They say that memory plays tricks on us. I think it teases.
I had often thought it was 1967 that I had joined a sailing trip out to Giants Tomb Island, on Georgian Bay. I was part of a flotilla of two small gaff-rig dinghies and an 18-foot sloop. Our crew comprised a dozen young campers, boys who had all qualified to be in our expedition by passing the requirements necessary for open water sailing. We had embarked from our summer camp, nestled at the mouth of Frying Pan Bay on the northern tip of Beausoleil Island, one of Canada’s beautiful national parks.
As we entered the main channel that pointed us northwest, we had a clear view of our summer vacation home: twelve red-roofed shanties and a dining hall, perched on a frozen magma flow of pre-cambrian granite.
The glacier-smoothed, pink and grey rock was sprinkled with low stands of green juniper bushes which eked out a living on less than three or four inches of hard-earned sediment and gravel. Groves of young red oak trees occupied the site, anchored by tall white pines, quite symbolic of the northern Ontario 30,000 Islands—windswept, stately and rugged, all at once. A population of 160 campers and staff romped over and roamed the site, on their way to skills and sports sessions.
Ahead of us was the opening to Georgian Bay. Tomahawk Island to our right, and Ardilaun to our left. These two guardians let us loose to sail on the powerful, awesome blue waters of the Great Lakes.
If you look at a satellite image of Beausoleil, you will see from the advantage of height the terrible submarine terrain of the shoreline. Over 10,000 years ago the last invading ice age scraped away the surface of the rock with the slow, unrelenting brutality of a gigantic bulldozer. The landscape is indelibly scarred. It gives the impression of a housekeeper’s impatient sweep of a tired broom across a dirty kitchen floor, painful streaks left behind with each effort. The region is blessed with the name of 30,000 Islands, and indeed, there are probably that many if you count all the small desolate islands and hidden shoals that may appear suddenly before the bow of your boat.
Which brings me to the strange beauty of Giants Tomb Island. It resembles a burial mound of a three-mile giant.
Geologically, it is a glacial till, a deposit of residue from the receding glaciers. But historically, and more important, according to legend, the island is the final resting place of Kitchikewana, the powerful, and terrifying son of Manitou. The story goes that Kitchikewana was frustrated in love, and in a storming rage threw a handful of gravel to the ground, forming the 30,000 islands. The people were frightened by him, and when he died, they burnt his corpse where it fell. As the flames grew, and black smoke rose from the funeral pyre, its ashes fell to the ground as swarms of painful, biting flies. The flies are still a curse today for any sailor who visits Giants Tomb.
Our small expedition emerged into the open waters after passing the Whalesback Islands, an archipelago that is the southern guardrail of the Cognashene channel. From here we looked forward to long tacks in rolling six-foot swells as we steered west to the Tomb four miles away.
While our Camp program was historically devoted to canoe tripping, sailing was an exciting diversion that allowed for the wind to do the work. With a crew of four in each boat, our skippers could test us on the techniques and knowledge that brought true understanding of sailing. Every item in the boat was identified, and worked until we were proficient.
The task was to keep our bearing, but also to watch the sail and gaff for any change in wind. The constant hiking on the tilting decks of the dinghies was a thrill as the occasional swell reached up to douse our shorts with warm lake water. The summer sun and pleasant breeze escorted us to the shore of the island by late afternoon. Overall, it was a successful crossing for a group of kids, many from the city who had never been so far away from home, let alone dry land.
Giants Tomb is the remnant of glacial action. Its beaches have virtually no sand, but rather are cobbled in worn, rounded sedimentary stone, dredged up and exported from southern Ontario on the undersides of massive glacial arms in retreat. As a result, we moored our boats out in waste deep water to avoid any possible hull damage.
We spent the evening on the shoreline eating, singing and storytelling, feeding a warm fire with driftwood and looking up at the stars all around our heads. Liberally coated in bug repellent, we fought off the scourge of sand flies which nipped at our ankles incessantly. The ashes of Kitchikewana bent on revenge. After checking the boats, we turned in and slept. The wind was steady out of the west, and as we were on the lee side of the island, the night was calm.
In the morning we were up with the sun. Except there was none. A heavy blanket of fog, low-flying cloud, had smothered out the light, and we ate our campfire breakfast in a clinging cool grey mist that swirled about the boats, but did not dissipate. By eight o’clock we were launched, and headed for home, with a gentle uncertain breeze behind us.
The voyage home was expected to be one long broad reach, sailing before the wind, and as we let out our sheets, the sails filled, suspended under the gaffs. For any spectator, our parade was scenic.
A red sail on a white dinghie, another yellow sail on a brown, led by the blue sloop with its jib and main sail spread wing and wing. From above, three small dots venturing across the froth and foam of Georgian Bay waters. Hopefully, the fog would blow off and allow us to watch the coastlines as we headed back to Beausoleil.
But the fog persisted. In spite of the wind, it hung around us as we tobogganed off the waves and made our way east before wide open sails. The water gurgled along our hull and bubbled up behind our stern while the steel centerboard moaned as it fought the currents below. It was another teachable moment. We sat in the cockpit of our dinghie, working the 1:50,000 chart and Silva compass to keep us in the clear, more or less. Tracing and projecting our path across the vast bay was exciting, guessing our exact location on the green and blue map spread across the floorboards.
How long would this flying blind last? Little did anyone know, but in a lucky moment, someone looked up into the grey, over the gaff.
Suddenly, a huge, white, castle-like structure had appeared, bearing down on us quickly, not thirty yards ahead. It was a gigantic boat dividing the heaving waves in our direction. Staring up at the vessel we could see its upturned bow, a foredeck of windows, with a pilot’s cabin one deck higher.
Our skipper yelled at us, “Hang on. We’re jibing!” He pulled the tiller to his side, and the boat heeled to the right as the boom flew across our heads. The stern of the dinghie broached for a moment , and we found our maps and gear in a pool of water. The boat tossed sideways with the change in energy, and when we looked up we saw that the gaff had goose-necked, pinned on the windward side of the boat, twisting the sail and lifting the boom upwards like a broken limb. The boat continued to turn into the wind until we were tossing in a violent luff, and then the gaff swung back to norm and the boom crashed down into place. Thankfully no one was under that piece of lumber as it fell.
The wild ride continued as the boat now spun into a westerly direction, and we were, ironically, chasing the steamer that nearly put us under. Along its starboard bow were the words, City of Dover. Its wake lifted us up and we scalloped across a set of waves as the stern of the steamer disappeared into the grey.
Did it ever see us? I don’t know, but typical of young adventurers we roared with excitement, laughing off the near collision, righting our course, and continued our way back to camp without further disruptions.
But the event hung with me for years, always a moment of intensity, and I wondered whatever happened to the City of Dover? I set out to get its story. And when did this really take place?
Casting my line across the internet, I learned that the boat was built in Port Dover on Lake Erie in 1916, and was slated to deliver passengers, freight and fish to the port of Erie, Pennsylvania. The fact that this boat originated in my home County of Norfolk was an intriguing coincidence.
The wooden hull was 75 feet long, 20 wide, and had a draught of 7 feet. It had a gross tonnage of 81 and could carry up to 197 passengers.
In 1921 it left Lake Erie for Midland Ontario as the newest addition to the Honey Harbour Navigation Co. Ltd. Out of the fish business, it was a freighter delivering supplies and laundry to the islands around Honey Harbour. In 1928 the Dover was sold to the Georgian Bay Tourist and Steamships, Ltd. It provided service between Midland and Go Home Bay, north of Cognashene on Georgian Bay. For several years she was owned by a group in Penetanguishene, and ultimately sold again in 1955 to a couple in Sault Ste. Marie. They refitted her in Wiarton, and initiated ferry service between Salt Ste. Marie (the Soo), and Michipicoten Harbour, on Lake Superior. The business shifted however, and the Dover resumed service between Midland and Go Home. At some point, the boat added a pilot’s cabin above the upper deck for better visibility. That hadn’t helped us though.
In 1960, the steamer was 44 years old. It was drydocked in lock 45 at Port Severn for the winter. There, sadly, its new owner discovered its keel was broken, and the boat was taken out of service. It was moved to the Lone Pine Lodge on Little Lake near Port Severn. Its latest owners planned to open a restaurant or an amusement park on the injured vessel. But over the years, it was crushed by ice and eventually burnt to the waterline.
The timeline of my story however was suddenly altered. According to all reports, the boat was no longer on the water by 1967, the summer of our last meeting in my faulty memory. In fact, there are images of the once proud steamer lying on its side like a bloated elephant, circa 1965.
How could that be? For a moment, I actually imagined an image where the burning flames of the dying steamer launched a ghost into the fog of Georgian Bay to scare the daylights out of me and my fellow sailors. A crazed, fire-breathing Kitchikewana would be at the helm. What a delicious tale.
But after searching out fellow camp cabin mates, as well as two crew who worked on the Dover and the Keewatin in the 50’s, I came to accept that it was likely 1959 that we met the City of Dover. I was only ten and half years old. And it was in its last year of operation, perhaps its very last trip.
But I remember it like it was yesterday.
Thanks for reading and sharing! I also thank Dean Nichols (1952- 1953 crew Dover) and Jim Sykes (1946-1956 crew Keewatin) who worked on the boats starting in their early teens.
Photos were provided by summer camp mate Skip Lumley; John Todd, Administrator for Facebook group site Huronia Past and Present; and Tom Barber, “Looking Back 60 Years in North Simcoe, January 15th 1961.”