicating a placque commemorating the site, Bill Ross said that “we probably have 40 sites within the city limits, or at least close to the city, of this age and it started with one amateur.” Many well known archaeological sites – Brohm, Biloski, Renshaw, McClusky, MacGillivry, Crane, etc, – are named after the amateur archaeologist who found them. There are way more amateurs than professionals and professional archaeologists are usually busy keeping up in their profession, supervising students, teaching classes, carrying out administrative duties, etc and the vast majority of new archaeological sites and important artifacts are found by amateurs.

Professional archaeologists in Thunder Bay, like Ken Dawson, Bill Ross and Scott Hamilton, have successfully worked with amateurs to the benefit to both. Some amateurs got interested by finding arrowheads, scrapers, pieces of pottery or other artifacts when camping, hunting or just working in their garden. Others by using metal detectors and finding ancient copper artifacts, many of them over five thousand years old, after starting metal detecting looking for coins, jewelry or other lost metal objects.

Alan mentions many local archaeologists, such as Dave Arthurs, Jill Taylor- Hollings, and Scott Hamilton who, in addition to working with amateurs, have been diligent in consulting with Elders and working with band members in archaeological surveys and excavations.

We have learned most of what we know about the early history of Native Canadians – and we learn very little about their history in grade school or high school – from non-Native men. We desperately need more written and visual information coming directly from Native People and from those that listen to and absorb what they have to tell us. Fortunately this is happening at an expanding rate and their viewpoints will give us a different and more complete perspective on the past. Alan respects and has listened to Native People, married a Native woman and his book gives us a fresh, engaged look at the early human history of the Thunder Bay area.

Alan Wade is giving a talk about his book on Saturday, March 30 at 2:00 pm at the Waverley Library in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Prehistoric Lakeheaders – The 90-Century Story of Pre-Contact Thunderbayans  is available at in both paperback and kindle and at

His Enthusiasm is Contagious

His Enthusiasm is Contagious


In 1963 Joe Marohnic was teaching in Niagara Falls, Ontario when he and his wife Jennifer decided to get away from the pollution and bureaucracy in southern Ontario. After much searching they decided on a town on the edge of a wilderness park. Joe took advantage of the easy access to wilderness in Atikokan and became an avid canoeist and camper. He found there was a lot to like in Atikokan – the rail yard, clear northern skies, snowshoeing, and a river slowly winding its way through the town. Most importantly, the town was full of a variety of interesting people.

 Many years later Joe wrote an article called “My Students and the Stars” for the Atikokan Progress where he stated that he also discovered what a truly black sky filled with countless stars looked like, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. This discovery was what set a pattern for the rest of my adult life. From here on in everything revolved around telescopes, optics, binoculars, star charts, and making telescopes, which was accompanied by a passion to share with my students my amazement at what I was discovering in the sky. These are the feelings that made me dedicate each cloudless night for one and half decades to sharing the sky with my students. I knew if I got my students up the hill to look at the sky, it would open their minds to possibilities they didn’t know existed. This is what happens when we experience anything profound. Astronomy inspires us to drop our blinders of limitations. Most people have not been encouraged to reach their full potential as human beings and I believe gazing up into the universe reflects to people who they really are and can be, since you absolutely cannot look at Saturn through a telescope and be the same person. You have no choice but to expand, because if Saturn is possible, then anything is possible.”

It wasn’t just students who shared his passion and trudged up the hill to the telescope. Forty years ago my wife Marie and I followed Joe up the hill behind their house in Highland Park to look through his big telescope.  He would point out double stars, distant galaxies, craters on the moon, planets, and other wonders of the universe. We saw the rings of Saturn and, like his students, we also expanded our universe.

Joe taught grade school in Atikokan from 1964 to 1978 and then taught an inventive and highly successful alternate learning program at the Atikokan High School until his retirement in 1990.  Most of his students were disadvantaged kids who caused trouble in class, and teachers were glad to see them go. Joe, on the other hand, calls them “my favourite kind of kid.” A collaboration between Joe and some of the students about their experiences,  good and bad, resulted in the book “All I Can Give You Is Me”.  

Joe learned the craft of photography in Atikokan. He was fortunate in having one of his favorite photography locations – the railroad yard – located right in front of his house.  In addition to his own photography he has also taught photography and darkroom skills to many people in Atikokan. A book that I really love called “An Opinion in Black and White” is the compilation of photos from one class in 2004 at the Intergenerational Arts Centre in town.

Joe has been taking photos for well over sixty years. In the introduction to his latest book he says that “you would think that after all that time a person would know all there is to know about a topic or enterprise and become tired of it, but that isn’t the case.” He then quotes jazz great Miles Davis who said “sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”    

Joe is an 83 year old self-taught photographer who is still learning how to “photograph like himself.” He has had twenty-one solo exhibits in Canada and Europe, been awarded Ontario Arts Council grants and has published four books, including one about Croatia, the country his parents emigrated from and that he has travelled to many times.

Joe now has medical problems and his lack of mobility limits his photography. He even stopped taking photos for a while but missed it so much that his wife Gabrielle convinced him to start again. The photos in his most recent book, ‘Portraits From My Armchair’, was primarily taken in his Thunder Bay living room adjacent to a large window that provides soft, directional light that is ideal for portraits. A few of the portraits were taken outside and for those he substituted his wheelchair for the armchair. 

He asked friends, family, neighbors and people he encountered in his daily activities if they would like to be photographed. For privacy reasons, he doesn’t identify the people in the portraits but he does have a short quotation from a respected photographer to go with each photo. The first one – “It is easy to make a picture of a stranger and call it a portrait. The difficulty lies in making a picture that makes a viewer care about a stranger” – best summarizes the strength of Joe’s photography. To accomplish this, his goal is to make a connection with the person.  He wants the feeling to be like having coffee together but with a camera, rather than doughnuts, between them. Then he has a chance to catch the spirit of the person.

Photography and astronomy give Joe hope and keep him active in body and in spirit. His enthusiasm is contagious. Through his teaching and his example he has helped many others realize that they also have enthusiasms that they should share with others.

                                                                             Jon Nelson

“They Came From All Around” by Harold Alanen

They Came from All Around by Harold AlanenHarold Alanen’s roots run deep into the glacial till of the area south and west of Thunder Bay. His grandparents were part of the influx of Finnish immigrants that arrived here in the early 1900’s. Harold was born in Nolalu, went to school there and later taught at the same school. Harold graduated from Lakehead University and is now a retired teacher/principal. In addition to his educational background, Harold is also an accomplished archaeologist, writer and photographer.

Harold’s interest in the history of the area began early in his life. In 1955, his grade four teacher at Nolalu Public School showed the class a stone spear point that a classmate had found in a potato field on the family farm. Harold says that the discussions about the ancient stone tool “kindled an interest” in finding out more about the history of where he lived. This interest continues to this day and has resulted in a detailed look at its history.

Native People followed the retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age and entered the region about ten thousand years ago. Archaeologists believe that the earliest artifacts that have been recovered southwest of Thunder Bay- many of them found by the writer of the book – are found on the ancient shorelines of glacial lakes that are now a long distance from water. He documents old Native Canadian trails, including a still visible trail that leads up from the border to rich wild rice locations on Whitefish Lake.

Although the book focuses on the history of the 12,000 square mile area from Nolalu to Northern Light Lake, it encompasses much more that. Harold explains how the glacier transformed the landscape and created lakes, rolling hills and areas suitable for farming. He also gives insights into how immigrants slowly altered the landscape and how communities were formed and adapted to the changes that occurred when mining and logging replaced farming.

Although Finns made up a majority of the people in the Nolalu area in its early years, soon immigrants from many countries arrived. This diversity led Harold to use “They Came From All Around” – a lyric from a Gordon Lightfoot song – as the title of his book.

The boom in homesteading accelerated with the passing of the “Free Land and Homestead Act of 1868” The description of the growth of resulting communities includes details on the development of churches, schools, cemeteries and the building of the “Outlaw Bridge’ over the Pigeon River.
There was a boom in silver mining with the opening of the Rabbit Mountain Mine and other silver mines in 1880’s. Harold traces the development of the “Pee Dee” railroad as it grew toward the Paulson Iron Ore mine just over the border in Minnesota. When the proposed mine failed, the railroad was able to stay alive by hauling silver ore in the later stages of the local silver mines, carrying lumber to area sawmills that had opened along the rail line, taking railroad ties to Port Arthur, and transporting supplies to and from the communities along the rail line.

What started out as primarily a history of the Finnish population in the Nolalu area evolved over years of research into a detailed chronicle of the lives of people of numerous nationalities in rural Thunder Bay. This book shows that “they came from all around” and, in the words of Gordon Lightfoot;

time has no beginnings and history has no bounds
as to this verdant country they came from all around
they sailed upon her waterways and they walked the forests tall
And they built the mines the mills and the factories for the good of us all
This book describes how this was done in one small part of our verdant country.

Jon Nelson

This book is available directly from Harold Alanen

Contact Harold Alanen


Life on the Invisible Line by John Bouchard

I met John on Saganaga Lake in the early 1980’s. He was a Conservation Officer who worked along the border – the invisible line – between Minnesota and Ontario. When visiting John and Eve I noticed the mural depicting life on Saganaga in the entryway to his office/home on the lake. John was also known for the wonderful cartoon-like drawings that he did of friends and that also graced his log book that he kept for his job as a C.O. Although I was aware of his abilities as an artist, I only became aware of his wonderful ability to write stories depicting his adventures when I read this book. John was known for his outgoing nature and sense of humour and these traits come through strongly in his book.

There have been many books written about the Boundary Waters , Quetico Park and the surrounding area but John’s book is unique. The short stories – based on actual events in John’s life as a Conservation Officer – have over 100 of John’s illustration. They add another dimension to the funny, poignant and often bizarre stories. As John says in his ode to Saganaga on the back of his book, his tales are ” stories told truthfully though colours are bold”. I highly recommend this bold book about the colourful characters that John encountered in his decades along the Ontario-Minnesota border.

My article about John Bouchard can be found at The article contains some of John’s wonderful drawings. One example from is book is shown below. Find the book for sale on


From the Pacific to the Atlantic by Canoe

Mike and Spitzii's Great Canadian Adventure 2014

When I first heard that Mike Ranta was planning a solo canoe trip from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean I thought to myself that would be an incredible feat – but that it was impossible. I was proven wrong.

This book, Mike and Spitzii’s Great Canadian Adventure 2014, tells how a man and his dog accomplished this feat. Mike was raised in Atikokan and still lives there; on this trip he was following the example of Atikokan’s Don and Joe Meany. Don paddled on the Ontario team that raced across Canada from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Montreal in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. In that same year, Joe and two buddies followed the same route in a three man kayak. Another Atikokan connection is that Mike and Spitzii were using a Souris River canoe and XY Company paddles and both of these are world class products made in Atikokan by locally owned companies.

Mike and his dog Spitzii began their journey by heading up the Fraser River from Vancouver. Travelling up a major river against the current was just the beginning of his difficulties. The Cascade Mountains were the next major obstacle in what would be a series of obstacles and he was doing this alone save Spitzii. Mike likes to travel by himself and told me that “I have never felt alone in the bush. What I love about solo wilderness travel is that I can then focus on the environment around me. I get to go at my own pace, listen to and make connections with Mother Nature.”

Although he was paddling solo he had his dog with him. As you will discover in the book, it wasn’t just a dog – it was Spitzii the wonder dog. Spitzii does everything a good bow paddler does except paddle. Spitzii scans the water ahead and woofs when he spots a submerged rock, log or any other obstacle in the water. Dogs have much better hearing than humans and he hears rapids and waterfalls well before Mike hears them. Mike said that a couple of times he woofed and looked back at Mike when they were beginning to cross a wide part of a bay to save time on Lake Superior. He evidently heard rumblings in the distance and was warning about an approaching storm that wasn’t yet visible. Mike learned to respect these warnings and immediately look for a place to land the canoe when he got a warning woof from Spitzii. Bear warnings and wildlife spotting are also part of his repertoire.

Mike left Vancouver on April 1, 2014 and paddled up the Fraser River all the way to Hope, British Columbia where he found that creeks heading east into the mountains were still frozen and it was not possible to canoe any further. He had to take to the side of the highway and pulled his canoe and all his supplies on a wheeled cart. He found that the traffic on the highway – especially the trucks – made this the most dangerous part of his trip. He walked for seven days up and over the Cascades. He got back onto the water on the Similkameen River where he had a big scare. He came around a sweeping curve, saw rapids ahead and couldn’t get to shore in time and ended up in the cold, glacial fed water under his over-turned canoe. Fortunately, both he and Spitzii got to shore before being swept down the rapids.

This was just one of many examples of times when Mike found that he should expect the unexpected on a trip of this magnitude. At this point, Mike had crossed the Cascades but now he had to get up and over the Rockies. It was a challenge to travel this diverse and wildlife rich area. One morning he woke up near Revelstoke, British Columbia to six inches of snow and -5 Celsius. At another point he was walking in 2 ½ ft of snow while pulling his canoe behind him. They encountered many bears on their journey, but near Golden, British Columbia they (Spitzii is like a person in this book) saw a cougar print embedded in a bear print. Another memorable sight was a herd of elk crossing the river in front of them in Alberta.

It wasn’t as though paddling solo up a major river and crossing two major mountain ranges while alternately dodging trucks and paddling down icy rivers meant that he had completed a major part of his trip. He was just beginning. Crossing Saskatchewan and Manitoba is where Mike had some of his most memorable, and unusual, encounters. Mike was glad to arrive in Thunder Bay, on schedule, near the end of July. He now faced the challenge of Lake Superior. Of course he had some wind-bound days but near Marathon he surprisingly found the lake “was like glass with only the odd loon and fish rippling the surface.”

Mike was now half way across Canada and many more adventures were yet to come. One of the more unusual occurred in Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. Mike decided to run the La Chine Rapids in Montreal in order to save the time it would take to portage around the locks. He got a call from Joe Meany as he was headed towards the rapids. Mike recalls how he “told him to stay on the line and that we would run the rapids together. It was a great run and by the time I got to the bottom of those rapids I swear that Joe was sweating more than I was. Spitzi was at his best and knew there was no margin for error on this section of the river as he watched for breach rocks and logs. We had a couple of scary moments and we had a good little drop just before we got out of the fast water and Spitz got a little wet on that one. When I finally got to the base of the rapids, Joe and I were both pretty excited and I could hear in his voice that he was glad that he stayed on the line. Joe and I have never been in a canoe together and I always wanted to paddle with him and that day I felt as though I’d accomplished that goal. Joe is a legendary paddler from back home and it was an honour to run those rapids with him. Even though he wasn’t there on a physical level, he was in my heart and in my mind and was the strength behind every stroke that I made in that section of fast water. I will always remember that it was a special moment for me that I will always cherish”

Mike left Vancouver on April 1, 2014 and arrived in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia on October 31. Mike was the first person to cross the North American continent solo by canoe in one canoe season. Mike raised $50,000 for the Atikokan Youth Initiative Centre on this trip. Mike also did a solo trip across Canada in 2016 and raised money for Canadian Veterans. This coming summer he is planning a trip from Bella Coola, British Columbia that will follow Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 route over the Rocky Mountains and on to Montreal. He will then continue on to Nova Scotia. Spitzi will again be in the bow of the canoe and another solo canoeist will accompany him. This trip will be a little bit longer and also more difficult.

His friend Don Meany once told him that “if you can’t go through it, go around it. If you can’t go around it then be damn sure you can go through it.” That attitude is on display in this book and it will be present on any future trip.

Jon Nelson

The book is available at the Finnish Book Store in Thunder Bay and Mike Ranta’s Facebook page is