Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy
Raffan continues his evolution into the premier writer
on wilderness canoe-related matters with the publication
of his latest book, Deep Waters.
drowning of 12 young students and a teacher was a huge
story 24 years ago. It is quite amazing that no one had
taken up that narrative. We can be thankful that Raffan
did as there is a touching and sobering story to be told
in the loss of those St. Johnís School students in the
cold waters of Lake Timiskaming in June 1978.
usual, research is the solid foundation upon which
Raffan built his Deep Waters story. As an outdoor
educator for many years, this tale had obvious deep
roots in Raffanís psyche. Indeed, he tells us that the
newspaper picture of some of the bodies covered up on a
dock, continues to haunt him. (We have published two
pictures from that time - there are none in the book,
nor are they missed.) One sort of has the feeling the
author would like to cry out against what happened. But
revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and Raffan lays out
the whole picture, with little editorial comment, in a
methodical and entertaining manner.
carefully and thoroughly constructs the story of St.
Johnís, a small group of Christian schools that
promised hard work and vigorous exercise as the tonic
for many troubled boys usually in the 11-14 age range.
The schools began in western Canada and the fourth one
started in Toronto and later moved to Claremont.
The schools were famous for their physicality which
included winter snowshoe races which were famously
grueling. Their canoe trips were of the same mold. The
idea was that extreme physical exertion and risk for the
boys would make ďmen of them.Ē
St. Johnís Schools were not some hidden clique. They
had their share of media exposure in articles, and even a
National Film Board movie on the group. They were great
media fodder. Photogenic looking kids doing exciting
things outside the realm of the normal Ė in short, made
takes us inside both the boysí world and that of the
parents who in many cases were very supportive of, and
close to, the school and its methods. He also paints a
picture of the men who founded and ran the schools.
Itís clear these people did not mean to harm the boys
and their motives were good, but common sense should have
taken over at some point.
Raffan notes, there were many close calls and near
disasters along the many years of St Johnís outings.
And all the varied elements of disaster came crashing
together on the morning of June 11, 1978. Itís not
usually one thing that causes a mishap but the
collective weight of a series of blunders. The
Timiskaming disaster had them all; cold water,
inexperienced crew, inexperienced leaders, improper
boats, a tricky lake, and bad luck.
question of boats is an interesting one. The school used
a specially modified model called the Selkirk, a
22-foot-long wood-and-canvas model produced by
Chestnut. It was a modified version prepared to the
schoolís specifications. They added six inches of
height to the boat along with some other modifications
that changed the seaworthiness of Chestnutís tried-and-true Ogilvie Special model.
also tells of an eerily similar accident in 1926
where 10 teenage boys drowned on Balsam Lake, north of
Peterborough, Ontario. They too were with a
religious-based camp and, in this case, paddled 35-foot
war canoes. Raffan points out, war canoes are not used
by most camps because of their inherent danger in
paddling large numbers of kids. Bigger does not mean
Waters is a superb read, thoughtful, chilling, touching
and truly elegiac. It canít help but connect with any
of us who are paddlers, fathers or campers, and itís
capped with a stunning epilogue that would be
unbelievable in a novel.
ó Michael Peake