Saturday, 9 November 2013


I enjoy writing just about as much as I do drawing and painting. Just as I draw and paint simply for  pleasure I write for pleasure, and, most often, as a means to wander down memory lane and revisit old friends and past experiences.

I grew up in Midland, Ontario, a sleepy town on the south shore of Georgian Bay. The town hasn't changed, or grown, much over the years. It's still dealing with the same old problem of just how to survive in an ever changing world with no resources to speak of except tourism, and the draw of Georgian Bay. Back when I was a boy, ever so many years ago, summers were long and boring. With few organized activities we had to use our imaginations to amuse ourselves.

The other day we went up to Awenda Provincial Park, which is situated on the shore of Georgian Bay and looks out on the island known as Giant's Tomb. Ojibwa legend has it that the deityKitchikewana, lies sleeping there, as the island bears the shape of a reclining figure. Looking out across the water at the island I was reminded of a special boyhood memory that Giant’s Tomb holds for me. It was near the Tomb, while crossing the Bay at what is known as the Gap, that Bill and me almost met our Maker..........

Who was Bill you might ask, well Bill and me, we  were buddies of a sort. We weren’t to remain buddies, for as the years passed we wandered down different paths, and in time our friendship became, like so many childhood friendships, simply a memory that I sometimes visit during  sleepless nights.

As I mentioned earlier, summers, when you’re young, can be long and become boring as you run out of things to do. We’d hang out and amuse ourselves doing crazy things. Once we built a rocket using a steel pipe and gunpowder pried from Bill’s Dad’s shotgun shells. It didn’t fly, but it made a heck of a bang when it exploded. We did crazy things like that.  Anyway, you get the idea.

One July afternoon Bill was inspired and suggested that we go on a canoe trip. I would have been 14 years old  at the time, and Bill would have been about a year older. Bill was a strange sort of guy, tall, lanky, with curly dark brown hair.  Part indian, Ojibwa, or so my parents said. He was a loner for the most part, except when he needed help to carry out some scheme or another, which was most of the time.

We were hanging out at the piers at the Canadian Steamship Lines winter berth when Bill suggested that we borrow his father’s canoe, and paddle up to Present Island and camp out. Now, I had no idea where Present Island was, just that if you stood on the pier and looked to the east up the Bay beyond Snake Island, that it was somewhere out there. I balked at the idea knowing that my mother would kill me if she found out. Besides, anything to do with Bill and me hanging out together was suspect to my mother. “Tell your mother that we’re going to camp out in my back yard”, Bill said, “She’ll go for that”. Not wanting to be seen as a “mother’s boy”, or as being “chicken”, I eventually succumbed. I went home, and after a lot of cajoling, my mother agreed that I could camp out at Bill’s place. Now, as Bill lived down on Fourth Street, and we lived on Sixth, and as my mother didn’t have a car, and as she was not on talking terms with Bill’s parents, I felt confident that I was safe in sneaking off with Bill and paddling up to Present Island.

At Bill’s place we stockpiled our supplies. We’d scrounged up a cooking pot, 2 cans of Libby’s Pork & Beans, a half a loaf of bread, and 2 war surplus army blankets. Bill brought along his knapsack that was always filled with bits and pieces of this and that. As Bill explained you can never know when you might need a piece of wire, a length of string, a pair of pliers, fish hooks, or an 8” hunting knife. I agreed that you’d never know. We also brought our diving fins and masks. Skin diving was our passion at the time after watching Jacques Cousteau’s movie “The Silent World”. Spear fishing with home made Hawaiian slings was also something that we were into despite warnings from the Conservation Officer that it was illegal. Bill was certain that the fishing would be good, so we threw our spear fishing gear into Bill’s Dad’s canoe with the rest of our stuff.

The plan was to wait until the coast was clear, then carry the canoe loaded with our gear from Bill’s place on Fourth Street, and dump it in the water near the train trestle beside the Townhouse grain elevator. Of course, Bill’s father knew nothing of our plans, and if he did he wouldn’t let us use the canoe, so we had to wait until it was dark. Around nine o’clock, even though it wasn’t yet dark, as Bill’s dad had driven off somewhere we grabbed the canoe, a 16 footer, canvas covered, in need of some work, heavy as hell canoe, together with a couple of old paddles, and hightailed it across the road, down into the cover of an overgrown path, and headed for the water.

We arrived at the water’s edge just as the light was fading. Bill’s a bit concerned that we don’t have any running lights and that we might get run down by a motor boat, or worse, a large grain freighter, so he ties a flashlight to the bow of the canoe. We set off. I’m in the bow seat and Bill’s in the stern. Our great adventure has begun. Ten minutes or so later, out in the middle of the harbour, the flashlight dims, flickers, and goes dead. We’re alone in the dark. It’s a cloudy night so we’re paddling blind except for shapes on the horizon. Fortunately the water is calm, like glass, so we make good time and before I know it Bill tells me that the large dark shape on my left is Snake Island. We paddle on and on, then paddle some more until there’s a very large dark shape in front of us, and we ground ourselves on a shore. “Present Island”, Bill announces. It’s well past midnight. We’re exhausted. We pull the canoe up on the shore, get out our blankets and curl up on the beach.

The sun rises early in July. We’re awake with the sun. It’s a beautiful sunrise. The sky on the horizon is a beautiful red to pink. It reminds me in many ways of a sunset.

We gather sticks and dead branches and start a fire. Bill opens the cans with his 8 inch hunting knife and we  cook up our Libby’s Pork & Beans. We failed to bring plates and utensils so we pass the pot back and forth scooping out beans with pieces of bread. It’s great, the beginning of a wonderful day.

Breakfast finished we put on our flippers and diving masks grab out fishing spears, and head out to try our luck. We have some near misses spearing bass and large carp before deciding to head back to shore. Hauling ourselves back up onto the shore we notice that there’s a bit of a wind causing a chop on the water, and that the sky is beginning to darken. Bill suggests that we head back. I’m a bit worried because if Bill, whose afraid of nothing is concerned, then, well, there’s reason to be afraid. We pile everything into the canoe and push off.

We’re not far from shore when the chop on the water grows into deep swells as the wind  out of the west picks up and the sky grows black. Bill’s confidence appears shaken as he screams over the howl of the wind to paddle like hell. It begins to really blow hard and the sky opens up and we’re pelted with huge drops of rain. The waves are hitting us almost broadside, and I beginning to think that there’s a good chance that we’re going to capsize and have to swim for it. I’m scared. Looking back at Bill I can see that he’s scared. A large wave almost rolls us over, and as we’re frantically paddling, rising with the wave, my paddle cracks and breaks. I’m left holding the handle. The blade disappears into the depths only to float to the surface beside Bill. It’s just out of his reach, but, for some unknown reason he stops paddling and reaches way out to try to catch it. With his weight outside the canoe and the large waves striking us broadside it’s enough to roll us over. The next thing I know I’m under the water fighting my way to the surface. I surface. It’s moments before I can orient myself. Looking around I see the canoe about twenty feet away drifting upside down in the direction of Port McNicoll.  There’s no sign of Bill. I try to swim to the canoe, but find that it’s a struggle to stay afloat what with the waves and my water-soaked clothes. I somehow kick off my shoes and ducking under the water I manage to undo my belt and push down my pants . I get one leg free, but the other is caught around my ankle. I’m growing weaker and am almost out of breath. Out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of Bill. He’s floating under the water, arms outstretched, eyes open and mouth wide open as if he’s shouting.I’m panicking. I try to shout back and then, nothing, just blackness........

“Ernie get up, I won’t call again.” My mother is at the foot of the stairs calling. “It’s 7:00 o’clock” she says. I’ve slept in. It’s been a strange night. I’m haunted by a dream that, although I struggle to try to remember, for the life of me I can’t remember a thing. I get out of bed, and as I’m pulling on my jeans and sweatshirt I look out my bedroom window. My bedroom window, in our house at the top of the hill at Sixth and Ottawa, and looks east out over the Bay up towards Snake Island. The eastern sky is overcast and the horizon is red to pink in colour, and reminds me a bit of what a sunset looks like. As I bound down the stairs I think how great it is to be 14 years old and remember that Bill, my buddy, and me, are going to paddle his father’s canoe up to Present Island today.

Every story has a bit of truth and in this case, Bill and me, we really did go on a canoe trip, the very trip that I wrote about. But, the canoe, although almost capsizing didn’t, and by sheer luck we made it to the shore where, exhausted we rested under the canoe to escape the pouring rain before heading home. We made it home safely, and no one was the wiser to our canoe adventure. Lesson learned, however, we never ventured across the Gap again, and to this day we choose quieter waters for our adventures.

Giant's Tomb viewed from Awenda Provincial Park
  Graphite Sketch

Giant's Tomb as viewed from Awenda Provincial Park
Watercolour Sketch

No comments:

Post a Comment