Midway through September, 1957, my friend Peter Saunderson and I organized ourselves to head up the Inside Passage to find the remains of an old paddlewheel steamer wrecked in a wild November storm in 1879.
The Waubuno first captured my imagination as a boy after World War 2 when I read the account of her mysterious disappearance in the book Lake Huron by Fred Landon. About that same time the weekly column Schooner Days by C.H.J. Snider in the Toronto Telegram repeated the story with some new slants. Both accounts mentioned that remains of the ship’s bare hull rested in the shallows around the aptly named Wreck Island, and there were hints of where the steamer had actually foundered from items caught in commercial fishing nets offshore from that place.
What enthralled me was the fact that this tragedy had occurred near our part of Georgian Bay, waters my parents had crossed many times as they cruised up and down the Inside Channel over the years. Seeing the wreck for myself had become a bit of an obsession.
Pete had endured enough of my daydreaming to catch the bug and join in the search, so with a couple of weeks’ holidays early that autumn we decided to do it. We borrowed the Blackduck which had an enclosed cabin with a double berth, loaded her up with our gear including some books about Great Lakes history and a bottle of rum, tied the Egg on a towline astern, and set out.
Weather forecasts then were not nearly as specific or long range as they are now and were only available on AM radio, so you took your chances and prepared for whatever came your way, especially as the autumnal equinox approached. The sun beamed down that day, however, and the breeze was from the southwest as we wended our way northward from our home base southeast of Cognashene.
It took about two hours for the Blackduck to chug up past Manitou Dock, around Moose Point, and begin poking along the south shore of Wreck Island. We were now in unfamiliar waters and, having left the main channel, were not sure of the best route to reach the small bay on the island’s east side that we had chosen as our anchorage.
In our enthusiasm we hadn’t noticed that high, thin wisps of cloud were creeping across the deep blue sky making visibility through the water’s surface difficult. As a result, we gently lodged ourselves on a reef, then fouled the Egg’s towline on the propeller as we tried to ease off under engine power. Pete took his first swim of the day and solved both problems. Having threaded much more carefully through the rest of the reefs, we dropped anchor just before five o’clock in the protected cove.
When supper was over and the sun was setting on the other side of the island, we set off in the Egg on a reconnaissance. There were few cottages in the area and, with only a couple of exceptions, those were unoccupied in mid-week in the off-season. We had the place to ourselves.
Before we had rowed far it was dark. Stars had disappeared behind the thickening cloud. There wasn’t a light to be seen anywhere. The water that lapped along the Egg’s sides was a menacingly inky black. The atmosphere was dripping with mystery as we found ourselves bobbing in the blackness off the exposed shore of Little Wreck Island. Back to the security of the Blackduck we rowed. Tomorrow we would see what we could find in daylight.
The patter of raindrops on the cabin roof awoke us at three a.m. All the gear was moved inside except the dirty dishes which would benefit from a good soaking. By eight o’clock water was streaming through the warped moulding around the boat’s old cabin windows. Sleeping bags became sodden so we rolled them up out of the way and made coffee on the Primus stove. The food was damp but the coffee helped wash down a soggy bread-and-jam breakfast.
The rain pelted on and all thoughts of searching for the wreck were shelved. We spent the morning reading about shipwrecks on the Lakes from pages that were limp with humidity. By about eleven the moisture in the cabin was so high and the spirits so low that an argument ensued: one was for weighing anchor and finding somewhere (heaven knew where) to get dry; the other, a bit of an optimist, was sure the rain would ease up enough to let explorations continue.
We compromised and started the engine to pump the rainwater out of the bilge. Noon found us, drenched and disagreeable, skirting the maze of reefs again to reach the main channel. Heading towards Manitou, we spotted two figures on a nearby island and stopped to call out: “Can you tell us where we can buy some gas?” (We were too proud to broach the true question:”Where can we get in out of the wet?”) “Over at MacNamara’s,” was the reply. “Just keep heading that way. Can’t miss it.”
MacNamara’s at the north entrance to Manitou was known then as Lanoka Lodge. It was a big old cottage with several more recent cabins. MacNamara, his son and daughter-in-law ran it as a fishing camp catering to mainly American sportsmen. One such group was currently out fishing despite the pouring rain. Mrs. Mac Jr. offered us one of the cabins for the night, then sat us down to a huge plate of sandwiches while she made up the dry warm beds. Our spirits nicely revived, we settled down to a comfortable afternoon catching up on lost sleep and reading about the lost Waubuno.
Next morning we awoke to one of those glorious fresh clear September days at the Bay when it is great to be alive. It had the promise of being an excellent wreck-hunting day. But we had learned a lesson, so at breakfast we caught the forecast and were told another deluge was on its way. It being our last day, we bought some gas, paid our ridiculously low accommodation bill (I believe only $5 each!), signed the register and headed southward to resume our search for the Waubuno another day.
That day came a week later, another September beauty with just a bit of westerly breeze and only a few clouds. This time it was strictly a day trip in the Saunderson’s Agawa, slightly smaller and faster than the Blackduck. From what we had learned on the first trip, we ran directly to the north side of Wreck Island and began searching the shallows along the shoreline.
Then, to our surprise, around a point came an ancient rowboat with a man and woman aboard, apparently enjoying an aimless excursion under the brilliant blue sky. We approached to ask if they knew the wreck’s location and were astonished to discover they had been fellow students of Pete’s at university.
Austin Clarke and his bride were on their honeymoon at a nearby cottage borrowed from a professor. They had been told of the wreck, had seen it themselves from the rowboat, and took us right to it. Success at last!
(Clarke became a novelist, well known in his native Barbados and Canadian literary circles. He died at Toronto in 2016 aged 81.)
The bow of the Waubuno lay right beside the dock of a nearby cottage while the rest of the hull stretched away out of sight into deep water. There it rested, all that remained of the old steamer that had served settlers along the shore and then suffered such torment out there in raging seas and hungry rocks to the west in the late autumn of 1879.
As we stared through the green water I could almost feel the aura that had hung about her for so long. It dawned on me then, on that pitch black night the week before, we had rowed right over the wreck in the Egg. In fact it was just as we had passed that spot that the strong sense of mystery overtook us as we had turned back from Little Wreck Island.
It wasn’t the first time those feelings had touched me in that part of Georgian Bay. Some years before, on a camping trip among the outer islands when there still were very few other people around, a sense of the unexplained had crept upon us as we explored a derelict fishing shed and discovered a dead dog floating beside it.
To this day, no matter how many huge cottages defile the islands or screaming jet-skis the waterways, for me it is easy to feel the spiritual side of the Bay at that place.
What had happened on that wild and snowy November day off the Haystack Rocks so many years ago? What awful fate had so quickly overtaken the 24 souls aboard the Waubuno that not a body was ever found? How had the ship’s empty hull made its way, bottom up, to an almost landlocked cove four miles to the east?
Since that day of discovery for us in 1957 the actual site of the foundering has been located and various plausible answers have been put forth. Today when I go to the Bay, I can actually look out on the scene of that tragedy. I have felt the chill of a raw and wild late fall nor’wester with snowflurries swirling around my small open boat, and experienced just a little of the power that must have overwhelmed the Waubuno.
The story of the wreck and its aftermath as covered in the press at the time and since, can be found at: http://images.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/56303/data?n=2
Photos of the Waubuno can be seen here: http://greatlakeships.org/2895509/data?n=1