The CBC show that soon named the area was made here and last weekend, folks from Adventures in Rainbow Country came back to visit!
by Jim Moodie
WHITEFISH FALLS-Oblivious to the adult chatter and pop culture nostalgia buzzing about them in the Red Dog Restaurant, two little girls are blithely playing together on the floor. One is a Cree girl from Northern Quebec, with shiny black bangs and liquid eyes; the other is a fair-skinned imp from central Ontario with a mop of blonde curls. Until this evening they've never met, but already, within minutes, they're getting along like fast friends.
It's an appropriate subplot to this occasion, which, at its core, is also about bicultural bonding: specifically, the connection that was forged in the semi-fictionalized wilds of Northern Ontario between a Native boy with a bowl cut named Pete Gawa, and his blonde-haired buddy with a weird accent, Billy Williams. For one brief but memorable season in 1970, the adventures of these two iconic characters were shared weekly with TV viewers across the land, and 36 years later, former cast members as well as the series' principal creators and some diehard fans have converged on Whitefish Falls-where the production was based-to reminisce, exchange bits of trivia, relive some of their favourite episodes, locate key landmarks that featured in the filming, and just generally soak up the beauty and mystique of, you guessed it, Rainbow Country.
The clear highlight for acolytes of the classic Adventures in Rainbow Country series is the presence of Buckley Petawabano, the real Pete Gawa, who has travelled all the way from the remote community of Mistissini Lake in Northern Quebec to join the festivities.
"I wasn't intending to come at first," he admits, "but my wife pushed me into it, and now I'm glad she did, because it's great to be back here."
After shooting the first-and, as it would happen, only-season of the show, Mr. Petawabano says he "did two movies, and then got married." That was in 1973. His wife, Bella, says she first met her future husband in 1971, a year after the series had aired. "I had seen him on TV," she acknowledges. "But it was actually the blonde I was looking at!" she laughs. "I think all the Indian girls were looking at Billy, and all the white girls had a thing for Pete."
The Petawabanos haven't come to Whitefish Falls on their own; accompanying them are an entourage of adult children (they have three daughters) and a raft of grandkids. Indeed, the sloe-eyed beauty cavorting on the floor with her new flaxen-topped sidekick is one of these very grandchildren. Her name's Gwyneth, and based on her expressive face and fearlessness in front of the camera lens, we're predicting a future career for her in the performing arts, maybe even a part in Return to Rainbow Country.
Mr. Petawabano looks a bit more silver-haired and professorial than he did as a loose-limbed teen, romping and paddling through the woods with Billy, but he's still lean and handsome, and several attendees remark that, when they hear him speak, he sounds just as he did when playing the role of Pete.
"I actually didn't recognize him when I bumped into him at the barbecue earlier," admits Dave Hykle, a fan of the show who flew (more on this later) from Winnipeg to meet the Cree co-star, among others involved in the production. "Then I heard his voice, and I knew it was him."
Billy-aka Stephen Cottier, who was raised in the British colony of Rhodesia and now lives in BC-is conspicuously absent, so it's unclear whether his voice has retained the same oddly-accented timbre. We also don't know for sure whether his hair still falls in a shaggy blonde heap, but reunion organizer Denis Belton suggests the trademark mop might have thinned and/or darkened a bit. "I'm told he doesn't look quite like that now," says the organizer.
The really weird thing is that Mr. Belton does. The middle-aged Torontonian still has a full head of blonde locks, which cascade over his forehead in Beatle-esque (Billy-esque?) bangs. It's part of the reason he identified with the show so much when he first saw it in the 1970s.
"I'm the same age as (the actor), and we have the same moppy blonde hair, so I felt like I could almost be a double with Billy Williams," he says. "We no longer look alike, though. Harry (Makin, the director of photography on the program) joked that I look more like Billy now than Stephen does."
As for the little blonde girl who is having a blast with Pete Gawa's granddaughter, it would be nice to report that she's the granddaughter of Billy Williams, just for symmetry's sake, but alas, this is not the case. Still, the truth is almost as good. Little Annie Sadowski is the granddaughter of another key member of the production: John Sadowski.
A native of Massey, Mr. Sadowski served as both a bush pilot in the production (stunt doubling for Wally Koster, who played the actual pilot character of Dennis McGubgub) and as an actor, inhabiting the cop role of Officer Nixon.
"I got involved because of the flying, because Wally couldn't do that," reminisces the affable renaissance man (apart from flying planes and playing cops, Mr. Sadowski was also a jazz musician of some note in his youth) while sipping on a pre-dinner lager. "They wanted someone who could do the flying for him, as well as find locations and pick up actors in Sudbury who had flown in from Toronto or LA."
One of the most memorable episodes, for Mr. Sadowski, was No. 4, 'Skydiver,' which featured a number of parachute-equipped extras plunging out of the bush plane. "That was a lot of fun, from my point of view, because I'd never had guys jumping out of my plane before," he says.
Mr. Sadowski chuckles when speaking about the rationale for the unusual name of McGubgub that was assigned to the pilot character for whom he doubled. "It was a co-production between the CBC and the Australian network ABC, so I guess they felt they had to have an Australian name in there. McGubgub sounds pretty weird, but it's probably like 'Smith' in Australia."
As for his own role as a police officer, the pilot says it just kind of materialized one day. "They decided to write in a part for an OPP officer, and asked if I wanted to try out for it, and I thought, 'Why not?' It was kind of interesting, because one day I'd be driving a police cruiser, and the next day I'd be flying an airplane."
After his work on the show, Mr. Sadowski acted as manager of Okeechobee Lodge at the mouth of Baie Fine for several years, and has held a variety of other occupations in his life (including work in the mining industry), but he remains proud of the TV program and quite fond of his relatively brief time working on it. "I met some great people and I think we put out a good product," he says. "The name itself, Rainbow Country, now applies to the general area; it's become an icon."
He further points out that, at the time the program was being aired, "it had the highest rating of any Canadian show, other than Hockey Night in Canada." According to the fan website established by Clayton Self (also one of the reunion organizers, present on this evening), the program drew a remarkable four million viewers per week (a CBC record at the time) during its original run.
So why was it cancelled? Mr. Sadowski cites political factors. Apparently CBC tussled with Manitou Productions, and when the latter would not relinquish control of the content, the national broadcaster used contractual terms to prevent the smaller company from proceeding with another season. "The idea was to run for five years," says Mr. Sadowski, "and we would have if it hadn't been for the politics. It's a shame because, by the end of that first year of shooting (the filming occurred in 1969, with the results being aired between September and March of 1970/'71), everyone was really getting into their characters."
Fans were apparently getting into the characters, too, not to mention the weird and magical backwoods world they inhabited. Indeed, the more obsessive among such devotees now rank the creation of the show right up there with major world-altering events.
Super fan Mr. Belton, in making a brief speech during the reunion dinner, amusingly cites three key developments that occurred in the year 1969. "A lot happened that year," he notes gravely. "We had Woodstock, and the Apollo landing on the moon. Also that year, a TV series was being filmed in this very area, and it changed this area for good."
Despite the abrupt demise of the short-lived series, its impact has lingered, both through people's memories of the show, and reruns aired at various times on a number of stations. CBC itself replayed the program intermittently throughout the 1970s, and more recently it has been shown on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and satellite channel Deja View. Ironically enough, however, the latter station is yanking the program this very day, just as fans, cast and crew are congregating in Whitefish Falls to commemorate the legendary series. Uber fan Stephen Ethier, of Sudbury, takes a moment during the festivities to apprise fellow Countryites (kind of like Trekkies, but, well, different) of the travesty.
"This morning I lugged myself out of bed, just as I always do, to make coffee and sit down to watch Rainbow Country," he relates. "Well, I find out Deja View has pulled it off, as of today, and replaced it with Super Dave! Needless to say, I'm not very happy." Mr. Ethier encourages all in attendance to raise a fuss. "Let's get busy on Monday and get hold of these clowns who took it off the air!" he rallies, and the room erupts in defiant shouts.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Ethier has led an impromptu trek to the summit of the Willisville hill, where a fire tower-which featured prominently in episode No. 2, 'The Tower'-once reared. The Expositor, catching wind of this pilgrimage, decides to catch up with the pilgrims. A few minutes of frantic uphill scrambling later, the group of devotees are located at the highest point of the hill, gazing in awe at the surrounding peaks and lakes. Among Mr. Ethier's group are his wife Lynne (who seems a bit embarrassed about the fact that her significant other still has copies of the program on Beta tape, but admits to watching the odd show with him, as long as a bag of chips is provided), Cory Roque (whose late father Dan Jr., from Killarney, was involved as production help on the show), and the aforementioned Mr. Hykle, from Winnipeg.
Yes, Winnipeg. So what the heck is this westerner doing here, at the top of the Willisville hill? "I watched the show when I was 12-years-old," the neatly groomed 40-something calmly explains. "And I think it perhaps had an influence on my career." Mr. Hykle, you see, is a pilot, an Air Canada captain, no less. But when he started out in this field, "my first job was flying a float plane, basically the same thing John Sadowski does in the series." Those images of the bush plane swooping through Rainbow Country-which Mr. Hykle hasn't seen with his own eyes, from an appropriately aerial view, until this very moment-were inspiration enough to make him seek a career as a flyboy.
For Mr. Roque, coming to the reunion has been inspiring in another way, as it has provided a better sense of his Native father (who passed away in 1980) and the impact he had on those involved with the TV program. "My dad was a trapper in this area, and everyone on the production crew knew him. Buckley (aka Pete) mentioned him as a mentor to me today. It's really cool to hear all that stuff."
Numerous other local folks were involved, to varying degrees, with the TV series, and many of those are on hand today to reflect on the experience and reminisce with people they haven't seen in years.
Gary Trimmer of Little Current was a stuntman and diver for the show (as was Dan Brunne of Whitefish Falls), while Dave Marshall (formerly of Little Current) worked as a gopher and assistant editor when he was just out of university. Both are here to meet up with the creative team again and say hello to Mr. Petawabano, who hasn't been back to the area in three decades. "Buckley, here's your stunt double!" Mr. Marshall announces, while pushing a somewhat shy Mr. Trimmer forward. It takes a moment for the actor to recognize the local frogman who spared him numerous baths in the icy channel back in '69, but then it suddenly sinks, so to speak, in, and the two get properly reacquainted.
Mr. Trimmer says he was recruited to help with the production "because I was one of the few trained divers around here at the time." He recalls a variety of interesting assignments, including having to create the look of a spirit-possessed lake for the episode titled 'Lac Du Diable' (in which "Big Joe, who lives deep in the woods, is terrified of a lake that he feels is haunted," according to the synopsis posted at the fan website). "We had to get the lake to bubble up, so I used an air compressor and a couple of pipes. We did it down in the bay near the lodge (near Dreamer's Rock); it was lots of fun," he recalls. For Mr. Marshall, fresh out of university, working on the shoot represented a great summer job. "At first, I was just driving, picking up film every day to take it to Sudbury (from whence it travelled to Toronto for processing and post-production), and also picking up actors from the airport, but then I became an assistant editor." The production room, he says, was located in a building near the old wooden church in Whitefish Falls. "That's where we'd screen all the rushes."
A variety of guest actors, both famous and obscure, were recruited for parts. None other than Margot Kidder, of future Lois Lane fame (amongst other Hollywood roles), appeared in a couple of episodes, as did Gordon Pinsent. Al Waxman, the King of Kensington, was a director of one show. Local actors included the late Bill Hart, Gore Bay Summer Theatre founder and father of Expositor staffer Susan Hart, who played the role of a ranger in the episode titled 'Lake on Blue Mountain,' in which Billy and Pete have to figure out why so many fish are dying at this pristine water body (turns out poison has been dumped in the lake).
Wilf Cywink, originally from Birch Island and now based in Elliot Lake, had a couple of minor parts, first as a runner (in 'Long, Tough Race') and then, in a subsequent episode, as a member of the Thunderbirds rock band. "I was playing the organ," he says, laughingly admitting that he had no idea how to play a musical instrument of any description at the time. His late brother Sam 'played' drums in the Thunderbirds, he adds.
Greg Sadowski, son of John (the pilot/cop/jazz musician), was just a couple of years old when such episodes were being shot, but he has watched them all a number of times since, and remains tickled by the episode involving the Thunderbirds' performance. "That scene where Wilf is playing the piano, it's like you're on acid or something, the way the camera is zooming in and out," he laughs, adding, "there's an eagle on the drum." Asked to describe what type of music is being played, Mr. Sadowski says, "Gosh, I don't know-the Grateful Dead meets Mozart?"
Mr. Cywink may not have been much of a keyboardist, but he was an accomplished athlete, excelling with the track squad at Espanola high school at the time, and he still looks lithe and boyish some 37 years later. He says he recently watched the entire series on APTN, and "it was interesting to see all the places and how they've changed, all those waterways and roads that you see in the filming."
Other local people were involved in helping out behind the scenes and creating the sets, particularly members of the Whitefish River First Nation, which was the site where the Rainbow Country lodge was built. Mary-Grace McGregor, attending the reunion with husband Jim (a former chief of the reserve), notes that "Eli McGregor (since deceased) and his sons cut all the logs for that building." Both Eli and Dan McGregor also had bit parts in certain episodes, she adds. The program had a considerable impact on the First Nation, both in terms of the jobs it generated and the attention it brought to the area. "All the kids were starstruck," Ms. McGregor recalls.
Cathy McGregor of Birch Island notes that her grandfather, Charles Delamorandiere (known to most as 'Rugbear') made an appearance in the series, in his usual role of delivering mail. "He used to do the mail run between Little Current and Killarney, and he was in one of the scenes, which showed him coming up the channel in his mail boat."
A number of local individuals who had an impact on the series but have since passed away are honoured during a memorial video put together by the reunion organizers. Among those cited for their contributions are Eli McGregor, Phyllis Forbes, Cliff Fielding and Barney Turner.
Series creator and driving force Bill Davidson, a gregarious man with bushy white eyebrows, an unruly white mane, and an infectious grin, says Mr. Turner "was very supportive all along the way, and opened a lot of doors for us. I'm sorry we don't have Barney here." He also says, with a wink, that Lois Maxwell (who played the role of Billy and Hannah's mother in the series, and was also famous as Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond films of the time) "would only get her clothes at Turners."
While Mr. Davidson, who maintains a seasonal home in the area, is generally-and justifiably-given most credit for the Rainbow Country phenomenon, he is quite eager to spread the accolades around, particularly with his D.O.P. Harry Makin, and principal scriptwriter Martin Lager. The three are seated alongside one another for the dinner, and while waiting for their food to arrive, an endless barrage of good-natured banter flows forth. Since the roast beef hasn't yet arrived, they roast one another. They also indulge the Expositor and agree to amble down to the bridge over the Whitefish River for a photo op, with Mr. Makin proclaiming, "I'm the photography director, I'll arrange this!"
Apart from the post-dinner montage of images that honours departed members of the cast, crew, and broader coterie that helped make Rainbow Country such a memorable and magical experience, the mood of the day is almost invariably boisterous and, well, fun. In part, that's a tribute to the spirit of the series itself, which, after all, was about adventures. But those present also seem to recognize that, as pivotal and emblematic as the series was-paving the way for such Can-con classics as The Beachcombers-it was also, at times, ridiculous.
You only have to read the synopses of the episodes provided at the fan website and a smile inevitably comes to your lips. Episode No. 2, the famous fire tower segment, is summed up thus: "Hannah climbs the old Willisville fire tower and panics when it's time to come down." Thirty minutes of vertigo? Episode No. 5, 'The Kid From Spanish Harlem,' apparently involves a problematic teen who "gets into a lot of trouble after he steals a boat and ends up stuck in mine shaft." It's the transition from the boat to the mine shaft that we're instantly curious about here. In episode No. 8, 'The Town That Died,' some guy named Roger "takes Billy to a lost ghost town where a lot of strange things happen."
Our favourite synopsis, however, is the one provided by Mr. Belton, in discussing the reruns that were shown at the Whitefish Falls community hall earlier this afternoon. "We couldn't show them all," laments the mop-topped Billy-look-alike. "But we had a couple that were specifically requested, so we showed those. One of the favourites was 'Girl on a Tightrope,' where Hannah gets kidnapped by a deranged circus clown." Um, that's right, in episode No. 10, Hannah, Billy's sis, gets abducted by a...deranged clown.
Sometimes, just the title of a series is enough to make you laugh out loud. Episode No. 14, of course, is 'The Muskies Have Lost Their Teeth.' Your imagination can run wild with that one. Maybe the muskies haven't had very good dental coverage. Maybe the muskies have played too much hockey. Maybe their teeth are now embedded in a toilet seat in Manitowaning....
All joking aside, though, the series has clearly made a strong impression on its many viewers and certainly upon the residents of the Manitoulin-LaCloche area, who have seen themselves reflected in the show and discovered that their area has even acquired a colourful new name-that stuck.
It has even, believe it or not, made an impression as far north, and west, as Alaska. Dale Powell, of Fairbanks, Alaska, may not have won the recent subscription contest held by the Expositor for most far-flung visitor to these parts, but he certainly wins the contest for Most-Remote Rainbow Country Reunion Attendee. "My wife thinks I'm nuts," he admits, while surveying the boisterous scene in the Red Dog Restaurant. Is his wife here? "Um...no," he says, with a pointed pause.
Don't worry, they haven't split up. Nor does Mr. Powell regret his journey to Whitefish Falls. Prior to this, his only experience of Ontario has been a brief detour from the US while travelling between Virginia and Oregon 25 years earlier, "when I got out of the navy and crossed over the border on my way across the states."
But of course, he has experienced it visually for years through broadcasts of the Rainbow Country series, which keeps popping up, including on his TV set in Alaska. "I didn't grow up watching it, but I've seen it on satellite TV in Alaska, and that's how I became familiar with Rainbow Country," he says.
And, as cheesy as he admits the series' storylines occasionally may seem, it has spoken to him. "I'm really into the outdoors, and I've had a lot of adventures, not unlike what you see on that program," he says. "I really like Canadian media, because we don't have any programs that represent Alaska. You have stuff set in the bush with outdoor themes, and it's not shot on a Hollywood back lot or a pond standing in for lake. That's what makes it so unique and so authentically Canadian."
Some of the most striking images in the series, like the Willisville fire tower, have since disappeared, but many locations and even props persist in one form or another. Mr. Self notes that, earlier in the day, a group was able to locate the site where a mock tower-top was built for the shooting of 'The Tower.' Some of the scenes were shot at the actual fire tower, but a facsimile of its cupola was constructed on a ridge of granite near Whitefish Falls. "Harry Makin, the director of photography, came with us, and he was able to confirm the location," Mr. Self says. "You could still see a paint job on the rocks and glass from the windows, and one of the guywires that held it."
The hotrod that featured in episode No. 12, 'The Roar of the Hornet,' is still around, too, according to Mr. Ethier. "The guy who owned it, from Sudbury, still has it," he says. "I called him a couple of weeks ago, because I thought, how cool would it be to bring that over for the reunion? But he told me it's in pieces and it would take another lifetime to rebuild it." The lodge that was built specifically for the show, near Dreamer's Rock, still stands, but apparently it is in need of work as well.
Dreamer's Rock itself featured prominently the final episode of the series-the installment is even titled 'Dreamer's Rock'-in which local Natives rally to protect their sacred site from a mining claim. The episode was based on a real event in the First Nation's history. The Birch Island band remains protective of the quartzite outcrop to this day, but, in what will be a fitting reunion finale, the leadership has graciously agreed to take reunion attendees on a trek to the summit of this famous site for vision quests.
Before that happens, though, we still have to hear from Billy. Pete's here, but we want to know what Billy's doing. "Where's Billy?" is a question on the lips of more than a few attendees. According to Mr. Petawabano, who has been in touch with his former co-star through email, "Stephen's been in banking for 25 years, making lots of money."
When the two met on the Rainbow Country set, the pairing couldn't have been more unlikely. Here was a pampered Caucasian kid with a British accent who hailed from Zimbabwe, and a tough Cree kid from northern Quebec who, at the age of 15, had already been fending for himself for several years. "When (Stephen) showed up, they said he didn't know how to tie his shoes until he was 12-years-old, because he'd always had a servant," Mr. Petawabano recalls. Mr. Petawabano, meanwhile, had been "basically on my own since I was seven-years-old, because I was in residential school and my parents were in the bush."
Still, the two found common territory on the set of the show. "Stephen was like me, because he was on his own," Mr. Petawabano says. "And I think I inspired him to be independent, to be himself. I kind of showed him how to get around and survive."
In what is arguably the most touching moment of the reunion, organizer Mr. Belton relates that he has a couple of messages to read from cast members who couldn't attend. One is from Susan Conway, who played Billy's sis Hannah. She is "delighted people have such fond memories" of the program, Mr. Belton shares. In her message, she further notes that the experience of being introduced to First Nations culture through the series has had a lasting impact, informing how she conducts herself to this day. "I want to communicate my deep love and respect for First Nations people," the former actor conveys.
Finally, at long last, attendees get to hear from, you guessed it, Billy, aka Stephen Cottier, albeit in the form of an email, read by Mr. Belton. Through Mr. Belton, Billy passes on his regards to everyone, but particularly Officer Nixon/John Sadowski, and, above all, to his former co-adventurer, Pete/Buckley Petawabano. "Give my best to Buckley," Mr. Cottier says. It's practically the first thing he says. And he goes on to say more about his former partner in adventure.
Thirty-seven years have passed since the two were tossed together for the filming of the program, which lasted, as we've mentioned, just one year, and each has since gone his own way. Buckley, to return to his home of northern Quebec, and become embroiled in the battle to save his people's land from the designs of Hydro Quebec, among other things. Stephen, to seek a career in the financial industry and find a home on the west coast. But even across this cultural and geographical divide, the bond lingers. "He made me laugh and I enjoyed every day we spent on the set-I can't think of a kinder man that I have ever met," communicates Billy/Stephen, regarding Pete/Buckley. "Way back in the late 1960s, he became my brother."
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I was 11 years old in 1969 and we were vacationing in Whitefish Falls that summer (as we had for the past several years) while the series was being filmed. We remember that the boat traffic on the river had to be stopped quite often to allow the filming of several scenes. Also, we have vivid memories of Stephen a.k.a. Billy roaring around town on his mini bike during down time. We were very excited about the series and couldn't wait to see it on T.V. I remember it seemed like forever until we were able to watch the first episode and we all gathered together as a family to watch. It was all quite sureal, Hollywood coming to Whitefish Falls.
Steve Ellam | SELLAM@COGECO.CA | June 30, 2008