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I call myself a prospector too (I found two gems!)

Our editor-in-chief’s introduction to mineral exploration (and Blazing Saddles)

As editor-in-chief of Harrowsmith, my role is one of constant evolution. In between curating content and designing editorial themes, I also field readers’ queries and concerns on a daily basis. Some questions are answered with a quick Google search (“Where can I find heirloom Russian Blue potatoes?”). Others are more involved and become a scavenger hunt through the archives (“Do you know who played that guitar riff closer on the Harrowsmith Country Life TV series in the ’80s?”). Often, social media takes care of long-lost, coveted Harrowsmith recipes for French onion soup or apple pie or “How can I organically kill off horsetail?”

In the last year, the email that made me smile the most came from Frank Durnin.

My brother Bob and I have written three books about geophysical exploration in northern Canada and the NWT. They deal humorously (with some sadness) with life lived in tents, winter and summer, and the characters he met along the way. It is a story of a way of life and mineral exploration that no longer exists. Wondering if I sent you excerpts, would you be interested in publishing them, or perhaps serializing a book?

Frank

I never anticipated that I would soon become modern-day pen pals with Frank and Bob. They were instantly entertaining and candid in their request. I had to work them into our pages! Don’t we all harbour a tiny fantasy of whisky and beans around a campfire after a day of mineral exploration? I told Frank and Bob just that. I said that the two of them would be a riot to sit around a fire with, enjoying a whisky and a tin of beans. Or that’s how I imagined mineral exploration to go…

I was soon corrected on my shiny version of it all, as their book is a tell-all about the unforgiving realities, loneliness and obstacles of life in the industry. I emailed Frank and suggested that while we couldn’t serialize the book due to our quarterly issue format, surely we could publish an excerpt. I was certain their book I Call Myself a Prospector would captivate the Harrowsmith audience, as it revolved around simplicity, sustainability and a brand of bush humour in the vein of Dan Needles’ rural observations. If Bob’s email “voice” was anything like his book’s narrative, it would be golden. Our online thread continued, and in just a few hours I learned they had a trilogy!

Dear Mr. Torti, [Ed Note: With the name “Jules,” I am often mistaken for being a brawny Italian man.]

You cannot possibly imagine how much that four-line email has re-energized two old farts. We have spent more than seven years on this project and it seemed we had come to a dead end. Although local sales have exceeded 300 books, sales on Amazon can only be classed as desultory. What to do? Contact Harrowsmith, the caped crusaders.

Let’s be clear on a point or two: Although “NWT” is a chapter, the areas covered in Books 1 and 2 extend from northern Quebec, through most of Ontario, parts of Manitoba and a slice of northern Saskatchewan. There is a step-out to Tennessee and North Carolina, and in Book 3 the coverage extends from Alberta to New Brunswick and down to Texas. These books are a slice of life with few stones left unturned.

We will drop-ship the three books to you; thus, you will see how well they work as serialization. Bob is the main protagonist of the tales, but his experiences act only as a backdrop. The real characters are surely characters, and the stuff that happened actually DID happen. Lay the book down, pick it up next month and there is no need to scratch one’s head while trying to pick up the threads.

Crass Commercialism rears its head. We ask only two things: one being your standard rate for contributor; secondly (and perhaps firstly, really), we would each like a subscription to Harrowsmith as long as the serialization (and we) lasts. We are both in our 70s. We may time out before the subscriptions do.

Thanks again for your interest,
Happy Frank and Smilin’ Bob

I loved Happy Frank and Smilin’ Bob from the get-go, and even more so after their humble request for a subscription that might time out before they did. Though they preferred a cash infusion (who doesn’t?), the brothers agreed to an excerpt and possible world domination and topping the New York Times bestseller list thanks to our promotion.

When I did receive the book, there was a hand-written letter (cursive even) from Bob, posted right out of Rainy River, Ontario. Bob apologized for the “Mr. Torti” faux pas and also suggested I revisit Blazing Saddles.

C’mon, now. Whisky and beans around a campfire? Somewhere, back in your own misspent youth, you must have wasted two hours watching Blazing Saddles, a movie memorable only for its campfire farting scene. However, you gave me a memory job and I have another story to write.

Inspired, Bob sent me a teaser for their next book, Tea Fire Tales. He also apologized for not realizing that the original Harrowsmith had changed.

Through the late ’80s and into the ’90s, I was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week and had no time to read—so, I missed the transition period.

Also: I’ve always lived in small towns, and small towns have small magazine racks.

Bob went on to explain the co-author roles he and his brother assumed: I am analog and Frank is digital. I wrote the Prospector books long hand and dictated them to Frank, who typed them. (Frank is acknowledged on the back cover as co-author and “chief typist,” with thanks for providing adjectives when needed, while “Janet” gets a shout-out in the acknowledgements section for stepping in “when Little Brother got typist’s cramp.”)

Frank and Bob edited, refined and re-everything-ed until the books were published through Createspace, a division of Amazon. Frank handles the emails while Bob “reads them, and that’s it.”

They are quite the duo. While Frank is 100 km (62 miles) south of Regina in “a very small town,” Bob is in the slightly larger town of Rainy River, tucked into the southeast corner of Lake of the Woods, at the west terminal of the longest main street in the world, “1,200 miles from Queen’s Park and the evil _________,” which suits Bob just fine.

While Bob thinks I made a big mistake by sharing my home address with him (Let the stalking begin! Release the hounds!), I can’t help but think this is the very best bit of my job. The boys have a website, coreshackpub.com, and are hitting impressive daily averages. Local Rainy River Valley sales of their books have exceeded 400 copies, which, for anyone who has tried the self-publishing route, deserves an ovation!

Bob signed off his swoopy font with his phone number and assured me that if I were to call, “operators are standing by.”

I trust that our dedicated readers will find the same charm I did in Bob and Frank’s tales. If you’ve ever daydreamed about living off-grid, in a bush camp, riding the rails or skimming the surface of northern lakes in a float plane, this is it.

Bob Durnin’s memoir about being a geophysical operator in the Thompson Nickel Belt of Moak Lake, Manitoba, and beyond is a fun romp and high-resolution eavesdrop on mineral exploration in the ’60s on the 55th parallel.

You’ll learn a lot in just a few pages—bung bologna? canned whole chicken? there is such a thing?)—and the tidbits are just the kind of thing that fireside conversations slide toward, like how their modified Second World War radios were Lancaster bomber surplus. The dentistry recap is a horror story within itself (after eight fillings in one go and an infected wisdom tooth, every filling falls out in just four years). Bob explains “home” and how it quickly became eiderdown on a cot and a 5-inch-nail “clothes closet.” He grabs the reader’s hand, and in a flash you’re in the bush camp, seated with a motley crew of guys, slurping soup bowls of hot coffee coloured with canned milk.

The cast of characters and co-workers is vibrant, and there’s even a bannock recipe from Willie Chartier, their Churchill, Manitoba, cook, widower and full-time Northern historian: “Bake at 450F for 20 minutes or until hollow sound when tapped (the bannock, not your head).”

And with bannock, there was always tea. Let’s start here. Thank you, Bob and Frank, for sharing your memoir and secrets for making bush tea.

//ART: THIS IS THE BOOK EXCERPT//

Table Scraps: Thompson Tea

Excerpted from I Call Myself a Prospector (Book 1) by Bob Durnin and Frank Durnin

Utensils: One tea pail. Canico always supplies us with a tea-pail, a three-quart aluminum pot with a bail handle. The pail is carried outside the lunch pack sack, dangling from one of the flap straps. (The pail is black and sooty and our lunch pack is kept relatively clean—we are a fussy bunch as you will soon find out).

Sometimes we will lose the tea-pail on the picket line. A branch may snag it and the lunch carrier guy will be pretty unpopular at tea-time. The pail may be half a mile behind us or it may never be recovered so we have to steal a pot from Karl and make a haywire handle. Diamond drillers always have tons of haywire and Keith has his own purloined stash.

Cups: We carry Melmac cups. If we forget them, an empty soup can with the stray noodles rinsed out will suffice.

Spoons: We carry one. It gets pretty grungy but can be polished with snow on a pant cuff. If a spoon disappears, a twig becomes a swizzle stick replacement.

Now, you melt snow in the tea-pail until you have ¾ pail of water. Snow is always clean in the bush. Before you bring the water to a boil, scoop out the rabbit turds. Bring the water to a boil and add four tea bags. Roll the tea three times—this is very important and it is easy to do. Each time the tea boils you swing the support stick away from the flames and after three rolls the tea is ready to drink. Stray pine needles add flavour, and if we missed a turd we don’t know and we don’t care.

(Picket line tea is absolutely delicious and impossible to duplicate in your kitchen.)

Now, for a little after-dinner ambience some green balsam boughs are added to the dying fire. Balsam is an aromatic tree to begin with, and a whiff of burning balsam is like pot-pourri. As the congealed sap expands needles start firing from the branches, and like miniature missiles they are in all directions trailing little contrails of hissing smoke until their fuel is exhausted. They land on our pants, parkas and hair, and bounce off our noses. The little buggers are hot, and we dodge, yelp and laugh like crazy. I prefer what is called a hydro parka—heavy cotton twill impervious to the incoming attack. Some guys wear nylon or some other synthetic material, and the balsam missiles leave little melted dots on the fabric. If you see a guy wearing a parka that looks like it has survived a bird-shot salvo, you know he has spent some time around a balsam fir fire—that guy is a player!

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