My Hometown – Cranberry Portage, Manitoba
Cranberry Portage, Manitoba.
My beautiful and special hometown. Where I was born and raised. Well, I was actually born in The Pas, Manitoba but that is because Cranberry Portage doesn’t have it’s own hospital.
Cranberry Portage is actually a village. The current population sits just below 600. Growing up our town wasn’t much bigger. I think the most people we had at one time was between 800 to 900.
In a place as small as Cranberry everybody knows everybody. Which can be a good thing especially when your grandma has dementia and aimlessly wanders around town. Luckily we were contacted about her whereabouts and we were able to get her home safe and sound.
Like any small town, gossip can spread like wildfire. Everyone knows everyone’s business. And prying eyes are everywhere. Once as teen I tried to skip school with a couple friends of mine. However, we didn’t thoroughly think things through and went back to our one friend’s house which was located in the teacherage (area of housing where many of the teachers at the local school division lived). Of course we were seen and our parents found out what we had done. Not a smart move on our part. But we still got a wee break from our dreaded industrial arts class for one day.
On A Map
Whenever I was asked where I was from I would say with pride, “Cranberry Portage!” A few times I received this response, “oh you’re from Portage la Prairie?” “No, Cranberry Portage!” “What? Where is that?”
If you want to find us on a map you will have to look pretty closely. We are located about 50 km south of Flin Flon, Manitoba and about 100 km north of The Pas, Manitoba. If you still aren’t quite sure where Flin Flon and The Pas are Cranberry is about 700 km north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. That makes for a very long drive to the city!
As we are so far from any major centre I tend to state that I live in a remote area. Some may say we are more rural than remote. Growing up my mom used to order our clothes from the Sears catalogue as we did not have many options in terms of clothes shopping. We could travel the half hour (50 km) to Flin Flon for the odd shopping trip. But the selection there wasn’t much better. We also tried to support our own stores and businesses by keeping our money local. However, sometimes driving 30 minutes to get a little extra deal on fresh produce or meat selection had to be done.
A History Lesson
When I was a kid I used to love reading the short two page history of Cranberry Portage in my mom’s copy of the 1978 Homecoming Cookbook. (The 1978 Homecoming celebrated Cranberry’s 50th birthday.) That cookbook was well used and loved. The story explains that Cranberry Portage was just that, a portage used by explorers and aboriginals. Artifacts dating back to 500 A.D. were found in the area indicating that the route had been used as far back as then.
The name Cranberry Portage can be credited to map maker and explorer David Thompson. He used the portage frequently in the 1780’s and even called Cranberry Portage, “Cranberry Carrying Place” as an abundance of cranberry bushes existed in the area over 200 years ago.
It was in the 1920’s that things started booming for Cranberry Portage. People were driven to the area in hopes of striking it rich as huge mineral deposits in Flin Flon and the surrounding areas had been discovered. There were no roads leading into Cranberry but the first steam engine came through town on March 25th, 1928. At this time the town had a population of around 2,000! According to the story of Cranberry Portage, “in that year there were six stores, eight restaurants, two theatres, a bank, a drugstore, a hotel, a jail, a weekly newspaper, sauna baths, Western Canadian Airways base, flop houses, and a number of private businesses of questionable virtue.” (Direct quote from The Cranberry Portage Story, Cranberry Portage Homecoming 1978 Cookbook)
I would have loved to see our town during this exciting time. Throughout the years I lived in Cranberry we had maybe two to three restaurants in operation, two grocery stores and one convenience store, a post office, a variety shop (which was packed from top to bottom with yarn and was the first place to sell CDs in town), a hardware/liquor store, a bank (which later closed), a theatre (which burned down when I was in early grade school), a hotel with a bar (the infamous Northern Inn), a motel, and a few lodges. Currently the hardware/liquor store, a restaurant, the bar, an art gallery and the post office are still in operation on the main road in Cranberry. Our little main street has sure changed over the years.
Devastated by Fire
On June 4, 1929 a forest fire completely destroyed the early settlement of Cranberry Portage. Before the fire gutted the town the residents lived close to the edge of Lake Athapapuskow. After the fire, the townspeople rebuilt the community up the hill on the other side of the railroad tracks where the town currently is found today. The Cranberry Portage Heritage Museum website has a wonderful page that details what happened during the fire and photos to go along with the events that took place.
Throughout the years forest fires have threatened to take our beloved town from us again. I vividly remember one summer in the late 1980s (I believe it was 1989) being on evacuation notice for a few weeks. My mom made us each pack a suitcase with only essential items. The suitcase sat on my bed ready and waiting until we got the call to leave. During that time our town was home to many other evacuated communities. It was another population boom! Luckily, our town was spared and we were never evacuated. Most recently in 2010, the town was evacuated due to a very large forest fire. That fire burned 55,000 hectares of land and came within 10 km of Cranberry Portage. I was so terrified for my little town and its residents. I was also scared for my parents. My dad refused to leave. He wanted to do all he could to help save his home community. And once again, our town was spared.
The population of Cranberry had ebbed and flowed in the years to come. Many people who traveled to Cranberry Portage fell in love with the beauty of the north and especially, the town. If you love nature, this is the place to be. Cranberry became a tourist destination for people all across Canada and even the United States. In the summer time our population always spiked because of the influx of tourists visiting our town. Because Cranberry is surrounded by lakes on pretty much all sides, fishing was and is still a big draw for tourists. My grandpa (my dad’s father) loved to fish. The funny thing was he didn’t like to eat his catch! I guess he wasn’t a big fan. But oh how he loved the sport of it all.
My Family Roots
My history in Cranberry begins with my grandparents. They moved up to Cranberry Portage (from Southern Saskatchewan) after my grandpa’s service in World War II. He and my grandma ran a small cafe for just a little over a year. In 1948 Grandpa bought a Caterpillar Fifteen and he started cutting pulpwood. Then, he built a sawmill. My grandma was even part of the sawmill crew in those days and lent a well needed hand in getting the family business off of the ground. My dad and my uncle later became partners in Leptick Sawmill LTD. and they still own and operate the sawmill today.
I grew up in the same house my dad did. Not a lot of people can probably say that. My grandpa built the house for my grandma. My grandpa John – he could build something from nothing. And to think, he only had a Grade 8 education. He was a very talented man. I sure miss him a lot.
When my dad got married Grandpa “sold” my dad the house for a dollar. I sometimes joke with my dad that he should sell the house to me for two dollars. The family house is still owned by my family. Now that my dad is remarried he has built a house on the lake (Lake Athapapuskow) with my step-mom. So, the family house is currently empty of residents but most of my childhood belongings are still there. Can you tell that I am avoiding going through all of those memories?
Just like my dad (and my mom) I attended Cranberry Portage Elementary School and later, Frontier Collegiate Institute. FCI is a unique school. You see, in 1956 a mid-Canada radar site began construction. In those days it was believed that Flin Flon was a Russian military target because of its mines and smelters. Cranberry Portage became the perfect place to build a back-up radar location. This project brought more people and businesses to the town. In April 1964 the base became obsolete and closed down. However, in September 1965 it reopened with an entirely new purpose. Frontier School Division, the largest school division geographically in the province (and in the world), bought the base from the Government of Canada and Frontier Collegiate Institute was born. It would be a high school with a residence (it was and is not considered a residential school). FCI would provide a quality education to students in Manitoba (mainly students from the north) whose communities did not have a high school of their own. Many of the buildings of the former base were re-purposed to meet the needs of the school. Last year it was announced that Frontier Collegiate would receive funding to build a new residence for its students after a decade or more of lobbying for the upgrades! Construction is going strong today! I can’t wait to see the new 200 bed residence and power mechanics shop when they are completed.
Frontier Collegiate became my second home. Not only did I graduate from there in 1998 but I was also an employee for many years. I was first hired in 1999 as an Internet Technology Specialist (fancy title for website developer and computer technology person). In 2001, I began working as an educational assistant but I was laid off near the end of the school year in 2002. Luckily a position in the school’s library became available and I was selected to fill the roll. I would work as the school librarian until the end of the school year in 2008 when I decided to become a stay-at-home mom. I credit Frontier Collegiate for helping me find my rightful place in this world, in the library.
Growing up in Cranberry was an amazing experience. We took full advantage of the nature surrounding us. We went camping every May long weekend to Gyles Park. We swam for hours at little dock and at eight mile beach. We enjoyed tubing. I made regular visits to the town’s small six hole golf course and even played one round in the pouring rain. Winter festival time in Cranberry was magical. It included the Find the Lion contest (I never could solve those riddles and find the dang lion), mini bonspiels (which I always entered with my grandpa), chainsaw carving contests that my uncle took part in, and going for bombardier rides across the lake.
I also spent many hours at the local skating rink learning how to figure skate. We went snowmobiling around town and at the sawmill. Speaking of the sawmill, Dad and Grandpa put us to work there in our teen years and well into our 20’s. We definitely learned the hard earned value of a dollar!
We rode our bikes down the middle of the streets in town. One night we made it our mission to drive on every street and back alley in the town.
My grandparents lived right down the street from me. I visited them often. One time I was helping grandma in the garden (eating her tasty raspberries, strawberries and other goodies) when a young fox snuck into the garden under the fence. It was cute to see the little fox trying to find a little food to eat.
I graduated from high school with a few kids I went to nursery school with and am still friends with many of them today. I’d take long walks throughout the town and would look up at the night sky to see the Northern Lights dancing away. I always felt safe walking throughout the community, even at night. The only thing that worried me was running into wild animals. Sometimes the odd bear made its way into someone’s back yard. Or there was a time when a huge moose ran through the Frontier Collegiate campus and jumped the fence! Everything we needed or everywhere we could go was within walking distance. No place was too far to get to in Cranberry (well, unless you lived at the lake outside of town).
Other memories: The annual Trout Challenge – Canada Day parades – Christian day camps – Growing up between two churches – Annual Christmas party for the Ambulance crew – Christmas concerts – Watching the FCI Winterhawks play hockey at the local rink – Socials at the Legion or the curling rink – The town’s Christmas decorations – Main street dance – The best fries and gravy made lovingly by the Coffee Shop – 2003 Homecoming celebrating our 75th birthday, and much more!
Cranberry Portage takes care of its own. Whenever there is a person or a family in need, the community rallies around them. When my grandpa and my mom passed away we received an outpouring of love and support from our small community. That is definitely one perk you do not see in a major centre.
What else can I say about Cranberry Portage? There is no place quite like it. The beauty of the north is indescribable. I may long for the city and all it promises but I feel at home among the trees.
They say you can never go back. But I have found that you can. And whenever you do, you are welcomed with open arms each and every time.
Images Courtesy – My brother Cole and Sheri from SF Photography