Harrowing trip sadly ended in tragedy

From our June 2012 issue

By Dorothy McLeod – Saskatoon, Sask.

Cockburn Island in Ontario is a small island in northern Lake Huron just west of Manitoulin Island, which is known as the largest fresh water island in the world.

In September of 1943, I went there to teach in a country school. The area was referred to as the Scotch Block because the residents were of Scottish descent.

The only mode of transportation was by boat during the summer or with horses and sleigh when the ice froze solid in the winter. There was one telephone line, but was not very dependable. It was February of 1944 and no mail – Christmas or otherwise – had been received since October.

It was decided that two men, Marvin Falls and Harry Jones, would take their team of horses and caboose and travel from Tolsmavilla on Cockburn Island to Meldrum Bay, the most western settlement and post office on Manitoulin Island.

The plan was to go one day, pick up the mail, and return the next. I decided to go along so I could have a short visit with my parents.

Also travelling back to Camp Petawawa was a young soldier. He was considered by the army to be absent without leave (AWOL) because of the fact there was no transportation for him to return to camp.

The next morning Iris (Jones) MacMillan, Lawrence and Ada Johnston and their little pet dog joined our drivers for the return trip. We were only a few hours out of Meldrum Bay when a snowstorm came up.

The men were walking ahead of the horses to watch for cracks in the ice. Cracks are sometimes wide and often hard to detect when the snow drifts over them.

The men had taken shelter from the storm by walking behind the caboose. Suddenly, the horses stopped. Without going out front to see why the horses had stopped, the men spoke to the animals. The horses stepped forward and sank into the icy water.

Iris was very alert because she was much more familiar with ice travel and ice tragedy. She screamed and dashed out the door of the caboose with Ada and I close behind.

The men moved quickly to unbuckle the harness from the caboose and yelled at us to get behind and pull the caboose back.

The horses rose up and clambered to get out but the ice kept breaking away. The men got ropes on them and we all pulled but to no avail. They sank.

We decided to walk the rest of the way knowing it would be a long walk. Despite our efforts to carry the little dog, it froze to death.

It was dusk when we saw the shoreline of Cockburn Island. There was no electricity back then, so there were no streetlights to offer any guidance. When you’re swimming or boating or travelling by ice, a shoreline is much farther away than it seems.

We were wandering further apart by now. The men on Cockburn returning from work with their horses and sleighs saw us as black specks way out on the ice.

They realized what had happened and came galloping down to meet us. We thankfully fell flat out on the flatbed of their sleighs. They took us home for a hot supper.

The men and more horses went out the next day and actually found the caboose containing all the mail from October to February. Christmas was wonderful, if a little late that year.

The residents of Manitoulin Island are referred to as ‘Haweaters’ because of the Hawberry tree that grows there. Residents of Cockburn Island were lovingly referred to as ‘Sandtrampers’ because of the miles of beautiful clean sand beaches there.

To my knowledge, there’s only one true-blue Haweater in Saskatchewan. She’s a friend of mine since we discovered we were both born on Manitoulin, within a few miles of each other. Her name is Shirley Byrnes and she lives in Saskatoon.