road-tripping the end of the world

ottawa valley composites

Mill Interior, Balaclava, Ontario

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to road trip to the Ottawa Valley with my mother, the main purpose of which to find some of the small towns and villages founded by our ancestors in the early 1800s. The Ottawa Valley is quite beautiful, and well suited to a road trip in a Jeep; we found a number of reasonably spooky logging trails and dead-end roads, abandoned buildings, all the hallmarks of a region once prospering on resource acquisition, and now largely sustained on a tourist industry.

Finding the graves of our ancestors was not only unexpected, but quite emotional. We have scattered records of the family tree, many incomplete (and now more complete), but finding names written in stone that once only existed on paper was a completely new experience, it seemed to “make real” the mark our family has made on this landscape and its history.

The trip also gave me the opportunity to explore some of the ghost towns in the region, specifically here, Balaclava, a mill about an hour’s south from Pembroke. The mill has been long abandoned, and some research suggested at one point it was to be preserved as a historic monument, but money and interest fettered away and it sits mostly forgotten. The small town surrounding it, comprised of a logging road and maybe a half dozen modern buildings, was very quiet, marked only by a small recreation area on the river aimed at fishermen.ย  The only denizen we met was a very happy dog that wandered the town, and I will confess I didn’t get a photo of him because I was too worried about a lone dog out in the middle of the road.

I did, however, get a chance to put into practice some of the composite shooting techniques I’ve developed, and while these were somewhat hastily shot and far from perfect, the result does function very well. The two larger images are composed of 40-50 images each, and clock in at around “400 megapixels” if you were to measure them as such. As jpegs at full resolution are over 20 megs, I’ve just included some details here (after the cut).

The images themselves capture the mill itself, an out building across the street (with some modern wiring for no visible reason), and the interior of the mill. I don’t know who put the picnic table inside – or how they even got it in there – but it’s definitely “more” contemporary than the mill itself, which dates back to the late 1800s.

The Mill at Balaclava

Mill out-building, with contemporary wiring

Details and more rambling follow below.

These details are not separate shots – they are cut directly from the full-resolution composites shown above, and are presented at “actual pixels” size. Printed at 60″ height (or width in the case of the out building), these details would appear slightly smaller than they are here. It might be a bit of “where’s Waldo” to find these details in the above images, and for that I apologize.

Mill Interior, detail 1


Mill Interior, detail 2

Mill Interior, detail 3

The Mill at Balaclava, detail 1

The Mill at Balaclava, detail 2

The Mill at Balaclava, detail 3

Out building detail 1

Out building, detail 2

I’m aiming to apply these techniques to my current body of work, which would benefit greatly from the ability to “read” narrative information differently at distance and close-up. Most of the shortfalls I run into in the field will be blessedly resolved when I’m working in a more controlled environment.

There was to be more rambling here but apparently I have been struck by a rare case of brevity. At a future date I may post the photos of the grave sites, as well as the site of the old Jackson homestead.

5 responses

  1. Hamish

    For something long-forgotten, it looks to be in astonishingly good repair. In the city, it would be trashed, full of pigeons, and covered in graffiti 0_o

    But those are awesome pictures and a neat history. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

    August 16, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    • mattsparling

      We saw a whole three people while we were there; one was the postman, another was a resident, and the third seemed to be a tourist, because she was taking photos of the mill. I don’t know that there was riffraff to graffiti the place.

      The picnic table is still odd to me tho, it was definitely “newer” than the mill, but must have been placed in there a few decades ago when one could still move something so large through the entrance. I didn’t trust the floor – which was over a raging river – to walk inside and investigate further, but I think the can on the table is a rust-proofing paint from the 50s.

      August 17, 2011 at 1:00 am

  2. Gilbert Dionne

    My wife and I are summer resident of a trailer park on Constant Lake and for the last few weeks have been keeping a interested eye at the Balaclava dam, as the MNR is rebuilding the dam and next summer will rebuild the bridge.
    I finally took my camera last weekend and took some pictures of the old mill and surrounding buildings and dam. I took some intersting shots of the outside of the main mill building, got down and around on each side. I took a few shots of the inside from the doorway, but did not venture inside… (unfortunately) In the next couple of weeks, I will try to gather the courage to go inside and take some shots…. before the building is either demolished or crumbles on its own. With the bridge rebuilding next summer I am afraid that the mill will be demolished or damaged.
    I also wanted to mention that the pictures you took are great and the compositions you made of them are really interesting!

    August 8, 2012 at 10:38 am

    • mattsparling

      When I was there last, there seemed to still be an active logging road, so I imagine that pushes for the bridge reconstruction. It’s such a conflict – a beautiful ruin, that should be preserved, but sometimes the act of its preservation removes some of its “character”, not to mention its context in the development of this region (or lack thereof).

      Thank you for the update and kind words – if you ever post your photos somewhere online, please let me know where so I can see them ๐Ÿ™‚

      August 8, 2012 at 11:38 am

  3. Caelan

    Hi Matt,
    Roughly a couple of years ago on Transition Ottawa’s site, I mention Balaclava and, if recalled, the idea of ‘occupying’ it, a la Occupy movement, and turning it into an ecovillage. Seems to me that industry (logging) and governgangs (people in government) are fundamentally bad for environment and community. (See Wikipedia’s entry on the Iron Law of Oligarchy for an example)
    I imagine the Mill could be renovated or at least its parts salvaged and re-configured into a similar structure thereon. If or when they get in this summer and redo the bridge, dam and/or road, yes, the old mill and maybe other old structures there may be doomed to a civilization that not only doesn’t seem to respect its heritage but doesn’t seem to learn from history, either.

    March 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm

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