It’s been a long time since I shared any news about Ombabika, perhaps the most unique place mentioned in the whole song. Get ready for that to change! First up is this thrilling post from my friend and compatriot, Mike. Mike and I are on the same quest to Everywhere and our stories intersected fortuitously. This post will detail his adventure in visiting Ombabika. The big question is: Will Mike find the fabled Ombabika cemetery?
Alright. It’s time for an Ombabika story…but not quite time for my Ombabika story. Let me explain:
My thread on ADV Rider (the motorcycle forum where I am also posting my story) is a source of constant amusement and encouragement. The clever quips, tangential discussions and (occasionally) useful advice has made me glad that I have posted my story there. On September 5th, 2019, a user named “mikejana” made an innocuous comment stating that he had visited 68 of the 92 song places. I was instantly intrigued.
Through our correspondence I learned that Mike had started his quest about 15 years ago, gradually checking them off when they aligned with his natural travels. Even before meeting him, I knew that we already had a deep connection.
If you recall, this was not the first “Everywhereican” with whom I had made contact during my journey. My friend Max from Quebec started the journey in a similar time frame as I did. (His story HERE). Mom and I were able to host him in the summer of 2019 as he came across Nebraska. We shared stories and Swedish Pancakes.
He was fresh off of his visit to Ombabika and was successful in locating the fabled cemetery. His stories were wild and he told them in an absolutely captivating manner.
One of the things we decided was that we were not going to reveal the location of the Ombabika cemetery to anyone else. Both of us had crazy experiences in our attempts to visit there. The searching was part of the fun and we did not want to deprive anyone of that adventure.
Mike had already completed most of the traditional places when we had our first phone call. He has traveled his whole life and works as an airline pilot. It seemed that anywhere reasonably close to civilization had already been visited. His list of remaining places was mostly the weird ones. That’s a list Ombabika usually tops.
I was a little nervous the first time we talked. I knew he was going to ask about Ombabika and I knew I was going to have to tell him I would not reveal the location of the cemetery. He took it in stride though and didn’t seem offended by my lack of assistance. I told him that I would give him everything else I could (road conditions, gas availability, geography around Auden), but no coordinates.
In hindsight, I’m so glad I didn’t help him.
Mike did an astounding flurry of research and ended up discovering more about Ombabika than I could have ever imagined. His story is one that absolutely fits within my narrative and is vital in describing the experience I had when I visited a couple of weeks later. This story, his story, is the theme of this post. He has written an incredible account of his experiences and I can’t wait for all of you to read it!
Take it away, Mike!
Finding Ombabika. It could not be too difficult of a task.
I’ve been on this mission to visit every place in the song entitled “I’ve Been Everywhere” famously sung by both Hank Snow and Johnny Cash. I’ve not been very intentional about my quest, but I am stricken by wanderlust and travel for a living so I make it a part of my travel planning. I keep an eye open during my voyages and try to fit in a detour whenever I can add another of the 92 locations mentioned in the song. I’m now sitting solidly in the 80s, but it has been a long journey.
It was over 17 years ago that my father in law, a huge Johnny Cash fan, asked me to count how many song places I had visited. I had a pitiful start considering “I’ve been everywhere” was a normal phrase in my daily conversation, so I decided to visit more song locations. My favorite travels tend toward the warmer climes, so it is no great surprise that the locations in and near Canada are the last on my list to be checked off.
I recently completed the Trans America Trail, a dirt bike trip from Florida to Oregon with my 3 grown sons (picture below). Song places for the return factored heavily into my planning. Because of this, I stumbled across the musings of Brett, aka Swedstal (Brett’s username on ADV Rider). He shares the same quest, but is very intentional about his version of this journey. He is visiting all 92 locations in a single “grand adventure”.
Brett is doing it entirely on a motorcycle, with a minuscule budget and a tent. I have consumed every detail of his travel and look forward to each update. He has motivated me to step up my game. In the past decade and a half, I have found just a few people that claim to have undertaken this journey, but none so veraciously. Of those that I have encountered claiming to be on this journey, none have made much progress. The one exception is a truck driver I met in Montrose, Colorado last year. After talking to this driver, I had to dismiss his claim that he “had been everywhere” as delusional. I do contend, however, that delusional may be a prerequisite for undertaking this task.
Brett is over 2 years and “like” 70 thousand miles into his journey. I truly believe he has visited all 92 locations and that he is the first to document this epic task. His blog, https://everywhereman.me is casual, friendly and informative. His accounts are as riveting as any good novel. In August 2017 he shared his trip to Ombabika and posted pictures swimming in the Ombabika River. The small footbridge he photographed is part of the original town of Ombabika.
Fast forward to May 2019, a medical student from Quebec named Max appears. He is on the same journey with a similar intensity as Brett. He has found the Ombabika Cemetery, all that remains of the former township. Brett, unfortunately, begins to doubt his visit to Ombabika and I am so intrigued that Ombabika moves to my next place to visit.
Ombabika. It’s research time. There is not much to be found. An online search reveals numerous obituaries, Brett’s blog , a fishing trip on a Boston Whaler fan page, some First Nation’s news articles and some weather and geographical references. Most info centers on the Ombabika River or Ombabika Bay. I read everything I can. I contact all of the (somewhat) local libraries and every funeral home. There is nary a mention of the town.
The bulk of available information seems to be “The Ombabika Cemetery is located about 2 kilometers west of the abandoned village of Auden near the CNR tracks. It was once a Roman Catholic mission there and has been long abandoned. There is one stone marker (1978), several wooden crosses with names painted and 40 plus wooden crosses without names. Someone has made an attempt to upkeep markers with paint, but mother nature has taken her toll.”.
The maps available online all point to different locations. I find no useful information here and nothing that would indicate the prior existence of a town. (as a side note: I was a USMC Pilot and a well trained and capable aerial map user) I have studied all the maps and have a good lay of the land. Max and Brett did not offer any hints about the location, but I understand and I am supportive of their decision not to share. It is a treasure hunt that must be experienced. Of the 92 song places it is absolutely the hardest to locate and is very remote. The road is dirt, barely maintained and at its most distant point leaves you 5 hours or more away from fuel.
My numerous emails and calls have received some replies. Everyone is polite and helpful (because… Canada), but Ombabika is an enigma. Even the historical archives at the Thunder Bay Research Library come up short; 2 news articles from the 1960’s and an old map indicating the Ombabika Bay and Rivers, nothing of the town or cemetery. The local funeral homes and fire stations, also blank.
My correspondence with some local tribal leadership provides the introduction to a local man named Ray, but only after I’m vetted and interrogated by Tribal Councilors. It takes great effort to convince Ray that I am not involved in some scam. He informs me over the phone that the road to Ombabika is not maintained in winter and that snow is predicted next week. If not this week, we’ll go next year. I immediately leave the comfort of my Lanai in Florida and I’m off to Ombabika. Later, Ray admits that he actually meant next month.
I flew to Duluth, rented a car and headed north. My first real obstacle is Canadian Customs at Grand Portage. It was nothing impolite, but I think the agents were bewildered that a sun tanned Floridian, would be coming to the great White North, during freezing rain, solo, to visit a place that no longer exists; because it was mentioned in a song. I get that.
Agent : What is your destination?
Me: Yes, Ombabika
Agent: Where is Ombabika?
Me: At least 5 hours north of Beardmore.
Agent: I don’t see Ombabika on my Map.
Me: It’s not there anymore. It hasn’t been inhabited since 1963. Allegedly there is a cemetery still there.
Agent: A cemetery? And you know where it is?
Me: No, I’m not sure where it is, but it is supposed to be west of Auden, which also doesn’t exist anymore, but Auden is a stop on the Trans Canadian rail line.
Agent: How do you know this?
Me: I saw online that this guy from Quebec found it, but he won’t share where it is.
Agent: Why are you trying to find this cemetery?
Me: Have you ever heard the Hank Snow song “I’ve Been Everywhere”? It’s one of the locations in the song, and I’ve been to most of the other locations and I’m trying to…………..
Agent: (something about the song), How long will you be staying?
Me: I’m not sure, depends how long it takes me to find it. Another guy online looked all day but could not find anything.
Agent: How do you expect to find it?
Me: I’m meeting this guy that the tribal leadership told me about, he’s going to help.
Agent: What is his name?
Agent: What is his last name?
Me: Ray is all I know.
Agent: Are you transporting any alcohol, cigarettes, drugs or cannabis products.
Me: One 750ml bottle of Bourbon.
Agent: Have you been drinking?
Me: No sir, I rarely drink.
Agent: Then why are you carrying alcohol?
Me: It’s a gift for Ray.
Agent: Please pull forward under the lighted canopy, roll down all of your windows and come inside. Leave your keys in the car.
I trust my future visits to Canada may also include secondary screening. I believe our conversation also involved question about any other business in Canada, to which I replied “Timmy Horton’s is always important.” They don’t appreciate donut jokes at Canadian Customs.
I stopped in Thunder Bay for fuel, snacks and information. I had hoped to visit the research library that had seemed so helpful on the phone, but I was traveling too late. No one I asked had heard of Ombabika, and I asked a lot of folks. Thunder Bay is the last location I would visit in the next few days that had any real resources.
My next stop happened at an “intersection” named Nippigon. Nippigon is a big Lake, a township or an intersection with two gas stations. I stopped in more for a bathroom than anything else. While paying for gas I happened to meet Bettie. She grew up in Ombabika. She had not been back since her childhood. She knew who Ray was and provided a last name. She shared a few stories that provided reassurance that I was on the right track.
A few hours later I found the Roxy Place hotel in Beardmore. It was a comfortable, dry, warm and expensive place to rest.
The next morning, my first task at hand was to visit the Ojibway Band Office, the administrative offices of Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek. The Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, or AZA, is a First Nation People of Canada that inhabited the area surrounding Ombabika and Auden. I spent several hours with the Chief, her staff and councilors learning their history. A visitor from Florida is not an everyday occurrence. Everyone in town knew I was coming and called me Hank Snow. The tribal Leadership has invited (okay, allowed) me to visit Ombabika, but only with Ray as my escort.
Everything about Ray is huge, except for his size. He was gregarious, and loud, and happy and friendly and ready for an adventure. He directed me to go spend money at the town’s only restaurant while he went for gas and supplies. We hopped in his truck and traveled about 10 minutes on the Trans Canadian Highway before leaving the macadam for cold rain soaked dirt roads. This is when Ray popped open the first beverage. I offered to drive and Ray happily accepted the day long role of navigator and chief story teller.
I had studied for this journey and asked Ray to let me find my own way, and he graciously obliged.
We spent 5 hours driving north to Auden and Ombabika. The stories were charming and funny and heartbreaking. The AZA people had always inhabited this area surrounding Lake Nippigon. Near the end of the 1880s, the Trans Canadian Railway created stops in Auden and Ombabika. On the heels of the railway, logging operations began to spring up.
Ray shared how great times were for the next 60-80 years. All the work anyone wanted with good pay. If you had your own saw, even more work and pay. If you happened to have a driver’s license, you were in high cotton. The towns of Ombabika and Auden thrived with populations in the thousands. The AZA had a utopian boom town right in their own yard.
During the drive, we stopped to check on the hunting & fishing camps of all Ray’s friends and family. We stopped to visit the spot of every funny and noteworthy event he could remember. We entered the shadow of his town and he shared where the baseball field was, and the bowling alley, and the stores and the outfitters. He painted a beautiful picture of his life 50 years past. It now is a vast wilderness with nary a sign that civilization had ever existed here. I took us directly to the spot where Brett went skinny dipping and Ray stopped me.
He said we were on the correct path, but it would be too flooded for his comfort. We drove over to the Auden rail stop; the same place Brett got the cold reception. We walked to pick up the trail on the other side of the flooded area. The area behind Brett in his “nature picture” is where Ray’s childhood home was located.
Our pace slowed as Ray continued to point out all that had existed here, now replaced only by trees or an occasional rusty relic. He painted a clear picture, sharing everything he could remember. He described buildings and homes and the churches, 1 Catholic and 1 Protestant. He was talking about his school and shared the blessing that it represented. In remote locations, the Canadian government would collect the kids and send them away to boarding school if there was not a local school to attend. This had happened to Ray’s mother, but she found her way home; many did not. Ray and his siblings remained with their family because they had a local school to attend. As Ray talked about his days at school, I looked through the underbrush and we could see the school desks, rotting away in the same rows they were left in 55 years ago.
You see the logging companies clear cut everything in sight, working outward in a circle. Sometime in the 1960s the clear cut circle was large enough that it was no longer profitable to travel from Ombabika everyday to cut timber. The boom town economy that had produced a fruitful infrastructure evaporated. The logging company, who had ownership via the timber rights granted by the Canadian Government, ceased operation and evicted everyone. Everyone. The AZA people were forced to leave their homeland. The people who had traveled from all over the world to find fortunes in the “boom” were pushed out as well. The important buildings were destroyed or burned. Others like the school were simply left to rot. The AZA would not be recognized or find a place to call home for another 44 years.
It was a short walk to the from the school site to the Ombabika cemetery. Ray became very emotional as we closed in. Ray constantly visits this “area” to work, hunt and fish. Coming less than a kilometer or two away from where we were now standing was normal. He had not wandered into the cemetery since they were evicted by the railroad.
It was a treasure to enter the cemetery with Ray. All but one of the graves had been marked by wooden crosses. All the markings and most of the wood had long since succumbed to nature. Ray’s brother Frank is paid to clean and maintain the Ombabika cemetery. Frank is the only one who really comes here. The last burial was in 1978.
Ray and Frank had 5 siblings who caught whooping cough and died within a week of each other. He knew they were all buried here in the 1950s, but there was no way to tell where. Again, this was his first visit in half a century.
During the last few kilometers of dirt road (okay mud), the clouds began to clear. We had endured overcast, rainfall and flooding for the entire day. Before the windshield was a beautiful sunset rainbow to punctuate our journey.
The last place Ray showed me was called Partridge Lake. As we said farewell, a random dog appear with the fresh entire foot of a moose. Oh, Canada.
Ombabika is a special place. The 5 hour return trip, with Ray’s awesome non-stop narrative, flashed by quicker than the last case of beer. Ray took me to visit his brother and several different friends. I heard many renditions of the Everywhere song and was always introduced as Hank Snow.
(Ray is pointing to Hank Snow in the picture below:)
Ray’s enduring First Nation people had been forgotten since being evicted from their homeland half a century ago. In 1985 the Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek people reunited and elected a Chief and Council. Since that time they have worked to preserve their Heritage and Language and work to provide services for their people. Mostly they had worked hard to return to their Ombabika home-sake, but both the AZA and the government judged it to be too distant for public safety and services, leaving song place 51 to perish in the great northern wilderness.
In 2008 the Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek were granted Reservation land on Partridge lake located in nearby Jellicoe, Ontario. Jellicoe is also a place in the song.
I truly travel more than most can imagine. The history, the buildings, the scenery, always an experience. The food, a little too important to me. The people and the stories, they are the magic. Few are as special as Ray. He had filled our time with vivid stories that will forever affect me. Hospitality overflowed. Life has not been easy here, and there is a touching story to be told. I pray that it finds a voice, Brett Anderson?
Great job, Mike! Thank you so much! Your efforts paved the way for my second Ombabika experience, the story of which will be recounted in my next post.
Mike and I were able to meet for the first time in Minnesota as I was on my way home. He was in the neighborhood taking care of some of the song places in the area
The day after I arrived home in Nebraska (Spoiler alert: I made it), Mom and I were fortunate enough to host Mike and his wife Jana. Miraculously, our schedules just happen to coincide at this special moment. It was a treat to have the time with them and it felt like we had known them forever.
We still had some maple syrup that Max from Quebec had brought on his visit. This was definitely a special enough occasion to use it! (I guess with Mike and Max, I’ve established the obligation that I will host and make Swedish Pancakes for anyone who has more than 65 “Everywhere” places completed.)
More recently, Mike and Jana were our hosts in Florida as Mom and I went down for the Super Bowl. We received convertible service from the airport:
Dined like royalty:
and got to take in the Super Bowl atmosphere (no, we didn’t go. The tickets were too much):
It is hard to describe the inherent level of camaraderie that comes from meeting someone who has not only had the same crazy idea as you, but has also taken steps to execute it. I am so thankful for this connection which has been beneficial and enjoyable in so many ways. Thank you, Mike, for sharing your story and so much more. May our paths cross again soon!
Stay delusional, everybody!
Realtime update: I do sincerely apologize for the long delay here. It seems like I’ve had to that a few times during this story. February was a great month in a lot of ways, but my personal projects really suffered. I’m still finding my new work/life balance and it’s been a little elusive so far. The next post, my Ombabika return story, is going to be extremely labor intensive. Judging by current patterns, you can expect that post around Spring of 2022. Thanks for your patience. 🙂