The year was 1979. The month was August. The country was Canada.
The Great Slave Lake was mirror calm as the Scotsman and his woman set out on their planned adventure. As the boat is a major player in this event, perhaps you will forgive me for taking a little time in detailing and describing the craft and its contents.
It was a fourteen foot wooden speed boat with a windshield and a 20 horsepower Johnson outboard motor. The interior boasted two bucket seats from a Cadillac: a white steering wheel had been installed. In the summer, it was used frequently to explore the lake shore- which was somewhat larger than any lake you would find in this country. It was indeed larger than Ireland.
Everything that was required for the trip had been packed and stowed away on the boat carefully. They had provisions enough for five days. He had taken his Winchester 30/30 and his pump action Savage 12 gauge, ready to take advantage of any game that came within range. His buck knife he always carried in its black leather sheath. Tent and his fishing tackle were also part of the cargo.
To cover all possibilities, there were extras which he felt may be necessary: axe, spare outboard motor, spare ropes and toolkit – were fitted in as appropriate.
The aim of the expedition was to visit some acquaintances about sixty miles away. These friends were in the process of renovating some cabins on a remote island named Gros Cap. With the information that the refurbishment of the second cabin had begun, the Scot took a large wad of putty with him, to provide an effective seal for the windows. Gros Cap was separated from another island by Devil’s Channel – so called because of the difficulty in navigating it from the Western side as an abundance of reefs compelled you to approach it from an exact angle. The plan was to approach this channel from the eastern side, unless the weather was in their favour.
One last final check that everything was on board and they were ready.
With his woman by his side, they pushed off from the shore of Yellowknife and skirted Joliff Island before heading south towards the Eastern arm of the Great Slave Lake. His woman was an Indian from the Slave Tribe (pronounced Slavey) of very slight, yet athletic, build.
It was a pleasant and invigorating voyage– simply indulging in all the sights that nature had to offer, while the boat sped over the surface of the water and the engine hummed contentedly.
As the journey unfolded, they saw some eagles on a rocky headland about half way towards their destination, – and thought that an unscheduled stop to take some photographs was required. The boat neared the shore; the lake still didn’t show as much as a ripple. Pulling the bow on to the shale beach, he tied the painter to a rock, and they both headed round the bluff in the direction of where the eagles had been sighted.
When they returned, about forty five minutes later, they were dismayed and horrified to discover the changes that had been wrought.
Time had just passed. With their minds focussed on photographs and eagles, and in the lee of a bluff, they were completely unaware that a small wind had started to play on the water, moving the surface. Gradually a swell had started. The boat, had being raised up, turned, and brought down hard on the land. As the wind increased, so the swell followed suit, and the boat had eventually been thrown down with enough force on a rock as to hole the bottom in front of the transom: instead of the bow pointing up the beach, their craft now straddled the beach sideways.
What caught their attention when they returned was the strangeness of the scene – the boat was not bobbing on the waves as it should have been. It was full of water. As they absorbed the implications of the spectacle that greeted them on the shore, they looked at each other in disbelief. There was no way out of this place except by boat. Any journey inland was out of the question. There were hundreds of miles of copious swamps, mosquitoes and bears. It was not a route that anyone would attempt, even in extremis. There were no signposts or trails. There was no civilisation near. They had come thirty miles by water, and as far as this Scot knew, his friends thirty miles away by water, were the nearest people to their present location.
There was nothing else for it. The boat had to be repaired.
Preparing for the job
Firstly, the boat had to be stripped bare. So they started to clear everything, bit by bit, to take all the contents out – the outboard motors, provisions, rifles, fishing lines, bucket seats, tent, and clothes – until it was just an empty shell.
Then they tried to pull it up the beach– but even empty it proved enormously heavy. At the end of that first day, he had merely managed to get the boat in the position he needed on the beach. He knew that he now had to carefully consider his options. How was he going to repair it? He reluctantly came to the conclusion that it would depend on what raw materials were available to him – what he could find in the location.
They pitched tent, made a meal, and thought about their predicament.
On the second day, he started to dig underneath the hull to access the damage that had been done. Some time later, he reached the hole the size of his fist, and again the implications of this loomed large. This boat must float again if they wanted to remain alive. He started to search the beach for anything which would help to cover the breach. His woman assisted in this task. He found two pieces of old driftwood, and realized that by putting putty in the hole and making a sandwich with the driftwood on either side of the breach, it might be possible…… But it had to be secure…watertight. He explained his plan. He explained the problems. Either way, they had a minimum of thirty miles to travel before they reached safety.
He realised that he was going to have to sacrifice his leather jacket for use as a waterproof skin, and with a heavy heart, he started cutting it into the required shape.
Eventually, he had achieved what he wanted. He had made a makeshift repair. He now needed to ascertain if it floated. This meant dragging it down the beach in its empty state. They had to be very careful, as they did not want to damage his workmanship. Such was the weight of the craft that it was essential that all equipment was put in place after it was in the water. Managing the boat down the beach was grueling and physically demanding, but they were thrilled when it floated. Now the real intensive labour started: getting the seats re-installed was rather more difficult on a constantly moving surface than removing them on the shore. Wading out carrying them was sheer hard work. Provisions and personal effects came next. The last thing to be attempted was to install the outboard motor –that would be the next day.
They broke camp.
Well aware of the difficulties that lay ahead, they left some towels and a set of clothes on the beach, as they had no waterproof bags with them. They knew that they would need to get dry and have some fresh clothes when they were finished. And so the work began again….
There was quite a swell, and he was worried. If it became much worse, he knew he could not launch the boat – and occasionally these conditions could prevail for as long as a week in summer. Working with all due speed, he started to carry the remaining pieces of equipment back to the boat. The weight of the outboard motors was exhausting. To keep the boat still he required an anchor. So he had found two small boulders – each weighing perhaps eighty pounds. These were duly carried out and each one was tied to a rope. Now they required to be thrown over either side of the boat. He asked his woman to stand in the water and hold the prow while he heaved the necessary weights overboard.
The stability for him to precisely fix the engine in place was still lacking. Eventually, there was nothing else for it. His woman had to stand up to her neck in the freezing water holding the stern of the craft as he positioned the engine. When he was finished, she was quite blue with the cold –but they had succeeded alone.
Once more they could set sail – minus the putty for his friends and his good leather jacket.
The bottom of the boat was watertight – but it was no longer level, so steering was a problem. It was necessary to cut his speed down by half. They could not continue to see their friends as planned, and headed home. It was a journey fraught with worry…
They found a sheltered cove to make camp that first night. The next day they limped into Yellowknife.
One more obstacle had been overcome.
Another lesson had been learned. But, somehow, the Scot looked at life differently after that.
Mortality had been tasted. The ease with which a life could simply disappear was recognized. What had it been? Was it the wind that blew unexpectedly, the rock that holed the boat, or their lack of awareness due to their sheltered location?
All three factors had to be present. None of them, on its own, had the capacity to disable.
When circumstances conspire, how often does it seem that there is no way out?
And so the possibilities must be examined one by one – the most hopeful being adopted, though it may take a huge amount of work.
People are not afraid of work if the reason is explained and their very survival depends upon it.
Perhaps it is time to muster the troops, and say, unequivocally:
“Don’t ask what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
©Linda Jane McLean