Testing their mettle

With packed snow squeaking underfoot, the two young Englishmen shouldered their knapsacks, clipped their boots onto long wooden skis, grasped their poles, and looked out across the ice of Midland harbour at the route they would follow. It was mid-winter of 1940.

“Right,” said Ken, elder of the brothers, “let’s get started.” Ron agreed, and they set off with long even strides towards Midland Point, aiming for Wahnuhke island some 12 miles to the northeast, past the other end of Beausoleil Island.

Kenneth and Ronald With were in their early thirties, the former married with two children, the latter a bachelor. Both had island cottages where they were headed. They lived in Toronto and had been partners in a short-lived wool importing business that had died with Canada’s declaration of war against Germany the previous September. They had each then volunteered for the military — Ken for the navy and Ron the army — and were waiting to be called up for active service.

Their reason for waiting at the islands isn’t known for certain, but their probable absences overseas for who knew how long, and the need to put things in order at their cottages even though it was winter, likely had something to do with it. Plus, the fact that both were artists who loved painting Georgian Bay landscapes and this was a chance to sketch some winter subjects.

In those days, once the Bay ice had thickened, travel was mostly by foot (aided by skis, skates, snowshoes, or combinations thereof), or sleighs pulled by horses or dogs. The Withs had used most of those winter methods to reach their islands since the cottages had been built four years previously. The brothers would stay at Ken’s place on the north end of Wahnuhke, and Ron could easily walk or ski to his island, which he had named Aberfeldy, a quarter-mile away.

Heavy wooden shutters covered all the cottages’ windows and doors. There was no electricity. A big stone fireplace and small box woodstove heated the living room, while a wood-burning cookstove in the kitchen had a dual role there.

There was no insulation in the walls or ceilings and no storm windows to help keep the heat in. It took a long, long time to warm up the living room, so it’s likely the brothers spent most of their indoor time in the smaller kitchen.

Other than sketching and skiing around the islands, we don’t know how they spent their time, or actually how long they were there. If their call-up orders came, they had arranged for someone to bring the message to them.

However as the days passed and supplies ran low, it was decided that one of them should “go out” to re-stock and get news of the war. Ken decided he would do it — a good chance to contact his family.

So, probably very early one morning, he skied down the channel to Beausoleil, crossed the north end of that island, then went directly south down the length of Beausoleil Bay and continued across the ice to Midland.

He was gone for more than a day so it’s likely he took the train or bus to Toronto. When he arrived back in Midland he picked up supplies for a bit longer stay at the island, then late in the day headed out across the ice again

It was night time when he wearily plodded up the sloping snow covered rocks at the cottage, took off his skis, opened the shutter and inside doors, and startled his sleeping brother awake as he dropped his bulging knapsack on the floor.

No doubt a lamp was lit, the stove was given more wood, a bottle of whisky was opened, and the news of the trip, the war, and the family was passed along to an eagerly awaiting, and probably somewhat lonely, Ron.

We don’t know if Ken brought back any word about their call-up orders but he must have made enquiries. In any case, they eventually came through, the brothers closed their cottages for the long term, packed their knapsacks, and struck off for Midland and Toronto to face unknown but inevitable changes in their lives.

Kenneth became a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve and served as a gunnery officer on merchant ships in the English Channel until 1943. He then returned to Canada — promoted to lieutenant-commander — to oversee naval gunnery training for the duration of the war, based in Ottawa.

Ronald attained the rank of captain in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. The brothers briefly reunited when chances arose, then Ron himself went overseas and saw action. He was wounded twice, the last time in Normandy, France, following the D-Day invasion of 1944.

Ron’s recovery from that second and most serious injury took several years. In the spring of 1948 he was convalescing with Granny at her cottage in the middle of Wahnuhke island, following what might have been the final surgery on his shattered foot. He was not yet able to live on his own at Aberfeldy, or even re-launch his inboard boat Tanniwaw, stored in Honey Harbour.

He did spend a lot of time in Granny’s rowboat trolling for pike and, after the season opened, black bass, using homemade spinners cut from tin cans.

He lost one once when his line broke and the fish got away, so he made a replacement. With that one, days later he trolled around the south end of the island and landed a nice pike. Hooked in its mouth was his lost spinner!

Ronald With and brother Kenneth and his wife Isabel, Ottawa 1943.

2 thoughts on “Testing their mettle

  1. This is a fascinating read, putting together many pieces of family lore from our childhood. How intrepid those two were, heading out over the ice all that way! The telegram summoning Kenneth to report for service is somewhere in the family papers. Must look for it.


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