The first Canadian tv show shot entirely in colour, The Forest Rangers made its debut in 1963 and ran for two and one-half seasons, ending in 1965. Created by Maxine Samuels and independently produced in cooperation with the CBC, its family-friendly tales of kids' adventures in northern Ontario bush country proved wildly popular. The show spent a decade in frequent reruns, and became one of Canada's most successful exports. I suspect that a good many children growing up in Egypt and Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s got their impressions of Canadian Culture from the Rangers.
The action took place in and around Indian River, a small wilderness town inhabited by Canuck stereotypes.
Chub Stanley (Ralph Endersby), an orphan from the big city, arrives in the pilot episode and, despite getting lost in the woods, quickly establishes himself as leading boy among the Junior Rangers, a group of outdoorsy kids who assist boy scout-like Chief Ranger George Keeley (Graydon Gould). The Rangers boast an impressive roster, but only a few generally appear in each episode. In addition to Chub, they include Pete Keeley (Rex Hagon. He left before the end of the series and later turned up on "hip" Canadian kids' show Drop-In), Mike (Peter Tully), Kathy (Susan Conway), Simon Tully (Timmy), Gaby LaRoche (Syme Jago), Johnny O'Reilly (Michael Tully), Ted Keeley (George Allan), and Zeke (Ronald Cohoon). Mathew Ferguson appeared in the second season as Danny Bailey and appeared throughout the third, replacing Hagon.
Except for the Keeleys, we almost never saw the Rangers' actual families. Adult guidance came from the Chief Ranger and various others, including regulars RCMP Sergeant Brian Scott (Gordon Pinsent), a mountie who wandered around in full dress uniform, and Joe Two Rivers (Michael Zenon), an Ojibway trail guide who could speak to bears.
A significant number of Indian River residents appeared in recurring roles. These include John Angus McLeod (Joe Austin), a crusty, 100-year-old prospector who had participated in the Gold Rush, "Uncle" Raoul LaRoche (Rolland Bédard), a pure laine French-Canadian, Shing Wauk (Eric Clavering), a Native medicine man, Charlie Appleby (Gerard Parkes), a hardy World War I Ace and bush pilot, Aggy Apple (Barbara Hamilton), the Maritime-born owner of the local restaurant, Fred Cooper (Doug Master), owner of the general store, and Brody (Tom Harvey) the Ranger's somewhat dippy deputy.
Filming principally took place in Kleinburg, near Toronto. The crew constructed a rugged town street. They also located and refurbished a Hudson's Bay Company fur trader fort originally built for an earlier tv production; it became the Forest Ranger's wilderness headquarters. Additional location and establishing shots were taken elsewhere in Ontario; some filming actually took place in northern Ontario.
The typical plot involves guest characters whose failure to observe safety precautions land them trouble, thus requiring the intervention of Keeley and the Junior Rangers.
Usually, the forces of nature present the challenge, but human adversaries appear often enough, and Sgt. Scott would take a larger role. Usually the criminals are poachers, but the gang also face bank robbers, confidence tricksters, and escaped convicts. Cold War era Russian spies even turn up in one early episode. I'm not certain what the Kremlin might have thought worth spying on in the forests of Ontario, but their agents prove untrained in basic wilderness survival, and certainly no match for some rosy-cheeked kids and an Indian woodsman.
A 1964 episode, "Batty McGuire" introduces the topic of child abuse, with a one-shot guest kid who lives in the wilderness with a violent father. I still recall this one. Mr. McGuire may have been restrained at the end, but from a kid's perspective, he was a good deal more frightening than bears or Russian spies.
The serious wilderness survival episodes mean Joe Two Rivers will play a key role. The actor was actually Ukrainian and the character very much a stereotype, but Joe and Shin Wauk ranked among the few positive portrayals of Native people on period television. Other Native characters also appeared throughout the run. These facts may explain why, stereotypes notwithstanding, TVNC, which had a commitment to aboriginal Canadian programming, was willing to rerun the show in the early twenty-first century.
Besides, "Speaker-to-Animals" Joe wasn't the only one with ties to the mystic. "Let There be Rain" tells of Bobo the Clown (Tom Kneebone), a mysterious wondering fool who can summon percipitation. Three other oddball episodes feature, respectively, a wendigo, a leprechaun, and a ghost.
More often, the supernatural turns out to be a hoax or misinterpretation. At least two episodes feature Scooby-Dooesque faked spooks. The Rangers themselves pour flour on a beaver in one episode to encourage McLeod to remain in town. Old prospectors, apparently, believed albino beavers to be a sign of good luck.
The Forest Rangers and their Smokey Bear logo occasionally turn up in the oddest of places and times and, for a generation, their highly-hummable theme song evokes central Canadian forests, sanitized adventures, and wholesome comradery.
Useless trivia: Garrick Hagon (Red Three/Biggs from Star Wars) appeared in the episode, "The River."
Bill Brioux. "A gathering in the forest." Ottawa Sun. June 19, 2001. http://www.canoe.ca/NewsStand/OttawaSun/Today/2004/06/19/505164.html
The Forest Rangers Episode Guide. http://www.angelfire.com/retro/cta/Can/ForestRangers.htm
"The Forest Rangers." NostalgiaCentral.com http://www.nostalgiacentral.com/tv/kids/forestrangers.htm
Clayton Self. The Forest Rangers Fan Site. http://forestrangers.bravehost.com/