Our People, Our Environment, Crisis & Change
Ice Water Perils
Curated by Sara Caverly
Storyteller: Larry Wiwchar
May 4, 2023
At the 1978 Coroner’s inquest, Scott and Pat Sorensen referenced their personal journals. They explained that the helicopter pilot Gary Smith, age 28, had manoeuvred between the trees of their home at the mouth of the Kipawa River on Lake Temiskaming.
Gary was flying south below the storm clouds along the headwaters of the Ottawa River when he was shocked to find four overturned voyageur canoes with five lifeless bodies tied to their frames. They had not drowned because their life jackets had kept their heads above the frigid waters on that June 11th afternoon—they had been incapacitated by the rapid onset of hypothermia. Tragically, 13 souls had perished and the remaining 18 had huddled at the foot of a rugged cliff on the isolated western shore.
The next day, both Scott and Gary joined a search and rescue mission, as well as a recovery of 12 St. John's School boys and their leader. The coroner’s inquiry concluded “We feel that for boys from 12 to 18 years of age, this entire expedition constituted an exaggerated and pointless challenge.” They had made only a few miles of their 525-mile trip to the arctic tidewater of James Bay.
I helped Scott and Pat Sorensen have erected a memorial stone monument on the shore of Lake Temiskaming known locally as the headwaters of the Ottawa River.
Living as I have in Northern Ontario, I have been gripped by tales of tragedy and survival on local waters over the years.
In November 1976, my friend Paul McDonald was returning home from a hunt in his square stern canoe. A huge bull elk – his family’s winter meat supply – and all his camping gear, had so weighed down the boat that it sank in the French River.
Noticing his wet seat, it was too late to do anything but swim ashore. He found that the cabin had burned to the ground. Realizing he would need to re-enter the freezing waters, Paul swam to the next island. This time, there was a cabin stocked with wool blankets. There he slept until 2 a.m., waking parched from the shock of the event.
After a few days of rest and thawing his frozen clothes, it was time to get moving. He could see that his submersed canoe had drifted closer by the tip of the bow above the water. The 4 Hp motor continued to weigh down the stern.
Eventually, he heard an approaching motorboat and pulled a red cloth from the water to wave it down. The fish were biting well and as the fishermen returned, they noticed the red banner on the island. Then they discovered the floating canoe – and Paul flat out in the bottom. They beckoned him to enter their boat, but he was too weak from not having eaten for days. Paul was bonked — depleted of sugar stores in his muscles and liver. With the fishermen’s help, Paul was able to return to his five children. He still credits the thought of seeing them again with saving his life.
In May 1977, Paul revisited the site on the French River of his near death six months earlier. He had brought a friend and a home-made 100-foot dragline. He fixed a piece of chain every few feet with the largest triple hooks he could get. His belongings were 85 feet below water. They retrieved everything, including the spoiled elk meat and Paul’s .300 Savage rifle.
Today, the huge elk head and rack is mounted and hanging on Paul’s home in Latchford, Ontario, where he told me this story after I recounted one of my own.
In the fall of 1971, a half hour north of Temagami, I walked down an old road to the unfamiliar sound of ice cracking underfoot. I retreated to the roadside – a much slower and arduous walk than the smooth middle path where my fellow hunter continued down. That is, until he was immersed in the frigid waters of a beaver pond with only his rifle showing.
I can still hear his desperate gasps for breath. Thankfully, a great slab of ice broke off when I laid down and extended my rifle to his reach. We had a way to shore.
We ran clumsily down the roadside, fighting the temptation to rest, warm blood rushing to our skin. It was not until we built a fire at a nearby log home that I was regaled with his stories of more close calls with cold water.
Hypothermia, not drowning, is today understood as the cause of many tragedies. The morning of November 25, 1957, Erich Jakob headed by motorboat with two friends to equip a camp for winter trapping. The overloaded boat with a heavy stove and motor at the back had little free board. When it rode up on the new ice that had unexpectedly formed, the boat was swamped. Erich was able to help one friend ashore before returning to help the other. Unfortunately, neither of the two made it out.
I would like to conclude these harrowing tales with the words that Scott Sorensen referenced from his personal journal at the 1978 Coroner’s inquest.
“The words I found there [Bible passage in Psalms], though written thousands of years ago, left a deeper impression on me concerning the accident on Lake Temiskaming than all the opinions, theories, and speculations brought forth by those investigating the incidents in the months that followed. That scriptural message is a tribute to the character, courage, and faith of the young men and instructors from St. John's School.”
They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord
and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth,
and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,
they fo down again to the depths:
their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro,
and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits' end.
Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm,
so that the waves thereof are still.
Then are they glad because they be quiet;
so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.
Oh that men would praise the Lord
For his goodness, and for his wonderful
works to the children of men!
About Larry K. Wiwchar
I was born and raised of goodly parents in a small Northern community. Our family car provided outdoor adventures such as hunting, fishing, and foraging. My summer job, at fifteen, as a lifeguard and swim instructor provided funding for University in Waterloo where assisting in labs led to a 30-year career teaching high school. We raised our children on rural acreage north of Temagami. The outdoors became our year-round playground and food source. Having retired in 2000, I am currently active in the community, swimming regularly, and serve as a Trustee for District School Board Ontario North East.