Thunder Bay Port Terminal – 1980’s

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grain terminal in thunder bay at night time

I took this photo back in the late 1980’s I believe (may also have been early 1990 or 91), with a Yashica SLR camera but I don’t recall any other details – lens, aperture, shutter speed, etc but I probably have it written down in a notebook somewhere.

The photo was a bit of an experiment where the camera was placed right on a railway track and I laid on my tummy to squint through the viewfinder to try to frame the shot that I was hoping for. I do know I took quite a few photos using different apertures and very slow shutter speeds – in those days, we did not have the advantage of a live preview on our cameras.

The Story Behind The Photo

I don’t recall the exact year, but I had got word that my sister Janice and her husband Phil Hagan had purchased a house near Thunder Bay in a village called Nolalu, and had plans to move up there from Fergus, Ontario. At the time, it was all a big surprise to me, and when I discovered that the only help they had was my mom and Phil’s dad, I was determined to see what I could do to assist them. Even Phil, do to some work/contract obligations would not be there to help unload the moving truck. I discovered that my mom was driving the truck, and the only three adults that would be there to unload it was as mentioned, my mom, my sister, and the older Mr. Hagan.

To me, this was unacceptable. Janice also had at the time, two (maybe it was three by then) young toddlers to look after as well.

I got on the phone with my supervisors at work to see if I could book some emergency vacation days off to drive up and help out. Everything was a bit rushed because I learned of this move the very day my mom headed off driving the moving truck but understood she expected to take 2 to 3 days to get to Nolalu.

After getting the time off work, I called one of my best friends from the same job, Terry Thibeault who was always up for an adventure. “Terry, do you have any time off work?”

“Not until next week,” he replied.

“Okay – are you up to trying to get some days off and go on a road trip with me to Thunder Bay?” I explained the situation to him about my sister moving and they really had no help to unload the truck once they arrived. Terry was intrigued and eager to help if he could. He called me back a few minutes later to let me know he had managed to get some days off to cover the road trip.

Terry and I left almost immediately, after he drove to my house in Richmond Hill. We filled up the gas tank of the big Chevrolet Caprice station wagon I had at the time and hit the road, driving all night. We only made a few stops along the way – including a stop at Sault St Marie to fill the gas tank up (on the highway, that big station wagon had impressive fuel efficiency and I could get more than 700 km out a full tank of gasoline as long as I kept to around 100 kmh).

We arrived in Thunder Bay about 14 hours after we left Richmond Hill. I don’t recall how we knew that my mom, sister, and Mr. Hagan had an ETA of the next day; we had no cell phones in those days. Likely we made a long distance call from a pay phone to Phil, who would have been hearing about the progress of his wife’s and family progress.

After checking into a dirt cheap motel room in downtown Thunder Bay, we filled up the gas tank again and decided to go find this place called Nolalu which is a drive off the Trans-Canada Highway at Kakabeka Falls. We wanted to know ahead of time what we might be dealing with in helping with unloading a truck full of heavy furniture and boxes.

Then, we had some time to spare and drove back to Thunder Bay and decided to get our cameras out and play with them.

At that time, I had taken an interest in night time photography but it was much more difficult and expensive back then. 35 mm rolls of film cost money. Getting them developed cost money. Getting prints from the developed 35 mm rolls of film cost money. It was not inexpensive, either.

So, I would carry around a notebook in my camera bag and record in it, for every single photo, information including shutter speeds, f/stops (aperture), lens, etc. That was really the only way to learn – experiment, record what you did, and then compare the results of the different settings.

Anyways, Terry and I somehow ended up at one of the Thunder Bay Port Terminals – a place where grain (wheat, barley, etc) is shipped by train from all across Western Canada. The grain is then stored in large grain “elevators” while waiting for ships to arrive to transport the grain to all over the world.

We both experimented thinking the lighting, the light reflections in the railway tracks, and the grain elevators might make an interesting photographic composition. I decided to try setting my camera right on one of the train tracks, and the above photo was the result of that.

I had it printed as an 8″x10″ and there were a few people who purchased framed copies of it. Of course, the above is a scanned copy of one of the original prints, and scanned at low resolution.

More About The Trip

While I did take quite a few photos that turned out quite nice, Terry and I also had other adventures on our trip. After helping my family members unload the moving truck and getting a bit settled in their house in Nolalu, we spent some time driving around the area – somewhere I have some nice photos of the frozen Whitefish Lake and the setting sun’s reflections in the ice.

There was not really enough room for all of us to stay in the small house at Nolalu, so Terry and I went back to Thunder Bay for another night, and decided to check out a local bar. That was almost a big mistake!

A Canadian Native Challenges Me To A Fight In The Washroom

Terry and I were enjoying the atmosphere of the bar we were at, and after a few drinks, I had to use the washroom facilities. While doing my business into a urinal, I feel a sudden push against my back and my head hit the wall…. “What the heck…?” Pretty hard to turn around and face someone who has just pushed you with force from behind, and while you are still peeing.

But I did my best to get into a defensive mode, and when I turned around, the young Native man had pulled out a knife. He was yelling at me – seems due to my short hair at the time, he confused me with a Thunder Bay Undercover Cop and thought both Terry and I were in the bar, to get him. He was yelling at me, calling out racist names, and threatening to kill me right there with his knife.

I’d been through many similar situations in Toronto… but in those situations, I was fully aware of my surroundings, I had a two-way radio if I needed it to call for backup.. and indeed, my friend Terry Thibeault and I had often backed each other up, and were very familiar with each other’s ways. We knew to depend on each other.

But I had no radio, and getting into a fight in the washroom of this bar in Thunder Bay with a guy and a knife, was not something I had prepared for. Even if I yelled really loud, Terry wouldn’t have even heard me.

I tried to do what I could to create “time and space” between this individual and I, and I think by my demeanor, he realized that if he did go further with his aggression, while it might be bad for me, it might also be not so good for him – and I managed to convince him I had nothing to do with the Thunder Bay Police Department.

He ended up leaving the washroom while still spewing racial taunts my way in a very angry manner, but the situation was diffused. I also left, and whispered in Terry’s ear, “Hey man… I think we should get out of this place…”

Life is adventures. Getting cool photos can also be an adventure!

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