By Katharine Fletcher
Okay, what on earth is a “Dig ’n Pig”? You might well ask, and you’d be right if you thought that something with such a whimsical name was dreamt up with kids in mind.
The “dig” part is an archaeological dig. The “pig” part comes in (Oh dear: Babe the pig was right to be nervous!) at a barbecue, after the fun of the dig.
But what, you might ask next, are the archaeologists uncovering at the dig?
Remains left from the era of the logging industry at one of the several staging grounds for timber along the Bonnechere River.
By 1843 Basin Depot was a bustling spot -- 50 years prior to the creation of Algonquin Park. At that time, there were several shanties, storehouses, a blacksmith shop, a weigh house and several other buildings, all clustered on the eastern bank of the Bonnechere River.
There were also a couple of inns, or “stopping places” as they were called back then, where the men used to stay overnight en route to or from the more remote logging camps.
By 1883 Basin Depot population was about 50 people and it had a hospital, school, and post office. Mail was delivered by stagecoach... not quite the “pony express” but nonetheless, perhaps an exciting thought to a youngster these days, when getting the mail today is simply a trip to the box or front door.
Back then, mail was not a daily event Monday through Friday. It was brought in twice a week from Killaloe, and we can all imagine how thrilling it must have been to receive mail from “outside,” when working the camps in the long, cold winter.
These days, the Bonnechere is a treasured canoeing river and the park that shares its name is located where it flows into Round Lake.
And although Basin Depot actually is just inside the eastern boundary of Bonnechere Park’s well-known and next-door neighbour, Algonquin Park, it’s Bonnechere that operates the archaeological dig. That’s because that park’s offices and human resources are closer to the old depot.
However, the fact that Bonnechere Park, named for the river, is the park that manages this dig is particularly fitting in a historical context. This is because that river formed the major access point into the hinterland. A major roadway led up the Bonnechere into what is now Algonquin Park. It was just a rough track, really, but good enough for horses and wagons, plus men on foot, to use so as to reach the more remote logging camps and timber tracts.
This is the history of Basin Depot, a staging ground for logs, little village and stopping place that thrived for a while and was an important part of our Ottawa Valley history until folks drifted away, abandoning the depot by the year 1920.
Today, its significance is recalled through the Dig ’n Pig.
So, what kind of artifacts are being discovered at the dig? Crockery, medicine bottles, pieces of horse harness, eye glasses, and nails... daily items that people used.
More than simply the artifacts, the archaeological dig at Basin Depot offers kids the chance to watch archaeologists at work, literally “in the field.” Children learn how painstaking the professionals really have to be as they measure off the site in a set, well-documented grid, then squat sometimes for hours on end, gently removing vegetation, then earth from the plots.
On the site the kids can check out an on-site artifact processing lab where everything that is found is carefully documented. Its size, shape, probable use, the materials that it is made from: these and other details are recorded.
All of this is described by a guide from the Ontario Archaeological Association -- Ottawa Branch. As you enter the depot, you will be greeted by the guide, who will take you on a group tour of the abandoned settlement. There are two graves sheltering in the nearby woods. Crosses made of wood are tilting now, well-evoking the sense of abandonment at the depot. There is also an old log building left standing that served variously as a dwelling, a hospital, and a school.
After the dig, everyone returns to Bonnechere Park, to the newly renovated Davenport Centre, to eat a hearty meal of barbecued pig and homemade (and shanty style) baked beans. This is served at 6:00.
The Dig ’n Pig is a novel way to teach kids about the rich cultural history of the Ottawa Valley.
But this isn’t all that Bonnechere Park offers.
Situated on Round Lake, 60 km west of Pembroke, the Park not only has 128 campsites, but also four cabins (now booked until September), one of which is handicapped accessible. These are supplied with bunk beds, a queen-size bed (in a separate bedroom), sofas, microwave, a small bar-fridge, barbecues and a propane fireplace. The lake itself is very safe for children: the waters are extremely shallow well beyond the buoy line safety markers.
Not only does the park offer good swimming, safe flatwater canoeing along the Bonnechere. Park staff also put on a Natural History Education program for kids. “In Cold Blood” reveals the world of reptiles; whereas “Pioneer Pursuits” explains pioneer life, including how to play old-time games that settler children would have played.
And the park has several special weekends. Related to the Archaeological dig, there’s a special workshop led by members of the Ontario Archaeological Society--Ottawa Branch on August 12 from 10:00 to 4:00. This is a hands-on session whereby kids learn how to make clay pinch pots, and even learn how to fire them. For lunch, children make “hot stone soup”... Call the park for more information.
Bonnechere is also home to the annual August Wolf Howl. Naturalist, author and television personality Michael Runtz leads these truly incredible events, whereby he first of all gives a talk and slide show on wolves prior to the spine-tingling wolf howl. Last year, over 400 people in 200 cars followed Mr. Runtz to three locations, listened in total silence to him howl, and then marveled when, at the last spot, a chorus of wolves responded.
During the same weekend in August, another exciting event takes place at the nearby Golden Lake Reserve, now known as Anishinabe. This is the annual, traditional Pow Wow where First Nations Peoples gather for songs and ceremonial (meaning full-dress). This extremely colourful event allows children and adults alike to participate in traditional dances, and you can also taste typical food such as bannock. The costumes are spectacular; the music, the beat of the drum, and the chorus of voices make you want to get up and dance.
Bonnechere really has it all: whether it’s the September Dig ’n Pig, or August Pow Wow or Wolf Howl, or simply an unforgettable outdoor camping experience you are seeking, think of heading to nearby Bonnechere Park.
Bonnechere Park is open May 12 to October 9. There are 128 campsites, 24 of which have hydro. Reserved sites are available until September 4. Address: P.O. Box 220, Pembroke, K8A 6X4. For road directions, call (613) 757-2103. For reservations call toll-free: 1-888-668-7275.
Rates: Basic campsites are $19.25; River sites are $21.75; Sites with electricity are $23.25. Canoes can be rented down the road at the convenience store, though the park does rent kayaks.
The Archaeological Workshop is Saturday, August 12.
Wolf Howl AND Pow Wow weekend at Golden Lake (Anishinabe): August 18-20
Dig ’n Pig Archaeological Day is Saturday, September 16. Note: although the archaeological dig part of Dig ’n Pig is held in Alongquin, get your tickets at Bonnechere as you’ll be returning there for the barbecue. (The price of admission is the cost of a day-pass into Bonnechere Park, which is $8.50 per car.
Bonnechere Valley Ecotour: A Driving Tour of the Bonnechere River Watershed.
Spirits of the Little Bonnechere: A History of Exploration, Logging and Settlement, 1800 to 1920.
Discover the Spirits of the Little Bonnechere: A Cultural Heritage Activity Book for Youth.
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are freelance writers who live near Quyon, Québec. Their books include Québec Off the Beaten Path, Historical Walks: The Gatineau Park Story, and Capital Walks: Walking Tours of Ottawa.