The islands were happy, even a century ago

How a canoeist revelled in Georgian Bay’s wilderness

This book, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1926, covers a period from the late 19th Century to the first two decades of the 20th. The Bay was quite different back then.

Logging was declining but still active, leaving much of the shoreline and interior denuded of stately white pine trees but their logs still jammed rapids and channels. Tourism was in its infancy and consisted primarily of wealthy Americans and Canadians who were able to buy prime unoccupied islands for both individual use or collectively for fishing and recreational groups. Transportation was mostly by steamer to reach those places, and then paddling, rowing or sailing after arrival. Today’s ubiquitous motorboat was still in its infancy.

This was the Georgian Bay that author Marlow A. Shaw experienced and grew to love enough to write The Happy Islands. I have read it at least three, and maybe even four, times from the 1950s to 2022. I have enjoyed and been inspired by it each time, though in varying ways.

It’s hard to find a copy now. Even Amazon lists it but can’t guarantee finding it. Fortunately, I was given a copy over 50 years ago by my wife who had a bookseller search for it even then.

Who was he?

I have Googled his name, tried to contact the publisher, even considered going after their early records now in a university’s archives. In my most recent reading I have watched for references that might hint at who Marlow Shaw was. The closest I can surmise is that he taught at a university in the U.S., maybe in Ohio; he had taken a course at the University of Toronto; and he was probably a bachelor and quite young and fit to do the amount of canoeing he writes about.

And of course he had a passion for eastern and northern Georgian Bay, its water- and landscapes, geography, history, and people past and present at that time.

In my most recent read I became mildly frustrated with his writing style, a little too antiquated for my taste. Why I didn’t feel that way in previous reads, I can’t explain. Maybe it’s something to do with a lifetime of journalistic style writing. Another irritant was always calling it “the Georgian Bay” — drop the “the” !

Something we share

Elsewhere on this blog, and evident in others, is the essential reason this place captures us:

Shaw writes in his Foreward that the Bay’s shores “…lay hold on those who know them with a rare and powerful loveliness.”

That pretty well says it all.

Legend of Sandy Gray

In the Musquash and Go Home areas of southeastern Georgian Bay the name Sandy Gray may ring a bell. A century and more ago it was heard often around Muskoka Mills at the outlet of the river.

Alex “Sandy” Gray was foreman of a river driving crew on the Musquash. In June, 1867, he left his home and bride-to-be in Gravenhurst to join the effort trying to break a jam that had blocked a major spring run of logs to the mill.

Among loggers it was taboo to work on Sundays, but when Gray arrived at the site it was obvious that the jam had to be broken quickly to avoid a bigger backup of logs.

According to one legend, Shaw writes, Gray declared that Sunday morning: “Boys, we’ll break the jam or breakfast in hell!”

It was claimed that, after the key log of the jam was identified, Gray was tied in the middle of a rope strung across the river and tied to trees at both ends. As soon as he loosened the key log men handling the rope would lift him clear of the logs and he would be pulled to safety. But they could not do it fast enough and Gray was caught in the logs and carried to his death in the river.

There are other versions described in the book. But the fact is that Sandy Gray died on the river, and the spot where it happened has been named after him. Shaw tells us he had seen a weathered old sign there commemorating the tragedy.

[Ann Gianetto writes on Facebook:

My Pepere (Antoine Roi) was one of the guys that pulled Sandy Gray from the water, near Go Home Lake where it empties into the Musquash River. They buried him with his head near an IRON TREE and hung his boots in the tree as a marker.

Many people tried to cut down that tree but couldn’t. I wonder if the tree is still there? The Martin brothers use to tow the log rafts with their tugs to town.]

[An American folk music group performs a song about Sandy Gray. The dates and a few facts are different than Shaw’s, and we don’t know who composed the song, but it is nice to know the legend lives on musically as well. Watch and listen here: ]

Ruling the waves in canoes

Somewhere off the mouth of the Magnettawan River, Shaw and companions had a memorable experience paddling on really big waves. Although they scared the daylights out of themselves, as often happens the after-effects included greater pride and confidence in their canoeing abilities. Here is his description of one tense moment:

“…heading into the waves, the canoe rose and fell like a cork.Now and again the bow would fall from a big wave with a resounding whack that sent a shiver through the entire frame of it.”

Running before the biggest waves was so tricky he feared the slightest shifting of the paddlers’ weight “would have sent us over…the next big wave caught us full behind, lifted four feet of the bow clean out of the water, and took us along like a mill race.”

Along they went across the seething water with the slapping of the waves, the hissing of their breaking, and the frightening sight of them within an inch of curling over the gunwales. Eventually they grounded on a sandy beach, leaped out and pulled the craft to safety ashore.

Shaw had disbelieved accounts of indigenous paddlers in birchbark canoes travelling the open lakes in similar condtions. One story told of a steam tug in Lake Huron in a storm “to the fear of foundering” then meeting a native family paddling a bark canoe “with unperturbed minds.”

“I believe it now in light of experience,” he admitted.

When lifestyles collide

The Happy Islands weren’t always happy. Midway through the book Shaw tells the story of a recluse named Jake, of Split Rock outside of Go Home Bay.

In the years before city people discovered the islands in the Go Home area and started buying and then building cottages on them, there might have been loners wanting to escape society and live by their wits in this wilderness. Apparently Jake was one of these. He built a shack at Split Rock and lived there contentedly with his dog Toby. That is where Marlow Shaw met Jake.

Nature was Jake’s friend and wildlife his companions. In the inner channels of Go Home was a salt-lick that attracted deer. He was working on taming a couple of them to lick his hand. He also kept an eye on wild ducks that fed in the shallow backchannels.

In the summer he saw that more tourists were entering the area. Then a clubhouse started going up on the main inlet at Go Home. Gradually Jake learned that the area was being developed as a cottage community by a group of university people. As a squatter at Split Rock, he could see the writing on the wall.

Jake’s wilderness was no longer his alone. The tourists were, in his eyes, greedy fishermen and trigger-happy hunters. Two of his semi-tame deer were shot at the salt-lick.

One morniing at Split Rock he saw a canoe approaching from Go Home. It tied up at his dock and a man and his young daughter landed. The girl played with Toby while the man told Jake he was the new owner of Split Rock. He also bragged that he had killed two deer inland.

In silent rage, Jake declared he would leave the island the next day. The man and girl started paddling back across the open water to Go Home. Jake’s peaceful life had been shattered.

He watched as the canoe began struggling against choppy waves created by the rising morning breeze. Suddenly he no longer could see the canoe but instead its capsized bottom and the man clinging to it. The girl, in an improperly fitted lifejacket, was floundering to keep her head out of the water.

Instantly putting his resentment aside, Jake launched his own canoe and paddled frantically to the scene. The father was utterly helpless to save his daughter, so Jake lifted the girl into his canoe and placed her on the bottom, then he climbed into the water himself and, clinging to the stern, instructed the panicking father how to climb aboard without capsizing the fragile craft. Jake would swim behind tethered with a rope while the father paddled eastward.

Jake could see that his weight was too much of a drag for the canoe to reach safety soon enough, so he let go of the rope and urged the man to paddle quickly to get help reviving the girl.

Meanwhile, his dog Toby had swum after his master and wanted to play a water game they had enjoyed elsewhere. Jake firmly told the dog to follow the canoe with the girl aboard. Then, utterly exhausted, he sank beneath the waves.

Shaw returned to the area three years after the incident and pieced the story together from accounts by club members at Go Home. He doesn’t say whether the noble, reclusive hero’s body was ever recovered.

Canoes galore

The Happy Islands really is as much about canoeing as it is about the Bay. Shaw lived and breathed paddling although at one point he admitted his skill was not all-encompassing. For instance, there were some people who could “read” and run rapids better than he could. But he knew canoes well enough to have at least one custom built for his summer explorations of the Bay.

He also was accutely aware of the history and use of the canoe, especially in the early days of European exploration of the region.

The book concludes with a lengthy description by a companion on a “cruise” by several canoeists camped possibly on Christian Island. The man had recently read the Jesuit Relations, an extensive history of Catholic missionary work among the indigenous people of eastern North America. The man recounted the efforts of missionaries among the Wendat, or Hurons as the French named them, in southern Georgian Bay, the same area these men were camped in.

For the native North Americans trade among their nations, and later fur trade with the French, meant flotillas of freight-laden canoes paddling up and down Georgian Bay’s shores.

Try picturing this: Shaw quotes the narrator, “…in 1634, 700 Indians with 120 canoes comprised the fleet that set out up the Georgian Bay highroad on the long journey of 800 miles.”

The narrator dwelt at frequent intervals on the perceived barbarianism of the native people towards the missionaries, and the crude lifestyle of the natives compared to that of the French priests themselves. Adding fuel to that fire was the near annihilation of the Huron people and the martyrdom of several missionaries at the hands of invading Iroquois in the mid-17th Century.

To me there was a strong hint of “Why can’t they be like us?” throughout his narration, a theme unfortunately not unheard of in some circles 300 years later, when First Nations wonder why non-native people don’t try harder to understand the cultures they overwhelmed — but that still exist — when Europeans arrived.

The artist

The book’s cover, above, and seven inside pages are illustrated by Thoreau MacDonald, a Toronto illustrator and son of Group of Seven member J.E.H MacDonald.

2 thoughts on “The islands were happy, even a century ago

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: