Nightmare on Missinaibi Lake, a Survival Story From the Archives
A sudden twist of nature kills my partner and pits me in a struggle to survive against terrible odds
This story, Nightmare on Missinaibi, first appeared in the August 1972 issue.
DARKNESS HAD FALLEN on the rugged Missinaibi Lake area of northern Ontario by the time we had unloaded the van and set up camp at the lake’s edge. The day was Thursday, September 30, 1971.
My companion, Gerald L. Julius of Massillon, Ohio, and I were vacationing from our jobs at the Ashland Oil & Refinery Co. of Canton, Ohio. Reports of pictographs—American Indian picture writing—had attracted us to Missinaibi’s shores. Our goal was to get 16 mm. color footage of the pictographs for inclusion in an Ontario nature and wildlife film that I was making.
Although our families sometimes accompanied us on filming trips, school requirements had kept Jerry’s wife and two daughters and my wife and three young girls at home.
Traveling in primitive areas was a familiar experience to me. For the past 22 of my 42 years, vacations and any other spare time I could wangle away from the daily grind have been invested in the outdoors.
In the early years after I’d spent a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps, my interest in hunting big game had led me into remote areas of Canada and the West. One of my most memorable trips was a lengthy jaguar hunt into the jungles of Brazil with the late Al Georg, outdoor writer and handgun enthusiast. However, during my recent backcountry trips my guns had gathered dust at home while I toted a camera and began a new avocation, the filming of wildlife and nature scenes.
Our Missinaibi Lake venture was Jerry’s first taste of real wilderness, but, at age 28, he was an old hand at camping. As a youth he had climbed to Eagle rank in the Boy Scouts, and he was still active in Scouting. Jerry’s love of nature surpassed that of any person I’ve ever known. He was a photographer in his own right and had paddled the canoe and assisted me with the big camera chores during the recent filming of an Ohio nature movie on the Ohio River and some of its feeders.
Earlier that day, we had stopped briefly at the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests office at Chapleau, 55 miles south of Missinaibi Lake, to pick up maps. There we learned that although moose season was about to open in that part of the province, the Missinaibi Lake area would be closed to hunting. With the area to ourselves, we might have an opportunity to film some wildlife as well as the pictographs.
The bright circular glow of our gas lantern highlighted tracks of bear, moose, and wolves in the sand near our tent as we ate a midnight meal before turning in. Jerry and I felt at peace in Missinaibi’s wild and beautiful setting, and we talked eagerly of discoveries that the next day might bring. We had no premonitions of danger. Yet before the end of the next day, Jerry would be dead and I would be engaged in a life-or-death struggle to return to civilization.
We awoke at daybreak, Friday October 1, to the sound of rain spattering on canvas. A glance outside the tent revealed a dark overcast of clouds that nearly dragged on the surrounding hills. Since we had eaten late the previous night, we decided to skip breakfast in favor of a brief scouting trip on the lake. We unloaded my 17-foot aluminum canoe from the van, carried it to the lake, and clamped a six-horsepower outboard to its square stern. The day was too dark for camera work, so aside from life cushions and paddles, we took with us only maps and binoculars.
Our morning canoe run was to be only a quick look at promising pictograph locations on the main arm of Missinaibi. In our eagerness to get out on the lake, we forgot our basic survival gear, which was still packed in the van. Forgotten also was my usual practice of leaving under the windshield wiper of the van a note explaining who we were, where we had gone, and when we expected to return.
As we left the cove near our campsite and entered the waters of the main lake, I searched for a landmark to aid our return. At the narrow entrance to the cove stood a gnarled, wind-battered fir tree, an ideal marker.
We had no idea where we would find the pictographs, so we cruised southwestward along the south shoreline and scanned the rocks closely. After traveling about 10 miles we came to the mouth of the Whitefish River. At that point, Jerry said, “When you film from the canoe this week, you won’t be able to run the outboard too. Let me handle the motor now so I can see how it works.”
We went ashore, and Jerry took over the motor while I sat in the bow. Then we continued on down the lake. About 14 miles southwest of our camp we saw a high rocky cliff jutting into the half-mile-wide lake. The cliff seemed like a logical place to look for the pictographs. According to our map, we were looking at Fairy Point, at the junction of Baltic Bay and the lake’s main arm.
When we first sighted Fairy Point the weather was still heavily overcast and rainy. A light breeze stirred up a little chop of waves about three to five inches high. It was nothing to be concerned about, so we crossed the lake to have a close look at Fairy Point.
We had approached to within about 50 feet of the rocks when Jerry spotted a pictograph and pointed it out to me. At first I could see only varied and colorful moss, lichens, and ore outcroppings. Then I saw the drawing, a stick figure of a man. As we drifted slowly along the face of the rock wall, drawing after drawing became visible.
For several minutes we rocked gently along, completely absorbed in watching for pictographs. Our backs were toward the southwest, the direction of the prevailing wind, when disaster struck.
My first indication of danger came when a savage gust of wind hit us broad side. Its force snapped some dead limbs from trees that grew on top of the cliff. The wind was followed instantly by a wave three to four feet high. And while we were wallowing in the trough of that wave, a bigger one slammed into us broadside.
The canoe capsized.
We had spilled at a remote, exposed spot on the lake. The wind and waves that hit us had more than 10 miles of open water over which to build force, and Missinaibi’s canyonlike surroundings had funneled the storm directly upon Fairy Point. Even if we had seen the storm coming, we couldn’t have run for shore at that point. The rock wall offered no handholds, and the waves might easily have beaten us unconscious on the rocks.
The seconds that followed our spill into Missinaibi’s bitterly cold waters were confused. Jerry and I surfaced at about the same moment. My paddle had been swept away, but Jerry’s was just coming by me, so I grabbed it. Our life cushions—Jerry had been sitting on his and mine had been lying on the floor of the canoe behind me—hadn’t been tethered to the canoe, and they had been whisked out of reach by the wind before we could struggle back to the surface.
WE WEREN’T wearing life jackets. I had always considered them a must when canoeing white-water streams, but life cushions, which fulfill the legal requirement on most waters, had always seemed to be protection enough for lake travel.
The overturned canoe acted as if it were full of air. It twisted and turned in the thrashing waves and was very difficult to hold on to. When the trapped air finally escaped from the hull, the canoe settled stern-first and floated in a vertical position with only six or eight inches of the bow showing above the water. The weight of the outboard was too much for the built-in stern flotation chamber of the canoe.
We got very little support from the small exposed part of the canoe’s bow. Waves by then were running four to six feet high and breaking over our heads constantly. I wound up straddling the keel of the canoe with my hands hooked over the bow. Jerry was on my left at the side of the canoe, also clinging to the bow. Soon the six-gallon gas can, which was still tethered to the motor by the gas line, floated up out of the canoe, and Jerry tucked it under one arm for added support. I still held the paddle under one arm.
When we capsized, we both were heavily dressed for cold weather. I was wearing hip boots, long underwear, overall pants, heavy shirt, lined jacket, hat, gloves, and a two-piece rainsuit. Jerry was dressed similarly. As soon as I went under, my boots filled with water and slipped off. I told Jerry that I had lost my boots, and he replied that his hiking shoes had given him some trouble when we spilled but that they didn’t seem to be weighing him down now. We didn’t try to strip, because our clothes seemed to be no extra burden and I doubt that we could have shed them in the savagely churning waves.
In minutes the icy water started to take its toll on us. Jerry began to have severe stomach pains and cramps. He must have swallowed a lot of water when we spilled; I didn’t experience the same sort of agonies until about 12 hours later. Our hands soon became insensitive, clumsy hooks. Our limbs wouldn’t move without deliberate effort, and then only in slow motion.
The cold water also took a mental toll. Although we didn’t panic at any time during our ordeal, our thinking was sometimes muddled. Our strength dissipated rapidly.
At first we thought that the wind would soon blow us to shore where we could refloat the canoe, but it was not to be. The Baltic Bay arm of Missinaibi funneled the wind along it’s length so that we drifted parallel to the shore. Also, waves breaking alongshore caused a strong undertow that acted on the submerged stern of the canoe and held us a constant 50 feet or more offshore.
Twice I tried desperately to swim down and detach the motor, but in the cold water I couldn’t hold my breath long enough even to reach the motor.
We had been in the water for about 20 minutes when we drifted clear of the steep rock wall at Fairy Point. Jerry decided to try to swim to shore. He had gone only a short distance through the four-to-six-foot waves when he realized that he couldn’t make it. He started to return to the canoe, so I swam out and extended the paddle to him. He grabbed it, and I pulled him back to the canoe.
AFTER THE ABORTED swimming attempt, we clung shivering to the canoe for about another 40 or 50 minutes. Then the wind began to push us toward a small rocky point. It looked for sure as if we would be blown to the rocks, but at the last minute the wind and under tow combined forces to turn the canoe aside. We floated past the rocks.
“The wind isn’t going to blow us to shore, is it?” Jerry shouted.
“No, but don’t give up,” I replied. I sensed that Jerry had lost all hope of being drifted to shore. I, too, was very close to giving up.
Jerry told me then that his hands could no longer grip the canoe. So I shoved the canoe paddle around the bow and through the handle of the gas can and then reached around Jerry and grabbed one end of the paddle with my left hand. In that way I could hold him tightly to the canoe and also more easily hold my head above water.
We floated that way for nearly an hour. By then we had drifted north along Baltic Bay about three-quarters of a mile and had been in the water for nearly two hours. The chilling water had turned Jerry’s face purple, and our bodies had nearly reached the limit of their endurance. Jerry told me that he would rather take his chances trying to swim for shore than die helplessly like this. Our situation looked hopeless, so I told him I’d go with him.
Communication was at all times difficult. The wind snatched our words away, and even with our faces only inches apart we could barely hear each other. Our jaws were so cold that they hung slack. We couldn’t get our lips together to form sounds properly. Thus, we could establish no definite plan for our attempt to swim for shore.
When Jerry indicated that he was ready to swim, I released my grip from one end of the paddle and unhooked the fuel line from the gas can, allowing it to float free. I hoped that we could each hold on to an end of the paddle and, with the gas can in the middle to give us support, could make it to shore. But before I could swim out from the canoe to join Jerry, he began swimming across the waves. I grabbed the paddle on both sides of the gas can handle and tried to catch up to him, but the can was so buoyant that the wind kept blowing me farther away.
Jerry swam strongly for three or four minutes, then rolled over on his back and floated. I thought that he was going to make it. He seemed much stronger than I was, and I was convinced that he would get to shore and I wouldn’t. As I rose on a wave, I saw him spit water. Then, as he rose to the top of a wave, he turned face-down. When he dropped into the trough, he sank from sight.
Jerry was gone. He had made no struggle, had shown no panic. At that moment I imagined that if drowning was like that, it couldn’t be too bad.
Mentally I was already in bad shape from our ordeal. And when Jerry slipped beneath the waves my mind really went haywire.
“He’s just playing tricks on me,” I thought. “He’s holding his breath and he’ll reappear somewhere soon.”
I began looking all around in the waves for him, but even as I looked I knew that it was crazy.
When Jerry drowned I wanted to let go of the gas can and die with him, but something inside wouldn’t let me do it. I kept swimming, and about 20 minutes later I reached shore about 50 feet east of where Jerry had gone under.
When my feet hit the shoreline rocks I found that I had no control over any of my limbs. My arms, legs, knees, ankles, everything collapsed as if made of rubber, and I had to lie there at the water’s edge. When I tried to get up on my hands and knees, my wrists and elbows would give out and I’d bang heavily down onto the rocks. The best I could do was to reach forward, grab a rock, and slide myself up on shore a little at a time.
When I finally managed to drag my self up on shore I found that I was still clutching the gas can as if my life depended on it. I set the can down on the rocks and passed out.
I DON’T THINK I was out longer than a few minutes. When I came to, I realized that if I were to get back to civilization alive I’d have to keep the canoe in sight and get it back to shore. There was little hope of outside help, and I was too exhausted and sick to hike through 30 or more miles of rugged bush country to return to the van. Without food, shoes, or matches for a warming fire, I’d have little chance to survive.
I looked northward along Baltic Bay. In the distance I could just make out the bow of the canoe. It floated two or three feet higher now that it was relieved of our weight, and the wind was moving it along a bit faster, perhaps just a little slower than a man would normally walk.
I rose shakily to my feet and, using the canoe paddle for a crutch, pulled myself along from tree to tree. I fell many times and had trouble keeping the canoe in sight because bog and other bush obstacles prevented me from following the shoreline.
I had little trouble walking in the bush. I had no shoes on, but my feet were still so numb from the cold water that I felt no pain when I stepped on rocks or sticks.
When I finally caught up with the canoe, I looked down and discovered that I was completely naked. While working my way through the bush, try ing to catch up with the drifting canoe, I had unconsciously removed all my clothing. I stopped and forced myself to calm down. I would need clothing for warmth, and my car keys were in a pocket of my trousers, so I retraced my steps for about half a mile and retrieved all my clothes.
I dressed and again struggled through the bush to catch up with the canoe. By then I wasn’t sure if I was ahead of or behind it. Finally I spotted it out in the lake and worked my way through the bush until I again was ahead of it. I found a rocky point that jutted into the lake 15 or 20 feet, and went out on the rocks to wait.
BY THEN the hour was about 3 p.m. The sun was breaking through the clouds, the wind was dying down, and the waves were smaller, about three to four feet high. I sat down on a rock.
“I’ll just sleep here in the sun a little while,” I thought. I dozed, but before I fell into a sound sleep I realized that it was the wrong thing to do, so I sat up and waited for the canoe to drift near.
On shore nearby was a dry cedar log about 12 feet long. I decided to use it as a float when I went after the canoe. As the canoe came near I again stripped off all my clothing. I had a piece of twine that had been used as a belt for my rain pants, and I tied one end of it to the log to use as a tow line.
I think the hardest thing I had to do that day was to reenter the lake. I eased into the water and, with the log for support, swam to the canoe. Swimming was much easier without my heavy clothing.
Tying the twine to the bow of the canoe was difficult. My fingers were numb, and when I did succeed in attaching the line a big wave came along and smashed the bow of the canoe into my groin, driving me underwater and knocking the wind out of me. I thought I was dead, but finally I struggled back to the surface.
When I had recovered from the blow, I worked my way to the end of the log and began to tow it to shore. My progress was slow and exhausting, but finally my feet touched bottom. When I turned to look, the canoe was still out in the lake; the twine had snapped. I knew that I had to swim right back out to get the canoe or I would never again have the strength or the heart for it.
I turned around, pushed the log into the water and headed out again. This time I stuck my finger through the canoe’s bow ring and swam slowly for shore, pulling the half-submerged craft behind me.
The stern of the canoe began to drag on bottom about 15 feet from shore. I worked about two hours trying to get the water out. First I had to pry the sunken craft partly out on the rocks. Then I used the paddle to splash out enough water so that I could pull it farther up on shore. The canoe was about half emptied when a big wave came along and filled it again. I had to start all over. When I could reach the motor, I removed it from the stern and dragged it up on the rocks.
At about 5 p.m. I had all the water out of the canoe. I pushed out into the lake and tried to paddle southwest, back toward Fairy Point. A strong breeze was still blowing up from the point, so I made no headway. Exhausted, I lay down in the canoe to wait for the wind to drop. I immediately fell asleep.
It was nearly dark when I awoke. The lake had calmed and there was only a slight breeze. Again I began paddling toward Fairy Point. It was all I could do to move the paddle through the water. I’d paddle for 10 or 20 seconds and then pass out. It took me until 9 p.m. just to make the short distance to Fairy Point.
After I’d rounded the point, the breeze was at my back. By then I could paddle for about a minute at a time before falling exhausted on the bottom of the canoe.
All during the night it rained. The night was cold, and I wrapped my rain pants and parka around my feet for warmth. Alternately paddling and sleeping, I continued on down the lake. I would sleep until the canoe blew onto the rocks. Then I’d resume paddling.
By 1 a.m. Saturday, I began to feel stronger and could paddle for half an hour or more at a stretch. I was able to keep the canoe headed northeast through the night-shrouded lake toward our camp. At some time during the night I crossed the lake and hugged the south shoreline, realizing that if I were to find the tiny cove that held our camp I’d have to stay very close to that shore. I looked closely at each little bay I passed.
Finally I heard a roar of water off to my right and realized that I was passing Whitefish Falls. I had paddled about four miles down the lake from Fairy Point. Ironically, after all the water I had swallowed while in the water, I became very thirsty and kept drinking water from the lake as I paddled.
Between 3 and 4 in the morning, more than 16 hours after the canoe had capsized, I spotted the gnarled fir tree that marked the cove where we’d camped. Wearily I paddled up to the dock and got out of the canoe.
As I walked from the lake toward the van, I sensed something wrong. Our tent was down. I unlocked the van and turned on the headlights. Then I could see that bears had ripped into the tent and had torn and mangled all our gear. Rain had soaked nearly everything that the bears had not ruined. At that moment, even though I had found my way back to camp and eventual safety, I was nearly overwhelmed by the situation. The bear raid, which I would have laughed off at any other time, was the straw that nearly broke my back.
Sick, exhausted, and aching all over, I chose the drier of the two sleeping bags, crawled into the van, and tried to sleep. Then I became violently ill and vomited water and blood throughout the rest of the night.
At daylight I loaded the canoe onto the van and began driving south toward Chapleau. About nine miles south of our campsite at Missinaibi I noticed a radio antenna showing above the trees just off the main road. I drove onto a small road leading into the bush and found a Department of Lands and Forests outpost on the shores of Wrong Lake. I roused the single occupant of the outpost and found that he spoke only French, but I finally made it clear to him that there had been trouble and that I wanted to use the radio to contact the provincial police at Chapleau.
The radio was already set on the frequency of the Lands and Forest office in Chapleau, so I told them about the accident and asked them to notify the police. I also told them that I needed medical attention. They radioed back that I should resume driving toward Chapleau and that the police would meet me on the road on their way to the lake.
About 9:30 a.m. I resumed driving toward Chapleau. On the road I was met by Cpl. H. N. Allan and Constable R. M. Morrison. I told them approximately where Jerry had drowned and that I had left the gas can on the shore about 50 feet east of the spot. They said they would get a boat and look for his body.
I continued on to Chapleau, where I went directly to the hospital. From there I called my wife in Ohio to tell her the grim news and asked her to give Jerry’s wife and family solace.
Cpl. Allan and Constable Morrison visited me at about 10 on Sunday night. They had recovered Jerry’s body at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. He had been found in 50 feet of water, 15 feet from shore and about 55 feet west of the gas-can location. His body was fully clothed except for one glove.
THE OFFICERS said that Jerry’s body was found in a relaxed position, just as when I had seen him slip beneath the waves. There was no indication of panic or struggle, and they speculated that he was probably unconscious before he went under. The long hours of immersion in cold water and the strain of swimming fully clothed through turbulent waves toward the tantalizingly near shoreline must have drained the last bit of endurance from him.
Upon the officers’ arrival at Missinaibi on Saturday, the lake temperature was found to be 40°F. Wind gusts of the rapidly advancing storm that had capsized our canoe on Friday had been clocked at about 35 to 40 knots by the Chapleau air base.
This has been a story of unforeseen incidents, such as the unnoticed approach of the storm and the capsizing in front of high cliffs that prevented us from swimming ashore before the cold water had weakened us. Our predicament was worsened by the motor-laden, vertically floating canoe that offered little support and would not be blown or pushed ashore, and by the loss of untethered life cushions and the lack of life jackets. It was the absence of simple survival items such as shoes, waterproof matches, emergency food, and a compass that forced me to reenter the lake, again risking death, to retrieve the canoe instead of hiking out to safety.
These circumstances might have been only a nuisance at another time or place, but they killed when woven together at Missinaibi Lake on that nightmarish day in October.
Ours may well be the story behind many of the unwitnessed and unsurvived tragedies that have occurred on wilderness waters. I hope that others might avoid a similar tragedy.
This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards.
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- Will Wolves Attack a Man? A Story From the Archives
- A Classic Dall Sheep Hunt in the Yukon, From the Archives
- Beware of Everything: A Harrowing Sheep Hunting Tale, From the Archives
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