Friday, April 27, 2018

The Lansdowne Letters: The Most Terrifying Moment ...

Memory is such a subjective thing!

My four siblings and I were born within nine years of one another 
and grew up in a tightly knit family;
we remain close, in spite of being separated by geography.
Yet, with all the experiences we have shared,
I can't think of one instance when we remember an event the same way.

Bertie Comes Home from the Hospital
Donnie, Barbie, Louise (Me) with Bertie, Gretchen with Roy
Margaretsville, Nova Scotia, Canada
April 1959
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue:  All Rights Reserved

That's true of June 4, 1961 when we were all stranded
on a small island in the middle of Attawapiskat Lake.
Those of us who recall that day remember different things
and were uniquely impacted by the events of that long ago day.

At the time Bertie was barely two,
and she remembers nothing of our time in the North.

Donnie, who was seven, has no recollection of the actual day,
but she has lots of memories of the family stories about it.

Roy, who turned ten one week
before we set out on our adventure,
distinctly recalls different details
and events from me.

Barbie, who was five at the time, vividly recalls several things,
one of which fueled
her nightmares for years.

I, at eleven, cast our stranding
in a romantic, adventurous light ~
especially since we all survived:
We were marooned!

Shortly Before We Moved North
Bertie with Louise (Me), Roy with science project
Barbie, and Donnie with Gretchen
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada, Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue:  All Rights Reserved

My mother, who had an unshakable belief in things turning out well
and who trusted my father implicitlysaid of our marooned outing:
"Actually, it's very safe; because there are so many islands,
if the weather turns you can always stop and wait."

For my mother it may have been no big deal;
but for my father, one instant was the most terrifying moment of his life.

The day was beautiful when we pushed off and motored past the Father's Island.
Loaded with seven people, a dachshund, and picnic supplies,
our borrowed canoe rode low in the water;
but we didn't worry because Dad was in the stern
steering our canoe with the tiller on the small outboard motor.

Bertie and Gretchen traveled uncomfortably in the bottom of the canoe.
Bertie didn't think much of canoeing
and sat bracing herself with her small hands.
Gretchen lay in the bottom resting her woeful eyes on her front paws,
the thin skin between her ears wrinkled in distress.

We had a long stretch of open water to cross on Attawapiskat Lake,
and at times it was difficult to distinguish between
the islands and the irregular shoreline of the lake.
The short, spindly trees formed a low dark green horizon in all directions.

Some four or five miles down the lake Dad beached the canoe
on a curved strand of white sand in a sheltered cove.
Scraggily black spruce and thin white birches crowded the sand,
and the silence of the wilderness pressed close.
Although the waterways of Attawapiskat Lake and the Attawapiskat River
had been hunted and fished by the Ojibwa and Cree for millennia,
the forest looked untouched, primal.

The Forest Primeval
Shore of Attawapiskat Lake, Northern Ontario, Canada
June 4, 2018
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The cove wasn't silent for long as we kids scrambled out of the canoe,
ditched our shoes, and dug our bare feet into the cool sand,
then raced for the frigid water and splashed in the shallows.

Our parents quickly got lunch underway, starting with the canned beef stew
that was such a hit on our canoe trip to Joe Alex's trading post two weeks earlier.
There was lots more to eat and drink:
our favorite egg salad sandwiches made with fresh eggs
now that break-up was over, sponge cake, and peanut butter cookies,
orange juice, and copious coffee for our parents.

To this day, Barb remembers what a lovely picnic lunch we had.
We were ravenous after our canoe trip in the cool, clean air,
but our hunger was nothing compared with the hunger we would feel later.

After lunch we hit
the shockingly cold water.

In a few spots we waded
and swam through
the last vestiges of rotted ice,
small crystalline pieces
that slowly disappeared
in the warm afternoon sun.

Roy and I crowed
to each other about
how brave and strong
we were to swim in icy water,
while secretly marveling
that we were.

Waters of Attawapiskat Lake
Northern Ontario, Canada
June 4, 2018
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Even our mother couldn't resist the lure of water and waded in.
Not Dad though.  Gone were the Prince Edward Island days
when he would challenge Roy and me to a race into the water
at Cavendish, Stanhope, or Brackley Beach with the cry,
"Last one in buys everyone Coke!"
Roy and I would splat on our bellies in eight inches of water
before Dad could get his feet wet; but he always made good on his bets.

Now Dad was content to lounge
on a blanket and read.

Waters of Attawapiskat Lake
Northern Ontario, Canada
June 4, 2018
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

All too soon our parents were loading the canoe for the return trip
amid loud objections from all of us children.
We couldn't believe it was suppertime.
With the lengthening days of a northern spring, it felt like mid-afternoon.

Once we cleared the sheltering arm of the cove
and entered the stretch of open water running to Lansdowne House,
we discovered a steady wind had raised waves on the lake.
They swept straight down the lake toward us, a good two feet high.

That doesn't sound like much;
but our heavily loaded canoe rode low in the water,
and we had miles to go headed into the wind.
My father struggled to keep the canoe perpendicular to the waves,
a difficult job with the small outboard motor.
If we got crosswise to the waves, we could capsize.
It was too dangerous to turn back, so we had to keep going.

At first it was exciting, but the weather deteriorated quickly
threatening rain and increasing the roughness of the waves.
The grey clouds robbed the lake of its pretty blue,
and white wind streaks appeared on the dark waves.
Spray drenched us, and water slopped into the canoe.
Dad yelled at us to bail, and Roy and I bailed and bailed.

There was a small island nearby, and Dad decided to make for it.
He had to turn the canoe at an angle to the waves to reach it,
and we were all frightened as we absorbed my father's tension and fear.
And then a panicked Gretchen jumped in the bottom of the canoe.

"That was the most terrifying moment in my life,"
Dad confided to Roy years later.
"I thought I would lose my whole family."

I don't know how my father did it;
he managed to counterbalance Gretchen's weight,
and somehow we wallowed slantwise up and down
the waves to a gravelly tip on the island.

Dad was into the water and hauling the bow of the canoe onto the shore.
We clambered out, chilled and stiff from the wind and the drenching.

Fortunately the lay of the island blocked the wind,
and Mom and Dad led us into a small opening in the bush.
Everyone but Bertie gathered sticks and brush,
while Dad cleared a spot on the ground and started a big fire.

We huddled close,
rubbing our hands,
warming our fronts
and then warming our backs,
turning round and round,
as we slowly dried out.


We were no sooner dry than hunger roared in.
Just the thought of having nothing to eat made us ravenous.
We shared the meager leftovers from our picnic lunch,
a few cookies and a bit of sponge cake filled with strawberry jam.

The long twilight faded into night.
Dad kept the fire piled high with wood to drive back the dark,
but the mesmerizing flames could not crowd out the knowledge
that we were stranded for the night in the wild.
Gretchen didn't help any by growling at things only she could hear.

Just off to the left beyond the fire a black spruce had blown over.
Its roots stood in a large circle facing the fire,
and there was a shallow depression where the roots had pulled out of the ground.
Mom put a sleeping Bertie, along with Barbie and Donnie,
in a nest of picnic blankets in the sheltered hollow.

With nightfall the temperature had dropped,
and the air was heavy with with moisture.
Roy and I hunkered near the fire as intermittent drizzle fell.

I was thankful there was no room for me by the windfall roots.
I couldn't shake the thought that there might be things under those tangled roots.

I wasn't the only one disturbed by the roots.
For years afterward Barb had nightmares
of roots coming down and strangling her.

I was determined to stay awake, as was Roy.
There were no more blankets anyway,
so our parents let us stay by the fire.
No one said much.
We were too tired and too hungry.

I must have drowsed, for out of nowhere
I heard familiar voices calling across the water.
A searchlight cut the dark, growing bigger and bigger
as a boat motored closer.

What a sight to see the nursing station canoe,
stabilized by two plane pontoons, pull onto the shore,
looking like a strange double outrigger canoe!
Even better was to watch Mike and Milt hop out.
Hot food and my own bed suddenly beckoned.

"I knew you had to be the MacBeaths when we got closer to the island,"
Mike said as he warmed up by the fire with a cup of hot coffee.
"No Indian would build a fire this big."

In no time we were racing for Lansdowne House.
There was no room to take anything back with us.
Nine people and one disgruntled dachshund made for a crowded canoe.

The nursing station canoe, with its large pontoons and big motor
plowed straight through the waves for the lights of the village.
My mother, younger sisters, and Gretchen sat in the bottom
of the canoe wrapped in the picnic blankets.
The three men sat in the back seats, while Roy and I perched on the bow seat.

The bow of the canoe steadily smacked the waves,
and Roy and I were soon soaked with spray
and shivering in the cold wind.
I was so damned cold that I thought I would die.
What a relief to pass the Father's Island
and reach the Hudson's Bay Company dock.
One more minute and I would have been dead.

Bill Mitchell helped us out of the canoe and onto the dock,
and we stumbled through the bush for home.
Mom immediately started slicing bread and heating up Campbell's Scotch Broth,
while we got out of our cold, wet clothes and into warm, dry pyjamas.

That steaming mixture of lamb, barley, diced potatoes and carrots
floating in mutton broth never tasted better before or since.
We gorged on soup and bread and crawled into our sleeping bags on our bunks.

I've never forgotten how relieved people were about our safe arrival home.
They had been terrified at the thought that we had capsized and drowned
in the freezing water of Attawapiskat Lake.
We were very, very lucky.

Were it not for my father's courage and quick thinking,
our family story could have ended tragically. 

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue.

Point Prim, Bay of Fundy,
Summer 2016
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Map of Canada
Highlighting Ontario

Location of Lansdowne House
Wikimedia   edited

My Revised Guess
(After Consulting with Roy)
for the Sandy Beach and the Island We Were Stranded on

Imagery:  Landstat/Copernicus, DigitalGlobe
Map Data:  Google


  1. Greetings Louise. You certainly had a scare, and I'm sorry for your experience. But your wise Father saved the day, then the rescuers! Glad you got home safely and lived to tell the tale. Thank you for expanding on your last post, most enlightening. Blessings to you. Love love, Andrew.

    1. Hi, Andrew! It was a scary experience, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world (since it turned out well ~ LOL). Blessings to you too! I hope that you are enjoying a nice weekend with your girlfriend! Take care, my friend!

    2. Thank you Louise. I see my Girlfriend about twice a week as she works. I did have a nice Weekend. Blessings to you. Love love, Andrew.

  2. I love a happy ending! And, Louise, I too would have shared your concerns about "things" under those roots!

    1. Hi, Debra! I like a happy ending too! The older I get, the less I like "things" under anything! Have a great weekend with your Rare One!

  3. How easily we can imagine "things" unseen, even now if there is a strange loud noise, I wonder what it can be. Cold lake water, twice I have been there, once at Lake Waikaremoana in Urewera National Park, I tried to get into the aluminium dinghy, from the shoreline, it floated away, I slipped, and even in January, the water was so cold.In memory, we went back to our tent and camp site with me wrapped in a towel!!! Your father kept a very cool manner, no doubt trying so hard not to pass on his doubts and worries about getting home or to the island safely.Your Mum must have had a huge heart of solid love and I wonder if she was also so worried but not showing it.

    1. Hi Jean! There is nothing like a vivid imagination to scare one's self, and I have a vivid, vivid imagination. Your story gave me a chill ~ Thank goodness for mothers. My mother was probably worried at the time, but certainly made light of it later. Happy weekend to you and Hugh!

  4. Your own mini Swiss Family Robinson adventure. Wondering what the pup was growling at would freak me out as I looked for signs of anything at that age. Now I know dogs kinda just growl at the wind if it suits them lol never know when roots may choke you. He kept a cool head and knew what he was doing. Super wet, cold, and hungry never sounds good though.

    1. Hi, Pat! I bet you were one interesting kid with a gigantic imagination! It's much more fun to look back on that memory than to go through it. To this day I don't like the idea of sleeping in the woods. Give me a nice, comfortable cabin. All the best to you, my friend!

  5. I truly don't know how you all managed through all the near disasters that befell you. Your dad is my hero. He is amazing in so many ways. His good thinking saved the day in many instances. I can't imagine how you must have felt that at any time the canoe may have capsized and over you all would go and drown. My husband was on a fishing trip to Canada and dropped off by plane on a lake for the week. It was late in the fall and he said if the canoe he paddled would have tipped and he would have gone in the ice cold water he wouldn't have lasted long. I can't comprehend such danger. (By the way, that was his last trip in the fall).

    1. Hi, Peggy! I guess we all just kept moving forward! My dad was amazing in so many ways. It was scary in the canoe, and I've never forgotten the look of the wind streaks on the waves. I'm glad that Don's fishing trip turned out well for him. I'm sure it was an adventure. I remember a fisherman telling me in Newfoundland that he always wore big boots when fishing, so that if he went into the cold water he'd drown quickly rather than die more slowly from hypothermia. I hope you two are enjoying a lovely spring weekend!

  6. It's always nice when things do work out in the end

  7. What a story Louise!! That sounded harrowing...I am not good in boats, I mean...I can sit in a boat and enjoy a quiet day on the lake...but any time there are waves, I get very nervous. Your dad was very brave!

    1. Hi, Rain! That night is definitely one of the most memorable in my life! I don't mind small waves, but big ones ... I recently watched "The Perfect Storm." That movie gave me nightmares for about a week ~ too close to home with all the fishermen I've known. There's a little bird outside singing his heart out. I think it must be a little finch. I love spring. I hope that you are enjoying a lovely time!

    2. OMG WHY did you watch The Perfect Storm? LOL....I saw it too and it scared the bleep out of me. I used to watch Deadliest Catch too, and just watching those guys in the freezing ocean made me realize I like my feet firmly planted lol...spring is springing here too! :) I got my seedlings all planted, now I'm just waiting for the last of the snow to melt! :)

    3. I just had to, Rain ~ and it was free on cable. I haven't watched "The Deadliest Catch." I did meet a salmon fisherman out of Homer, Alaska in Ko Lipe, Thailand. He was bartending during the off season. He had a contest going with a bartender named Mary from Scotland at another bar over who made the best pineapple daiquiri. I had to decide. What a fun contest! He lost out to Mary. LOL I wonder where they are now? Way to go on your seedlings. Our snow is gone, although for the last two Mothers Days it's snowed. Every day I inch closer to getting back on track. Have a good week!

  8. WOW! What a story! Louise, no wonder that this incident is forever imprinted on your family's psyche. Quick thinking on your parent's part saved you all.
    Campbell's Scotch Broth!! My fav growing up. I still like barley and lamb!!
    Good to have you back and hope your weekend is filled with other adventures.

    1. Hi, Jim! It's good to be back. I'm still trying to get into a regular groove at home. Still playing catch up in household things, but I'm getting there. I hope all is well with you and Ron and Ms SD. The stores don't sell Scotch Broth here I must bring some back from Canada or perhaps make some. That was my favorite soup growing up too. Take care!

  9. Your dad's adventurous spirit has definitely rubbed off on you, Louise! I loved your "joie de vivre" that you brought to those kiddos in the classroom, and I love how you spread that same joy to your relationships with friends and family! Keep on truckin'!

    1. Thanks, Susan! We certainly had the adventures up North! I hope all is well with you! We've got to get together! I've been buried in catching up with so many things, but I need to come up for air. Take care!

  10. Bravo to your father! What an adventure! Scary!! When I read about your childhood stories, it truly is amazing!! Big Hugs Louise! (Love your photos!!!!)

    1. Hello again, Stacy! good thing I'm working backwards! It was one of the biggest adventures of my life. Sending you another hug!

  11. This is remarkable story of courage dear Louise displayed by your brave father in scary circumstances .

    You are wonderful narrator as I felt almost there with you when you were heading to picnic island had fun and then suffered with bad weather.
    Faced difficulty while moving to landsore house, beached in another island starved with cold and hunger and then it was not MUCH late that God sent you help of station canoe .

    Your father's fear could be right but God's help arrived and today you are sharing this with us

    1. Hi, Baili! I'm sure that God had us in his hands that day, and I am grateful that I am here to tell the tale today. Thanks for your encouraging words about my writing. They mean a lot to me! Sending you a big hug!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate the time and energy you put into making them very much.