The Fab Fort: Sites and highlights

By Gord Mackintosh
Special to the Times

Beyond its charming downtown, the Point, Parkway, and adventures in lake-land, the Fort shines with endearing attributes.

Officials opening the Causeway announced “the world’s longest pre-stressed concrete bridge” – because once you see it, you’re pre-stressed. Traffic would go smoother with a stopping lane on top. It’s just that I love that view.

At the Fort’s captivating museum, find the birch bark shoes and skull cracker. One issue: ads promote “rotating exhibits;” they don’t turn at all.

At the informative Cranberry Peatlands Interpretive Trail, Dad managed a peat moss harvesting company in the 1940’s. Imagine it bustling with 90 workers, buildings, an undulating, weaving railway. Tip: don’t build a railway on bog.

Borrow fishing rods and tackle from the wonderful Fort Frances Public Library Technology Centre! It’s the “FFPLTC” – for short.

The Fort hosts the fantastic Canadian Bass Championship. This became successful thanks to its devoted volunteers – and once the electric bass players figured it out.

The name “Rainy Lake” attracts fishers because fish bite in the rain. But I’ve heard – although it might be a joke – fish don’t like getting wet.

Another big event has been Fun in the Sun. It even got celebrated on a Molson Canadian beer label and many of us showed Molson our appreciation that summer.

Naming it “Fun in the Sun” is bold at Rainy Lake and Rainy River. Unwelcome rain explains the flustered organizers’ acronym for the event: “FITS.”

Since age two, I participated in many July First parades, nothing to do with free ice cream after. On a float, I once furiously swung my arms against jack-pine beetles. Onlookers appreciatively waved back. With few parades elsewhere, this community-builder attracts far-flung family and ex-pats. It’s the Fort’s other annual homecoming.

And the fireworks reflect on the water – a twofer. We go, Ooo! OOO!

Bathtub races accompanied log rolling. With lumberjack roots, the Fort is a log rolling capital. The Howarths still give tips.

Frank Peloquin rolled with a monkey. Driving in the rain from a Chicago show, that monkey clung to the dashboard to grab the windshield-wipers – for five hours.

Among others, Bill Fontana followed. Bill performed internationally with adept dogs like “One,” “Two,” or “Peppy” – ensuring Bill took a dive.

Cousin Alex worked for Bill. He asked Alex to get the dogs from his house. With one dog in Bill’s station-wagon, Alex got the second dog and opened the wagon door. The first dog bolted. Alex chased it around Bill’s house three times. Unsuccessful, he got the third dog, confident he could block the second dog. Wrong.

At wits end, with one dog, Alex left the wagon door open, and slumped in the front seat.

He heard something. He looked behind.

All three dogs sat in back.

He didn’t tell Bill – but remains certain Bill knew what he was in for.

In the 1970’s kids practiced on a log at the Point. I got good at the balance ‘n roll, and assured Mom I had a plan for my future. To go with rock ‘n roll. Once I found a monkey.

Regarding other Fun in the Sun events, I won a paper airplane contest. But wife, Margie, trumped even that.

As a stonemason, her dad could lift a house so he always challenged his daughters to arm-wrestling – because he never lost. When Otto heard of a beer garden’s arm-wrestling competition for women during the Fort’s spin-off festival, the more predictably-named “Fun in the Snow,” Otto summoned Margie.

With elbows in table sockets, she nailed the first round. For the finals, she faced an older, hefty opponent. Margie recounts, “110 pounds versus 210.”

Hearing the confidence in Otto’s cheers, she leaned her meagre pounds down. Margie says, “My feet were off the ground.”

The competition’s arm popped out of the socket. And that’s how Margie describes it.

She forgot what the prize was. It didn’t matter. Or, at age 16, how she got into a beer garden.

In 2013, the Fort – always innovative – introduced the Christmas “stationary parade.” Folks moved past floats. In the Times an organizer said it went off without a hitch. But an opinion poll found 72% opposed. The traditional parade rolls out for peace on earth.

The Fort’s most commanding buildings have changed. The old high school sprawled across a downtown block. Its hallways were a maze. Students got from Nestor Falls to school easier than from math to auto.

Our baby blue and yellow-brick mill was the town’s anchor and lifeblood. Its closure broke our hearts, as does its demolition. The mill helped me with a university education, and education in hard work and collegiality.

No more talk of the floor, the broke-hole – not even black liquor. No more woven-birch lunch baskets and perfect paper hats. Or paperbacks, Readers Digest, and TV Guide on Fort-fashioned, truly reliable paper.

Although a nearby mine opened in time, it also has an expiry date. But as a terrific destination and nurturing hometown, and with entrepreneurial and volunteer spirit, a great town has a great future.

Long live the fab Fort.