Ghosts of Lake Timiskaming

by Brendan Quarry - May 26, 2002

On the morning of June 11, 1978, 27 boys and 4 leaders set their canoes in the waters of Lake Timiskaming to begin what was to be a 3-week trip at the end of the school year. The trip re-traced a 17th-century voyage by French explorer Chevalier Pierre de Troyes, canoeing along Lake Timiskaming on the Quebec-Ontario border to James Bay. For St. John's School of Ontario, a private boys' school on the outskirts of Toronto, a yearly canoe trip offered one of many opportunities to build character through challenges and ultimately hardship. This was the St. John's way. On that fateful day, however, something would go horribly wrong. The day started off well. The weather was warm and the boys were learning to maneuver their new twenty-two-foot war canoes. But by dark, all 4 canoes were overturned in the water and 12 boys and one leader were dead.

The story of the canoeing tragedy on Lake Timiskaming is one that many Canadians will never forget. Photos of running shoes sticking up from the tarps that covered the bodies appeared in newspapers around the world. Newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times and The Times in England were asking how such a thing could have happened.

Now almost 25 years later, Canadian author James Raffan has detailed the events of that day in his new book "Deep Waters". Raffan is not only a respected Canadian writer but also a prominent canoeist who's written several books on the Canadian wilderness and canoeing in particular. Raffan not only explores the events surrounding the tragedy but also examines the culture of St. John's School and how the school's approach to 'character building' played a pivotal role in the accident.

For me personally, the book stirred many ghosts. In 1980, two years after Lake Timiskaming, I was enrolled at St. John's School of Ontario at the age of 13. St. John's was unlike any school in Canada at the time - or since, for that matter. Founded on the principles of the old British school system and borne out of frustration over the state of public schools in Canada, St. John's offered young boys the opportunity to build character through adventure, hardship, and discipline. Many of the boys enrolled at St. John's were sent there by parents who couldn't find an environment suitable for their difficult children. St. John's was not a reform school but rather a return to the old traditions of schooling. There were no uniforms, no rich kids, or inter-collegiate rugby matches, just 10 masters (teachers were referred to as 'masters'), 64 boys, a modest school house, dormitory, and chapel.

I myself was not so much a 'difficult' kid as I was 'directionless', skipping classes at my school in downtown Montreal and hanging out in the pinball arcades. For my parents, St. John's was the one school that offered a philosophy to which they both subscribed - despite that day on Lake Timiskaming.

The 'accident', as we referred to it at St. John's, was not something that was discussed. The wounds were still raw for many at the school. A couple of the boys on that Timiskaming trip were still enrolled at the school. This was perhaps the most amazing part of the story. Not only did parents refuse to sue the school (a case they would surely have won given the school's admitted negligence), some sent their boys back, and some parents who lost children on that trip sent their younger sons to the school. I went to St. John's with two boys who's older brothers died on Lake Timiskaming.

Why this unwavering support? In Raffan's book, he interviews some of the parents who's sons died on Timiskaming and when asked why they didn't sue, many simply said, "because it was the best year of my son's life."

In my years at St. John's, the ghosts of Timiskaming were never far away. Black and white photos of years past hung in the cafeteria, showing boys taking on the many challenges; snowshoeing, canoeing, running, honey-selling. Some of the boys in the photos survived that canoe trip in 1978, some did not. I remember asking an older boy which ones were among the 13 dead. "Him, him, him, not him, him" he quietly said as he pointed to the photos.

A plaque on the wall honoured those 13 dead, listing each one by name. The Mark Denny Award also hung on the wall, commemorating the one alumnus who died on the trip. This prestigious award was given to the one boy who exemplified compassion and leadership throughout the year. It was said that Mark Denny tied himself to another boy over the body of the overturned canoe to keep him from drifting away.

The canoes themselves, the subject of much controversy, sat in the field by the masters' residence. The canoes were custom built by the renowned Chestnut Canoe Company in Federicton by adding an extra three inches of freeboard to the sides. Some would later argue that adding those extra inches upset the balance of the canoes and compromised their performance. It was said that the masters argued each year about whether to use those same canoes in subsequent trips. Some felt that the canoes should be utilized given the financial constraints of the school, while others refused given their history. It was rumoured that one master finally put an end to the yearly argument by marching to the field with a shot gun and blowing holes into the four canoes.

One master in particular suffered greatly from the Timiskaming accident. Neil Thompson was a fresh recruit from England when the school gave him the task of sternsman on that trip. Concerned about his own lack of experience, Thompson expressed his concerns to the school but they fell of deaf ears. As Raffan describes in his book, St. John's had a habit of risk-taking, of learning-as-you-go. When I attended St. John's, Mr. Thompson was a nervous wreck. As young boys, we never understood the history of the man and cruelly referred to him as 'Dopey' Tom. It was only after reading Raffan's book 25 years later that I learned of Thompson's suffering. Thompson's canoe was the first to capsize, which essentially created a chain reaction. As the other canoes came to rescue their friends floating in the cold waters, they too would capsize. In the end, every boy in Thompson's canoe died of hypothermia. He was never the same.

After the coroner's inquest into the tragedy, the deaths were ruled an accident and no charges were laid. The school, however, was condemned for its disregard of safety and its macho attitude. This was highlighted in the language of the report, "We feel that for boys from 12 to 14 years of age, this entire expedition constituted an exaggerated and pointless challenge."

While St. John's changed its policies with respect to safety, they never compromised on their macho philosophy of building character through challenges and discipline. In the years I attended the school, we went on 500 mile canoe trips through Georgian Bay, snowshoed 35 mile races up north, ran 24 hour relays, and endured regular corporate punishment, which came in the form of a 1x2 stick across the ass (a punishment that was unusually painful even by adult standards).

In the end, St. John's would not survive as a school. By midway through the year of 1989, amid ongoing financial difficulties, the school closed its doors for good. Schools such as St. John's do not survive in today's era of child-coddling and hysterical risk-avoidance. St. John's was a school with many faults; over-zealous teachers, religious indoctrination, and an excessive macho attitude. But despite its problems and failures, St. John's offered boys something absent in today's schools: the opportunity for a child to unearth their abilities, to discover a world beyond Nintendo and Much Music.

While St. John's ultimately failed to find the balance between 'character building' and reckless male bravado, their path nonetheless pointed in the right direction. The school recognized an emerging society that no longer challenged its youth, a society that would rather sanitize the world of risk than have a child achieve true self-awareness through experience. In the end, however, that religious pursuit blinded St. John's. This was best illustrated in Raffan's book when quoting the founder of St. John's, Frank Wiens. Whenever questioned by a parent on the risks the boys were undertaking, Wiens was fond of saying, "We, at St. John's, believe it's better for a kid to die in the woods than to die in front of a television set." Had he known that Lake Timiskaming would occur some years later, I'm sure he may have chosen different words.