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Armchair Brakeman
Derailed in Hearst

One year, about 1998, we were planning a longer than normal stay at my sister-in-law Marilyn’s house in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan and I decided to bring my bike on the train to Hearst and stay an extra day. The idea was fine. I rode my bike to Fushimi Lake Provincial Park, which was about an 18 mile ride, and went fishing. I had a great time exploring the countryside and I even saw the train, which I would normally be on, leave and head back to Sault Ste Marie. Being in Hearst an extra day was great. Not having to turn around and head back the next morning was like a vacation within a vacation.

The following morning I was up early, finished my breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. As I biked into the station I noticed the train was not yet parked by the station as it normally was on my previously trips.

When I got to the station office, I found out that a freight train had derailed the previous day and tore up the tracks. Since the railroad had only single tracks most of the way, the line would not be fixed for three or four days. This was Friday and I was due back at work on Monday. To make matters worse, this was the start of the busiest period of the work year for me and my absence would cause a lot of problems.

I went to the bus station (which was just a small trailer) and found out the 300-mile trip I took by train was now a 670-mile trip by bus. If you look at a map of Ontario, you will see that Hearst is 300 miles north of Sault Ste Marie. Hearst is on the Trans-Canada highway but there are no roads heading straight down, just train tracks. The bus would follow the Trans-Canada around to near Thunder Bay Ontario then head back along the Lake Superior coast to Sault Ste Marie.  It was now only 9:00 AM and the bus was leaving at 5:00 PM. I bought a ticket and went back to the hotel to store my luggage. I then went to the train station to have my bike shipped when the train started running again. The train clerk suggested I keep the bike until I had to take the bus that evening. That was a good idea and I started riding along side roads of the town that I had never been on.

I found one road that went farther than the rest and I followed it to its end. The road was dirt and was about two miles long. At the end of the road was a small building. Alongside the building was a windsock fluttering in the wind. I peddled up to the building and to my surprise it was a small airport. I could hardly believe it. The map had showed no airport anywhere near. Although there were no airplanes around, there was a plane scheduled to leave at 3:00 PM. I immediately started peddling as fast as I could back to town.

First to the bus trailer to cancel my trip and get a refund for the ticket I bought that morning. Next to the train station to drop off my bike to be shipped when the train started running again. Third, off to the motel to pick up my luggage. Finally, to get the only taxi in town to take me to the airport. The taxi was busy but I had made good time thus far and reached the airport at 2:30 PM. I rushed into the building and told the ticket clerk I wanted to buy a ticket to Sault Ste Marie. “We are sold out,” he said. I could not believe my ears. Sold out? “How big is the plane?” He said it was a single engine “Beaver” and carried five passengers. He saw my disappointment and said that sometimes a passenger did not show up, and then I could take his place. Four of the passengers were there early and I was hoping the last passenger would not show. It was one minute to three when the last passenger came running thru the door and in my disappointment I yelled, “shit” just as a young guy was passing by.

He stopped and asked me what the problem was. I told him and he said he thought the plane was flying light and if it were, and I didn’t have much luggage there might be room for me on the plane. It turned out the plane was indeed light and my one bag was fine.

They set up a temporary seat in the back of the plane but I had to sit with my head cocked away from the fuselage towards the center of the plane the entire trip. I was handed a bag and told the ride may be rough since the wind was blowing quite hard and if necessary use the bag and do not mess the plane up. When the pilot hopped aboard I was surprised to see it was the young guy that had heard me swear earlier.

Because everything happened so fast, I did not know it was not a direct flight to Sault Ste Marie until we were airborne. I found out we were heading for North Bay, a town on the east shore of Lake Nipissing. After flying for about an hour and a half, I was about two hundred and forty miles east of Sault Ste Marie. When we landed the engine had not been shut off yet when the door opened and a young guy yelled into the plane: “Where is the guy going to Sault Ste Marie?” He grabbed my bag and we ran to a waiting plane. This plane was a big one. A 32 seat “Dash Eight” with twin engines. The propellers seemed to be about 8 to 10 feet long and when they started up, they went whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. We were off again, and again, the young person who had helped me with the luggage was the pilot. These people must get their pilots license when they get their drivers license.

But we were still not going to Sault Ste Marie. We were heading towards Sudbury, about 70 miles away from North Bay. It was at Sudbury that I was to hop a jet to Sault Ste Marie. This flight was short and had a layover. I called my wife to let her know what was happening since I had not called her since I was in Hearst. She did not seem too concerned; they were playing “scrabble” and were not the least bit worried about me. I bought a paper and waited for my next flight.

When I got on the plane heading to Sault Ste Marie, it was dark outside. The plane was a big two-engine jet and carried about a hundred passengers. Once seated the flight attendant brought me coffee and a cookie. We talked and laughed about my experience of the day. Shortly we were landing and my trip was over.

At least I thought it was over. The Sault Ste Marie airport is about 20 miles from town and very few people seem to come here. There is no public transportation. Not even taxis. You have to call a cab company in town and they send a cab to the airport. An airline employee informed me that the cab charges you for both trips. While contemplating whether to call my brother-in-law Alvin to pick me up, the flight attendant happened by and asked how I was doing. As it happened many times that day, I was lucky again. She was going to town and would drive me to my car at the railroad station.

My trip was over. I was exhausted and hungry, so I went to a restaurant called Mary’s and had breakfast at 9:00 PM. I thought about my day. It was tiring but I was glad it had all happened the way it did. When I got back to my sister-in-law’s place, they were still playing scrabble.






Winter scene in Hearst
Winter scene on the way to Hearst

On the train to Hearst
On my way to Hearst