Of unsung heroes

By the time the big launch had crept through the growing darkness past Eshpabekong Island, waves pushed by a strong east wind began to make it roll. Giving a wide berth to a shoal at the north end of Giant’s Tomb Island, the skipper ran south along the boulder beds of the Tomb’s west shore. Picking his spot carefully, he eased the boat’s bow up to the rocks. Two youths with flashlights jumped ashore and disappeared into the woods. The boat backed away and dropped anchor in deeper water. We settled down to wait.

As night fell completely on that windy, rainy September evening, we who were left on the boat chatted occasionally but, being three groups of strangers, eventually ran out of conversation. We strained our eyes seeking a light on the shore, indicating that the boys had found the American campers marooned on the other side of the island, and had led them through the dark woods to the boat.

Many acts by “heroes” go unrecognized because they are done quietly, out of compassion and goodwill, with no thought of getting anything in return. In this case it was the Robitaille families of Cognashene. On that blustery evening about 60 years ago, they rose to the call to help those young campers, at no small risk to their boat and themselves.

I was by myself at Wahnuhke that afternoon when a small boat from Tomahawk Island to the south landed on the west shore. Two anxious looking fellows about my own age came to the door. They explained that four or five of their friends had gone to the Giant’s Tomb’s eastern beaches for an overnight camp-out and had not returned.

A glance outside explained why. The easterly wind had been blowing all day, creating good sized surf on the beach and lowering the water level like an ebbing tide, making it impossible for the campers to launch their boats. I was asked if we could take the Blackduck to go out and rescue them.

A dilemma! I estimated that the boat’s gas supply would not get us all the way to the Tomb and back, and there was nowhere open to buy more. And with the east wind a rescue would have to take place from the west shore, which meant wending our way in dwindling daylight through the unfamiliar waters, finding the campers and lead them back through the woods to the boat in the dark.

This was a serious situation requiring more skill and experience than I had. But we had to do something. The young teens who included a couple of girls were probably badly frightened, out of food, their boats useless in the heavy surf. I emptied every drop of gas I could find into Blackduck‘s tank and calculated we could at least get to Cognashene and back. We got extra flashlights and raingear, and headed west.

We pulled into the dock at the R.Y. Eaton cottage and explained our plight to the caretaker. He urged us to contact the Robitailles in Cognashene Lake and took one of our boys in his boat to ask for help.

It didn’t take much persuading. It seemed in no time the Robitaille’s husky launch appeared through the dusk to take us aboard and head for the Giant’s Tomb. I was hugely relieved to put our mission in their capable hands.

I didn’t know the Robitailles personally, but the brothers Celest and Phil were part of a family that had lived year-round at Cognashene since the early 1930s. Like almost all permanent residendts, they had intimate knowledge of the local waters.

To this day, I can still remember marvelling at their ability to steer the boat in the dark among the lurking reefs between Townsend and Eshpabekong Islands, then correctly estimating where on the west side their boys should be landed to cross the island and find the campers.

It was now totally dark as we waited in the boat for a light on shore. Privately, I wondered if they were having trouble, first struggling through the dense woods, then retracing their steps with the campers. At last a light was spotted in the woods opposite the boat. With unerring instinct, or perhaps smart trailblazing, they had come out exactly where they should have.

Everyone was soon aboard the boat again and it was heading through the darkness to Cognashene. The campers were unhurt but were shaken by their ordeal.

They had pulled their boats up on the beach when they landed at the Tomb, but overnight the waves from the east had washed over the sterns, soaking the motors and half filling the boats with water. The tents had blown down, clothing and food was soaked and a campfire was out of the question. They were truly marooned, and the only people who knew their predicament were their two older friends back at Tomahawk who had neither the resources nor know-how to rescue them.

As we boarded our boat back at the Eaton’s dock, we said heart-felt thank-yous and goodbyes to the Robitailles and headed southeast to Tomahawk. The next weekend I was invited to a barbecue at their cottage as a gesture of thanks. I hope they also showed appreciation to the Robitailles because they were the deserving ones. They had rallied without hesitation. Of such stuff are unsung heroes made.

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