Story and photos by Sarah Vance
It is in the woods north of Slabtown that Canadian singer and songwriter Noah Zacharin has been producing his latest music.
A vintage typewriter sits atop his desk, a guitar is within reach, and his studio window overlooks the York River’s icy refracting shoreline.
Slabtown is a hamlet with a single-lane iron bridge and only a handful of cozy houses nestled into the valley below Boulter, in Carlow Mayo Township. Historically Slabtown basked in the fruits of thriving logging and mining industries and it derives its name from the lumber slabs that were milled in that region after loggers drove raw timber down river.
Slabtown once employed hundreds of men with a busy railway depot nearby in Bessemer and commerce so abundant that a steamboat named the Mayflower transferred goods through the waters between Barry's Bay and Lavoys Landing. Archie McArthur’s lumber mill at Norway Bay contributed to the York River being awash with log drivers, many of whom were of Algonquin-Nippissing heritage and who balanced the logs for just pennies a day.
Today cell service literally stops before the turn at McArthur Mills and Highway 28, so by the time you travel through Boulter and arrive at Slabtown you will find that you have been offline for at least a good 30 minutes.
Let that sink in for a moment.
There are no incoming or outgoing calls - not one text or tweet - and Google Maps just goes offline in this zip code.
Zacharin finds Carlow Mayo’s tranquility absorbing as he gradually closes one chapter in his life as a dentist in Toronto’s busy inner city to pursue his parallel career as a singer, songwriter and poet northwest of Bancroft.
Since moving to the area he has built a canoe and paddled through the York River’s interior basin through Norway Bay to Conroy’s Marsh, a 2500-hectare conservation area that received its provincial designation in 2003.
The Marsh is named after the late Robert Conroy, a lumber baron and president of the Madawaska River Improvement Company that in the early 1900’s owned the timber rights to the area and built the slides and chutes used to transport raw timber down river. The marsh’s eerie landscapes of wild rice and red cranberries were once the muse for a painting by A.J. Casson, a member of the Canadian group of artists known as the Group of Seven, who frequented the busy area in the 1930s.
With six albums to his name, transitioning to Slabtown has been a productive and creative move for Zacharin.
Waiting on Your Love is Zacharin’s second single where American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation figures heavily into both the vignette video and the expression of the lyrics.
This adds another dimension and layer to the music, as if to expose the gaps between what is spoken and what is left unsaid, between the utterance and the word, and the margins that exist along the peripheries of communication.
The single Sick at the Heart -- composed at the time of Ray Charles’ death -- also features American Sign Language interpretation by David McCloskey, whose gestures factor into the sizzling guitar and soulful tuba solos that offset Zacharin’s voice.
McCloskey is the lone presence in the videos, making Zacharin’s words accessible for the hearing impaired and presenting a serene and vulnerable dance, using only his hands and facial gestures to communicate the message. Images like “locusts in the wheatfield” and “jagged refracted lights” dangle at the edge of McCloskey’s fingers as he tells the rhythm of the story through body language.
These and other videos, written and produced by Zacharin, can be viewed on his Youtube page and all of his albums are available for purchase through itunes and in CD format. On his website, http://www.noahsong.com, Noah presents his biography and samples of his songwriting and poetry portfolio.
Noah’s newly released single, Waiting on Your Love features the haunting brass melodies of Ralph Carney, an eclectic musician who has collaborated with performance arts icons such as Tom Waits and the B-52’s.
It was a real estate brochure, describing a property “perfect for an author” that lured Zacharin away from cottage hunting in the Muskokas to eventually finding a home in Carlow Mayo Township.
And despite having a portfolio of published poems, song credits and professional reviews with his name on the byline, Zacharin admits to feeling humbled by the property’s job description and now obligated to fulfill its weight.
Zacharin was born in Montreal, and he has lived in Toronto and Israel. He is not unlike a growing number of urban professionals, who are seeking properties in the more isolated regions in North Hastings as they step away from the city lights to pursue new aspirations in the creative domain.
Noah draws inspiration from Carlow Mayo’s breathtaking vistas and “million mile skies”; from the forests of rugged pines; and the tributaries that run through them. And he notes the authenticity of storefronts like Stedmans and Winnie’s Treasure Shop in Bancroft, which helped him make his decision to move to the area. He found these places to emulate a genuine presence in the culture and history, which is delightful for tourists but which has not been fabricated for them.
In the winter Carlow Mayo becomes a popular destination for snowmobile groups who come in search of over 350km of groomed trails throughout Glen Alda, McArthur Mills, Coe Hill and Gilmour.
These trails are maintained by the Old Hastings Snow Riders and it is possible to fuel up at Cunningham’s Country Store, which is the last access point following L’Amable. Loop E travels through Bessemer, where it is possible to see glimpses of an old mining ghost town, just steps off the track, between Child’s Mines and Egans Creek.
Bessemer’s mining ghost town is accessed on what was a subsidiary line of the Bessemer and Barry’s Bay Railway (B&BB). This railway line was chartered in the late 1800’s to branch off the COR at L'Amable, south of Bancroft, and it runs east to Child's Mine. There you can see a decrepit foundation of a once popular hotel, which has become a dynamic landmark for sledders and ghost town travellers, who search out its mystery by foot and all-terrain vehicles. Mayo Lake is also a popular destination in the winter for ice fishing and is accessed off trail 933, near Foster Lake.
Zacharin sometimes plays acoustic solos in Bancroft, at the Granite and the Bancroft Pub, and in Maynooth, at the Arlington. His live shows are rooted in folk, jazz, blues and funk genres that the Globe and Mail have acclaimed as “wresting an improbable sense of order from a chaos of genres.”
When he is not headlining in Bancroft or Toronto, Noah is a well known fixture within Canada’s live music and festival circuit.
A rapids about 1km upriver, past the iron bridge in Slabtown, and another rapids downriver from Zacharin’s cabin, keep his turf cut off from fishing boats and summer tourists that frequent Carlow Mayo, although he sometimes sees the odd cluster of bathers floating downriver on inflatable tubes. And in the winter the river never fully covers in ice, making it unsafe to travel by snowmobiles. This helps keep Zacharin’s neck of the woods in isolation and this solitude has become a catalyst for his craft, as a writer of poetry.
In the poem Prayer Zacharin invites readers “to welcome the sadness in like some darker honey dripping from the slippery elm leaf” and “to stay healthy, awake, aware, awash in inspiration and joy… to still sing water.” Even if and as, one may find oneself “swallowing sand”.
In the poem the river, he writes,
“when I live upriver from Ondaatje
boats will sail
on whisky nights
his reply will roll
on the mist.”
Zacharin’s poetry and songwriting present rich, stirring imagery that draw attention to the reflective and ephemeral ways of knowing and being in the world.
In the quiet of Carlow Mayo, he is cultivating his craft as a songwriter, and while his artistic life takes him across the globe, his style and sound have come to find derivative roots in North Hastings.