A Childs Christmas
at Canoe Lake, 1931
As told by Don
Corbett to S. Bernard Shaw
Don originally told this
story to his nieces, who wanted to know more about their deceased
father's early life.
I thought you might like
to hear a story about another Christmasa long time ago,
and in a far different place, Canoe Lake, in the heart of
Algonquin Park, at Christmas 1931. There was no store, nothing
but bush and a half dozen houses scattered over a mile or
so. No roads came to Canoe Lake, only the railwayone
through track and a siding. One train a week stopped and brought
the groceries ordered from Pembroke by bush telephone.
At night in clear, cold air,
with the stars so bright and close you thought you could reach
up and touch them, the shifting colours of the northern lights
flowed across the sky. Now blue, now green, sometimes pulsing
bands of yellow or pink, and the clear, faint sizzle and crackle
as the lights made their music for you.
The chorus of wolves made
their music too, as the packs roamed the forest hunting down
their food. Many's the night Howard, seven years old, and
I, at five, went to sleep with their song fading and growing
in our little bedroom above the station. We would pull the
covers over our heads and tell each other stories so as not
to hear the blood-chilling sounds. When the wolves were quiet
there was nothing but a great stillness and a bitter, bone-cracking
cold. Sometimes we would wake in the night to the rifle shot
crack of a tree bursting from the frost.
At night, Mother would place
a glass of water by our bed in case we wanted a drink. By
morning, it would be frozen solid. There was no electricity,
no radio, no TV, no newspaper, no automobile. It was a hundred
miles to the dentist and doctor in Pembroke. Mother kept a
bottle of brandy hidden under a stump behind the station because
liquor was illegal in the Park. That was our emergency medicine.
We had a one-room, tarpaper
shack school where a few children were introduced to the opportunities
of education. Wrapped up like walking welfare bundles, five-year-olds
and seven-year-olds, we trudged the mile or so to school every
morning, carrying our sandwiches, often walking backwards
to keep from freezing our faces if the wind was in front of
us. We ate the sandwiches at noon with a drink from the communal
dipper, and, so fortified, made our way back home in the afternoon-along
the path, through the trees and the drifts and the blowing
Miss Colson stood at the
front of the class, God bless her. I don't know how much she
was paid, or why in the name of Heaven she would go to such
a place and there teach the offspring of the people who inhabited
it. There was a pail of water and a communal dipper on the
stand at the back of the classroom, a grey enamel washbasin,
a roller towel none too clean, and a slop pail under the stand.
The lavatory was an outdoor privy a hundred yards from the
school door. No one dawdled over their natural functions at
25 below, and the youngest child could do up his clothes with
record-breaking speed. Sometimes I look at the fine schools,
the school buses, and the incredibly sophisticated children
of the television and the computer age and I smile a little
wryly to myself, remembering us. Truly, simple survival was
our major task in that place where there was a swift and certain
end to child or adult who made a mistake or allowed an accident
It was Christmas 1931. We
had a concert at the school. Miss Colson had, over weeks of
effort, taught her pupils a few songs and a hymn, and each
of us had something to do. The scarred and battered iron-frame
desks, each about six feet wide and seating four children,
were moved back to leave a space at the front. The room was
only about fifteen feet wide by twenty long, anyway. The school
had been a machine shed at the sawmill. It had been pulled
up on skids to the side of the path and put up on a couple
of timbers. Earth was heaped up around the side to keep the
cold out. It didn't help much. You had to put your sandwiches
on the desk, for they would freeze if you put them on the
In the dusk of the late afternoon,
parents came walking through the snow to the school. Coats,
tuques, mackinaws, hand-knitted mittens and scarves were piled
at the back. The parents watched with pride as each child
performed his or her little "part," as it was called.
The whole student body-all seven or eight of us-stood at the
front and sang "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and
"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." We sang "Silent
Night," peculiarly appropriate in the quietness of the
ice-locked little community. There was no piano and no music,
just Miss Colson with her little pitch pipe to start us off.
Some of the little ones got frightened, unused to so many
people looking at them (there must have been as many as twenty
people crowded into the little room) and they forgot their
lines. But the older ones would give them a shake and away
they went, like a balky watch. There was a tree off to one
side with some decorations on it, and Miss Colson had an apple
or an orange for each of us-rare treats in that place. And
what an achievement to keep them from freezing so she could
give them to us that Christmas Eve.
I remember well. I had a
recitation-it was a little thing of a few short verses about
what I hoped to find in my Christmas stocking. I was to stand
at the front, hold up my stocking, and say my piece about
what I hoped to find in it. Murphy's Law being what it is,
even then, I landed up in front of the audience without my
stocking to hold up. Undismayed, with my five-year-old logic
to support me, I held up just my arm in front of me and started
off without it. It took a few moments for the audience to
realize that I was addressing a non-existent stocking. This
gave the performance an extra fillip, so to speak. In my later
years as an entertainer, I had to do the same thing many times
when my talent turned up missing at crucial moments. I remember
that my "part" was a great success. Who knows, the
warm feeling of applause in that little shack may have started
me on the way that has given me so much pleasure.
There wasn't a priest or
a minister in Canoe Lake, so when it was over one of the parents
thanked Miss Colson and said how much they had enjoyed it.
The Christmas concert, looked forward to by all of us with
both trepidation and the desire to make our parents proud
of us, was over.
After that we all bundled
up and went home to the station, Dad, Mother, Howard and I.
My brother and I still believed in Santa Claus, although Howard,
being older and perhaps more observant, was starting to have
some doubts. However, Mother and Dad assured us that Santa
Claus would indeed come to the station. Why, after he left
Pembroke, he had only to follow the railway tracks. The reindeer
would fly so swiftly that he would be here in no time.
"We must keep a sharp
eye out," they said, "and if we are lucky, we might
even see him." In our bedroom, which was above the station
waiting room, there was a hole for a stovepipe, with its kind
of open-lace-work, black metal ring. It was not in use and
if we lifted off the tin plate covering the hole we could
see down into the waiting room. We had been sent to bed speculating
on what delights of turkey and dressing the morrow might bring.
We were drifting off to sleep, listening to the old station
crack and groan with the cold, and the clear, measured sound
of the big pendulum clock in the office making its slow "tick.
. .tock. . .." The telegraph chattered occasionally,
as common a sound to us as a bird song to other children.
We suddenly froze in our
bed, with an incredulous awareness of what we were hearing.
Sleigh bells! Right outside the waiting room door. Why, it
must be right on the platform. We rushed to the window but,
of course, could not see the platform because of the overhanging
roof. At that moment the waiting room door banged open and
a great voice cried out, "Ho Ho Ho!" We flew to
the stovepipe hole, and stared down into the waiting room
where our parents cried out, "Santa! Well, well, we're
so glad you could make it. Will ye take a wee drap for the
There he was. Red suit, flowing
white beard, big belly, black boots and, wonder of wonders,
over his shoulder a big burlap bag stuffed with who knew what
delights. The great booming voice, the rolling walk-and at
the stovepipe hole two small boys, transfixed, frozen with
awe and the fear of discovery as we crouched in our bare feet
and flannelette pyjamas, staring down in hypnotized fascination
at the mythical figure. The great voice thundered out, "Well,
well, and have Howard and Donald been good boys?"
"Well, not all the time,
but mostly," replied our father.
"Ho Ho, I think they
deserve something for Christmas. Let's see what I have in
my bag." He moved over to one of the benches where we
could only partly see him and there was a sound of boxes being
dropped. "Well, d'you think they would like this?"
"Oh yes, Santa, I'm
sure they would." A few moments more and Santa and Mother
and Dad reappeared in our view. Dad and Santa raised their
"To a Merry Christmas,"
and the contents of the glass disappeared like magic into
that huge, snowy beard. "Ho Ho Ho. Well, I have a lot
more places to go before this night is out. It's been nice
seeing you. I'll be back again next Christmas Eve." And
the waiting room door banged closed behind him.
Sleigh bells jingled from
the platform and faded away as we crouched at the stovepipe
hole, still motionless with the wonder of it. It was real!
We had seen him! Oh my, he had talked with Mother and Dad
and left presents for us. Neither of us spoke. We crept back
to bed and climbed into the pile of blankets, staring at the
ceiling, still seeing the figure of Santa, hearing the "Ho
Ho Ho." We had no words for what we were feeling.
I know now, of course, almost
seventy years later, that Santa was Murphy, the caretaker
down at the mill. How he got the suit and how he was moved
to walk miles in the cold that night to play the part of Santa
in the station waiting room I could not say. I do not know
what kind of a man Murphy was. I recall that he lived alone
at the mill. But if there is justice in heaven, Murphy was
welcomed there for what he did for two small boys on Christmas
Don's father, James Frederick
Corbett, was the CNR Agent at Canoe Lake. He was a keen amateur
radio "ham," probably the first in Algonquin Park,
with a battery-powered O1A transmitter, call sign VE3VU.
Don never graduated from
high school, or from any of the five universities where he
took selected courses. He did, however, become an electronics
researcher of some renown and managed three high tech companies
in addition to racing motorcycles and motorboats. An accomplished
musician, he plays the guitar throughout the Ottawa Valley
with his group, "The Opeongo Line."
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 34, Winter/Spring 2000. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.
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