Digital Trips North and the MS Norgoma

norgoma winter

Glenn loved the idea of going north, both literally and figuratively.  His figurative journeys were, of course, much more extended treks into remote sonic landscapes than were his physical journeys along highway 17 in northern Ontario.  That is to say, that no amount of physical miles could exceed the speedometer of Glenn’s intellect.

For those interested in the subject of Glenn Gould and the north, much information can be found.  In some way or another, really anything and everything about Glenn is to be found online.  Yet, amidst the barrage of content, I have found the need to excuse myself from much of it and, while one still can get in the car and drive north, the figurative journey continues to be a difficult one.

During the epilogue from Glenn’s iconic 1967 radio documentary, The Idea of North, Wally McLean responds to the William James comment of there being “no moral equivalent of war,” by saying that the moral equivalent of war is “going north.”  Figuratively speaking, going north involves retreating from centres to margins.  For Glenn, this was the direction needed to preserve goodness and compassion and, with regard to his craft, a means of generating ideas and inspiration for projects that would communicate to listeners in new and often unconventional ways, highly personal and ecstatic listening experiences.

How then, in our present age, in which much if not most of our time is spent online, do we go north figuratively speaking?  What does an online journey north look like?  The obvious place to start would be to spend less time viewing content that has gone viral.  Most live webcams, for example, indicate the number of people currently viewing the page.  Visiting these sites when merely a handful of other folks are viewing, allows one a kind of online journey north.  This is similar to Glenn’s having liked small towns such as Wawa and Terrace Bay.

Of the latter, he remarked in 1965, that he had a special fondness for the town, having found it “an ideal place in which to catch up on some writing and score studying and most of all, thinking.  Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether those of you, who have the opportunity to live in what can only seem to an urban southerner as blessed isolation, do in fact appreciate the wonderful advantages that that isolation offers.”  (See Wondrous Strange, by Kevin Bazzana.)

Another online avenue for figurative journeys north, involves exploration of stock footage available on numerous sites.  The ones without audio are particularly “north-worthy” for, in watching them, one is afforded a kind of viewing of a period in time at arm’s length.  Glenn’s love for motoring, of course, was for precisely the same reason.  As Bazzana writes, Glenn “was one of those North Americans who are in love with their cars.  For someone who liked to be in the world but not of the world the automobile was a perfect metaphor, a travelling apartment from which he could see the world at arm’s length.”

Of course, the best figurative journeys north, come out of one’s own imagination and the ability to see, in an everyday object, an entire world of one’s own values.  In previous posts about Glenn and Corduroy and also The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I attempted to put into words, the values that I perceive to have governed not only Glenn’s work, but mine as well.  Analogies such as these allow for connection of the imagination between musical and non-musical worlds.  This is where mental “play” begins and northerly journeys set sail.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the MS Norgoma carried both freight and passengers from Owen Sound to Sault Ste. Marie (known as “the Soo”).  Specifically, she served isolated communities along the north shore of Lake Huron.

norgoma route

When my third grade class made a field trip tour of the Norgoma back in the mid-1980s, I hadn’t the slightest idea who was Glenn Gould.  I had never heard the name and certainly knew nothing of the musical works he had performed and created.  Similarly, on each visit home, I have went for rides along the waterfront with my Mom.  We’ve passed the Norgoma and I’ve thought nothing of it’s figurative connection to Glenn.

It wasn’t until this week, that I made a lovely little connection between Glenn and the Norgoma.  In a news item concerning the Soo, a story aired about an increase in youth participation serving the ship’s board of directors.  “The Norgoma has young people interested in it?” I thought to myself.  This prompted me to find out more about a ship that has called the Soo home since 1975.

My memories of that third grade trip inside the beast of the Norgoma, were dark, gloomy and austere and I remember having been afraid of the big, black entrance.  It didn’t help that the weather was cold and grey on the day our class took the tour.  Lots of thick metal, tiny port holes, green carpeting and a cavernous dungeon of lower levels were all that I could remember.

If, at some point over the last forty years, you’ve been to the waterfront in the Soo, then you, too have probably seen the Norgoma.  Through the harsh winters, the balmy summers and everything in between, this piece of northern Ontario shipping history has permanently parked herself for better or worse.  That endearing eyesore of the waters, whose brooding silhouette lacks the sleekness of her fellow friends of the harbour, offers more than meets the eye.

Like the Norgoma, Glenn’s destinations of choice included isolated communities along the north shore, in particular Manitoulin Island, in Georgian Bay and the Soo.  While Glenn was motoring north along highway 17, in one of his many ventures out of Toronto, away from the centre of society and into the isolated, rugged margins of the Cambrian shield – that single lane roadway traversing some of the most dense forests of our country – the reliable Norgoma was traveling along a similar northerly path of her own.  Where one travelled by roadway, the other travelled by waterway and, with the bold, white lettering of “NORGOMA” proudly affixed to her bow, the ship quietly reminds us to go north.


It’s fun to imagine both the Norgoma and Glenn, throughout the 1960s and early 70s, simultaneously traveling north towards the Soo.  Admiring Glenn as I do and visiting home as often as I do, seeing the ship still parked next to the Holiday Inn where Glenn would spend the night (now the Delta Hotel) marks a friendly reminder of the value he placed on getting away from big city anonymity and of the need for artists willing to venture away from conformity.

That is to say, that what pulls me to things like the Norgoma and, ultimately to Glenn Gould and his ideals, is the desire to be a good person and to move people in meaningful (and often unconventional) ways.  And, for those of us who, despite not having Glenn’s incredibly brilliant mind, can still claim many similarities with the late pianist (for me it’s the solitary, childlike, left-handed only child aspect, the lover of car rides, grey weather, radios and playing Bach at the piano) we identify with him on many levels.  Viewing things like the Norgoma as departure points for Gouldian thought, not to mention as incentives for exploring the secluded pockets in the overcoat of mother nature, we gain yet another valuable tool for our own figurative journeys north.

map of Soo waterfront.png

(Photos via Soo Today (David Helwig), Wikipedia and Google.)

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