Signs of the season

March 2024

Growing up in Atikokan, we were used to being forgotten by the “Big Wigs” in Parliament, down in Southern Ontario. But there was a time, back in 1980, when we had our few seconds of recognition and it was all because of a piece of plywood, some spray paint, and a few hundred nails.

It all started one summer when the Department of Highways contracted a Fort Frances company to resurface the highway from Atikokan to a spot about five kilometres from our home by Niobe Lake. Besides the usual removal of the surface layer, the company blasted some of the rock cuts that were close to the road and dug down to create a more stable bed for the roadway. Traffic was held up all through the summer, and we grew tired of the constant delays. But, since the road was being improved, we took it all with a grain of salt. Summer passed into fall and the construction continued, but we simply got used to the twenty minute trip taking forty minutes.

It was a wet autumn, and as it got colder there were fewer construction vehicles on the road. Eventually there was only one grader that would travel the highway, vainly trying to fill the potholes created by the rain. When the snow started falling, even the grader packed it in and went home to Fort Frances. The winter road worsened and we got used to travelling the highway at fifty kilometres per hour. But things didn’t get really bad until spring arrived.

When the road began to freeze and thaw on a daily basis, puddles would form every day and freeze every night. As cars and trucks drove over the daily quagmire, they would create ruts and bumps. If you’ve ever driven over a gravel road that hasn’t been graded for awhile, you will know what I mean by “washboard” bumps. A washboard starts off as a single bump, but as a vehicle goes over the bump, the wheels momentarily leave the ground. Unencumbered by friction, the wheels spin faster, then, when they contact the ground past the bump, they dig a little bit of dirt, creating another hole. This causes the next tire to go into the hole then bounce up, starting the process anew. Eventually, as more cars go over the same spot, a series of troughs and ridges form that look like, well, a washboard.

Because of the constant traffic on that twenty kilometre stretch, the road became one long, dangerous washboard. I don’t suppose it helped, either, having logging trucks driving over the road every day, and it certainly didn’t get better when it rained. You were forced to drive slowly or risk your life.

And if the washboard didn’t get you, the flying rocks would. We broke at least half a dozen windshields that spring, and simply stopped replacing them because of the cost. In some cases, people went through windshields so quickly that the local dealerships couldn’t keep up with the demand, and people were forced to wait for more windshields to arrive.

Eventually, we learned how to navigate the road. We drove slowly, and pulled off to the side and stopped when we met a logging truck. We also got used to looking through a windshield that looked like a topographic map and driving a car that was two-thirds pogo stick. One truck driver said that he had to take his dentures out and wrap them in a towel before driving over that piece of highway. Apparently, he had broken several sets when he hit a bump and his teeth flew across the cab. Mechanics tied their toolboxes down because they became lethal weapons on the washboard, and some people donned neck braces before getting to the bumpy parts. Several cars slid or bounced off the road, and the tow trucks were constantly on alert.

Because we drove the road every day, we knew what to expect, but life could be difficult for newcomers to the demolition derby. There was the story of a group of guys traveling west from Thunder Bay who discovered the road late one evening. Well, technically they only discovered the first bump, but that one was a doozy.

The first pothole after the pavement ended was deep and wide. We knew that it was a terrific hole and slowed down for it, but anybody travelling that road at night didn’t stand a chance.

And the guys from Thunder Bay drove into that glorified foxhole at ninety. The car was suddenly airborne, but reacquainted itself with terra firma on the other side, parting ways with two wheels and most of the front end. No one was killed, fortunately, but their trip to the Fort was postponed while the tow truck came for them.

It is hard to express just how angry the townspeople were by late spring. This disaster of a road cut into our very existence, and we were mad.

So, one day after another harrowing ride to work, my dad decided that something needed to be done.

Dad sent me to the hardware store that afternoon to pick up some plywood and paint. When we got home – another exciting ride on a bucking bronco – we went to work in our workshop at the top of the hill. We painted the sign.

Donkey Trail
Next 20 km
You have to be an ass to use it!

I used bright blue and neon orange paint on a white background, drew a border around it, and made sure that the sign would be visible for miles. We didn’t want anyone to miss this message!
Then Dad and I threw a ladder, a hammer and a few pounds of nails into the van, along with the sign, and drove to where the highway ended and the construction zone began. It was a clear, cloudless night, and, fortunately, we were the only people on the road.

About fifty feet from the hole that ate the car’s front end was a sign that proclaimed, “Another Department of Highways Project.” We grabbed our stuff and walked through the grass and snow to the sign. Dad held the ladder and we hoisted our artwork up until it covered the existing sign. Then I drove a few pounds of nails through the sign, making sure that it wouldn’t fall down by accident. After all, we didn’t want anyone getting hurt.

We chuckled as we worked, and I have to admit that this was one of the best times that I had ever spent with my father. We knew that we were being vigilantes and that we were damaging public property, but we also knew that we had tolerated more than what could be reasonably expected of anyone. It felt good to take action.

The next morning we drove by the donkey trail sign on our way to work. Even Dad had to smile, but we soon got busy with our usual tasks and forgot about our adventure. It took an hour or two, then people started coming into the store, smiling and laughing.

“Did you see the sign on the highway? Says it’s a donkey trail! Someone sure stuck it to those guys that ruined the highway!”

Dad and I just listened to the conversations, but didn’t dare admit to our part in creating the sign. And people were saying the most flattering things about the highway vigilantes! Many people mentioned that it was high time that someone did something about that twenty kilometre mess, and there was a general consensus that the sign was both clever and effective.

There were, of course, many people who suspected that we might have been the perpetrators, and the owner of the hardware store was careful not to mention my shopping trip when he came in for his groceries. The editor of the local newspaper dropped by, suspecting that there might be a story if he talked to Dad, but knowing that he couldn’t print the details even if he knew them. Still, the sign did make the front page, and a few days later it was in the Thunder Bay papers. My friend, Smitty, who was living in Toronto at the time, told me that he had seen an article in The Globe and Mail about the Donkey Trail sign and suspected that I might have had something to do with it.

You might think that we had undertaken this as a fun prank or that we were happy to get our fifteen minutes of fame, but that really wasn’t our intent. The sign brought the condition of our road to the attention of people in Thunder Bay and Fort Frances, and shortly afterward there were graders and bulldozers filling in holes and levelling the surface.

The sign also raised some eyebrows in the Ontario legislature, and – you can look it up – members of the provincial parliament discussed what needed to be done with our “donkey trail”. They eventually passed a law regarding the maintenance of roads under construction, stipulating that the construction company would be fined for delays and would have to maintain the road until construction was completed. They also decided to begin all highway construction in the spring so that it would be completed before winter. After a winter of broken shocks and windshields, we had won a little reconciliation.

We had also won a little remuneration.

A fund was set up, and people submitted their bills for damage incurred by the donkey trail. One day, as Dad tells it, a truck driver walked into the store with a Texas Mickey of whiskey. He walked the stairs up to Dad’s office and knocked politely on the door. “I hear you might have had something to do with that donkey trail sign,” he said, handing the bottle to my dad.

“Well, I can’t say one way or the other,” my Dad began, “but....”

“That’s okay. I just wanted you to know that, thanks to that sign, we were able to cover the cost of the damage done to our company trucks. We just got a cheque from the government for two hundred grand.” He tipped his cap and walked back down the stairs, leaving Dad with a smile and a hundred and thirty-three ounces of rye whiskey.

At that point, I think that Dad might have felt a little like Robin Hood, going rogue but having the people appreciate his efforts. Dad and I could have been charged with public mischief or defacing public property, or, even, inciting a violent insurrection.

Nonetheless, it was nice to see how that Donkey Trail sign, illegal as it was, changed the way that construction companies looked at their obligations. It also changed the way that the government looked at road repair contracts, and maybe it changed the way that they looked at the citizens who drove on their roads and voted for them. Just don’t tell them who was responsible!

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.