The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

  SUMMER 2002

PAGE 9

OUTFIT 109
 

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This sad image of some of the victims of the Lake Timiskaming drownings in June, 1978, their new running shoes sticking out from under a tarp on a rain-slicked dock, stayed locked in the mind of writer and educator James Raffan for decades. It stirred him to examine the tragedy that saw 12 students and an inexperienced teacher from St. John's School drown on the first day of a canoe trip to James Bay.      Photo: Canadian Press

Deep Waters

Courage, Character and the Lake Timiskaming Canoeing Tragedy

By James Raffan

Harper Flamingo Canada

246 pp. $34.95

ISBN: 0-00-200037-7

Jim Raffan continues his evolution into the premier writer on wilderness canoe-related matters with the publication of his latest book, Deep Waters.

The 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.

As 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.

He 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

The 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 for media.

Raffan 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. 

As 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.

The 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.

Raffan 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 safer.

Deep 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

SURVIVORS Ė In October 1978, Quebec Coroner Jacques Dery, left, accompanies five boys from St. John's School who survived a four-canoe upset on Lake Timiskaming in June of that year, as they examine the canoes during an inquest into the tragedy that claimed the lives of 12 of their classmates and a teacher. The boys (l-r): James Doak, James Gibson, Robin Jensen, David Cunningham and Paul Lockie. On the right is M. Donald Fraser of the Chestnut Canoe Company. 

 Summer 2002         Outfit 109 

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