A hardy homesteader

On the east side of Tomahawk Island is a narrow S-curve channel. In the days before power boats it must have been a peaceful, serene waterway protected from the winds and waves of the main channel on the west side of the island. A frequent user of it in the 1930s was an elderly man known by the cottagers as Joe Kirby. He earned a living doing maintenance on cottages north of the narrows.

Joe got around using a small dark green boat powered by a “one lunger”, a single-cylinder make-and-break engine whose exhaust made a horrendous racket. Apparently that didn’t bother him because he was nearly stone deaf. He would swing the flywheel to start the motor, then settle on the closest seat, grasp the steering cords connected to the rudder, and head out onto the channel. He sat back like he was in an armchair, enjoying the passing scenery as the boat carried him along at a sedate speed.

At Wahnuhke we got so used to hearing the putt-putt of the boat getting louder as it passed by we’d glance up and say, “There goes Joe Kirby”.

One day an adult member of the family — who shall remain anonymous, and is no longer with us — was northbound in the Blackduck, negotiating the last curve from the narrows and picking up speed.

The Blackduck was 24 feet long and threw quite a large bow wave when her throttle was opened. From the steering position it wasn’t easy to see what was really close by on either side.

Sure enough, (I am imagining now how this scenario played out) suddenly almost right beside the skipper appeared a shocked and drenched Joe Kirby, water running off his battered old fedora as he wondered what on earth had snuck up astern to try and sink him. No doubt the big wave also doused the one-lunger which probably stopped dead, and filled the little green boat with gallons of Bay water.

What he might have lacked in seamanship skills the skipper more than made up for in kind-heartedness. That much I know for certain. I am sure he remorsefully helped bail out Joe’s boat, probably tried to dry him off, attempted to get his engiine re-started, or maybe even towed him to his destination. All this while poor, deaf Joe was still recovering from the shock.

But I believe there was much more to “Joe Kirby” than the elderly maintenance man. His name was really Joe Corbiere, one of the last of the settlers of Beausoleil Island who lived there after the First Nations people moved to Christian Island in the mid-1800s. (See Beautiful Beausoleil).

Parks Canada in a published history of Beausoleil Island (now the National Park) states that by 1856 the big island was surrendered by the First Nations, who were gradually then replaced there by homesteaders. The historian describes them as “…the first real pioneers on the island.

“They were a tough breed of men and women who managed to squeeze a living out of this barren yet hauntingly beautiful land.”

“Initially the settlers were all Ojibwa, but in time, homesteaders of other origins drifted to the island: French voyageurs, Scottish immigrants and Pottawottamie Indians from the United States.”

“Among those who lived on Beausoleil Island was Joe Corbiere, a French voyageur. A lilac bush still grows on the shores of Frying Pan Bay, at the spot where Joe and his wife Susan lived.

“Joe was a well-educated man who could read three languages: French, Ojibwa and English. Years later when he became deaf, he learned to lipread in all three languages. According to government records, the Corbieres had, in the year 1929, a fairly good log house with a frame lean-to and a log barn. Three cows, one pig and some chickens.”

“The Corbieres also kept a large garden where they grew corn, potatoes, oats and strawberries. Joe trapped, sold furs and filled ice houses for the ever increasing number of visitors and residents to the area.

“Gradually, the homesteaders moved away. In the few years preceding the formation of the park (1930), only three families remained: the Corbieres, Tonches and the Tobeys.”

The historian concludes, “In preparation for the opening of the park, the three remaining families were compensated and moved off the island.” I believe the Tobeys moved to Honey Harbour and maybe the two other families did as well. Even though the narrows is just across the main channel from Frying Pan Bay, it is likely Joe Corbiere might have been commuting from the Harbour by then.

Frying Pan Bay eventually was occupied by Camp Wabanaki of the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA, which is where I met my wife Daphne, the camp nurse, in 1967. The camp is gone now and the bay is a popular anchorage and campsite for the Georgian Bay Islands National Park.

I wonder if Joe and Susan’s lilac bush is still blooming there?

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