Spring had sprung in Northern Alberta before I returned from a Teachers’ Convention in Edmonton. Water in Lesser Slave Lake was already bulging the ice, and flowing beneath its glassy cover. I had considered, “If I hurry I might get back before....?”
No, there I stood stranded on the far side of Buffalo Bay. Only an hour previous, it would have been passable.
Another hour went by. A young lady also got off the bus at Enilda. She had taken a taxi this far. She too, hoped what I was hoping. Here we were, standing in the mud with the same question in mind. She was dressed in a sky-blue suit with a light-blue set of suitcases. This was a university student—her first time in the North—coming to Gift Lake School for her student-teaching stint, 30 miles on the other side of this Bay.
By the early 1960s, travel was made a bit easier for the Sisters of the Daughters of Wisdom who had to ride on a “taxi” to Grouard, in Northern Alberta. The taxi wagon, driven by Oblate Brother Allie, was usually covered to protect passengers from rain. Photo courtesy of Sister Margaret Suntjens, D.W.
Nothing was moving except the water. I kept an eye open for a possible fisherman in a boat. For a few hours...nothing.
I was guessing what might be going through the young lady’s mind... Was she sorry she accepted this teaching destination in ”no-man’s land”? Was she ready to take the next bus back home?
After another hour, we were still standing there (no such thing as a CELL phone in those years, the late 1950s).
Another hour later, I spotted a moving boat in the distance. I let it come closer. I waved, two arms in the air. Yes, the rower saw me, and slowly came closer, rowing against the current.
Our predicament told...and the much-awaited response: “Oh yes, I can get you to the other shore. Hop in.”
I saw that his flat-bottom boat was slimy, with fish scales all over! My mind jumped to the lady’s sky-blue suit and baggage. I was in ordinary travelling garb. No worry. But there was no choice—the pastel blue suitcases and all, got into this grimy boat.
We did arrive at shore—Faithful, in spite of the difficult 40 miles from Atikameg to Grouard. Oblate Father Virgilio Baratto was waiting for us. This was fortunate for the young woman, for she had no idea of the road ahead to Gift Lake. She had planned to call a taxi! She was being well-broken-in to Northern travel.
Of course, Fr. Baratto from Atikameg was willing to drive the “new teacher” to her destination, if she was willing to continue her route with us (she had no choice).
I fancy that her first letters home would have been interesting indeed! Nevertheless, she missed out on the drama of the last ten miles—the worst—which I had yet to travel onward to Atikameg (Whitefish Lake).
I lost track of how many times the driver and I had to winch ourselves out, or ahead, in this last ten-mile stretch, which brought us well into the night.
Was the Teachers’ Convention worth all this?
Sister Margaret Suntjens, a Sister of the Daughters of Wisdom, served as a missionary sister in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan. She lives in retirement at Providence Centre in Edmonton, Alberta. With your help, Catholic Missions In Canada in 2011 provided $315,000 to support missionaries like Sister Margaret now serving in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan.