From Into The Blue
Chapter 1: A Pirate on the Family Tree
“For as long as I can remember I have been haunted by shipwrecks. Two in particular colour my fears with rust and slime. One of these boats is a prosaic wooden tug called the Metamora that was built in Cleveland in 1864 for service on the Great Lakes. It sank in 1907 about two hundred feet from the slippery pink rock that half a century later would become my father’s family island on the east shore of Georgian Bay in Lake Huron. The Wreck, as people in the area know it, sits in about six feet of water in the middle of a wide inlet strewn with treacherous shoals and glacier-rounded islands, smooth in places like a child’s skin. On the islands, twisted white pine and dwarf cedar trees have found sustenance in the rocks. They lean and poke at awkward angles, frozen in movement.
The Metamora today is little more than a few rusting pieces of machinery that jut out of the waves, yet it has become an icon in the area — a channel marker and a marker of time. We’re near The Wreck, we tell people when they ask for directions to our island, knowing they’ll understand where we mean. The water certainly is low (or high) on The Wreck, we say to each other every summer, monitoring the spring thaw.
But even more, it has become a measure of our family lore. Remember when Dad dumped us in the dinghy near The Wreck? That friend of yours who wanted to go snorkelling there? Remember that summer when it was so windy you could barely see it rising out of the waves?
When I go swimming off the front dock, I rarely stay in for long because I imagine skeletal fingers tracing a line along the bottom of my foot. I think of the fish who swam near The Wreck and then brushed by me. I won’t touch its rusty hull below the waterline and I give it a wide berth when I am forced to go by in a boat. On the rare occasions I am alone on the island I imagine I hear the silver whispers of drowning sailors calling for help.
The Metamora was a tug and coal carrier when she sank, but in her early days she had a more fearsome task. Fitted with armour-plating and a cannon, she was commissioned to patrol the waters of Upper Canada for Fenian invaders. In the 1870s, the threat of an Irish invasion gone, her combat gear was removed and she was returned to freight and passenger service. By the day in late September 1907 when she steamed by our island in Shawanaga Inlet near the village of Pointe au Baril, the boat was a confirmed workhorse, plying the channel between Midland and Killarney, towing log booms and handling freight.
Coming up the bay beside Nadeau, one of the larger of the 30,000 islands that are scattered along this rugged shore, the Metamora was towing a boom destined for the mill town of Byng Inlet. Just west of Turning Island, a nearly treeless rock now outfitted with a solar-powered light, the boat hit a shoal, listed and caught fire. Like many wooden boats of her vintage, she quickly burned and sank, coming to rest on the submerged reef that rises and dips from a point off our island.
The crew reportedly made an easy swim of it to the nearby shore. Some of them must have sat on the smooth, undulating rock at our point — the place my family calls Pirate’s Cove — breathing heavily, watching the flames gorge on the hull of their ship.
Only the stern section of the 115-foot boat survived the fire, and the rudder, steam engine and propeller remained largely intact. For many years afterward the charred wooden hull rose above the waterline, drawing scavengers and sightseers in wooden rowboats and skiffs. Today, it’s only the boiler you can see, a green and black channel marker secured to the rusting metal, and when the water is especially low a set of wooden ribs, looking from a distance like a family of wood ducks floating in a row. Each summer the Coast Guard paints the boiler white, a warning to those who pass by. One year, someone attached three garden gnomes to the metal. They appeared to be marching single file out of the water. Their goofy grins and droopy hats made The Wreck seem benign, silly even, but if you go up close, peer through the undulating water, try to make sense of the garbled remains, it is menacing: a rusted, rotting tangle of metal and wood.
The other shipwreck that lurks on the edge of my imagination is of the same vintage. It, too, sank on Georgian Bay. It was even similar in design and size to the Metamora. But the J. H. Jones has a more tragic story. All thirty passengers and crew died, drowned in the frigid fall waters of late November 1906. The wreck and the bodies trapped inside were never found.
The story of the Jones is also a more personal one for me. My great-grandfather, James Victor Crawford, was the captain. My mother’s mother, Eleanor, was the youngest of his six children.
When I was growing up I used to beg my mother to tell me what she knew about this wreck. She would assume the lilting, resonant voice that I recognized from having books read out loud at bedtime. The story of the lost boat seemed to flow from her with the cadence of a familiar song: details were fuzzy, unimportant. Over the years, she perfected her story. I knew when her voice would rise and when it would fall, what would be glossed over, what part would be embellished just a bit differently each time.
Her storytelling always began with the boat: how it was the last trip of a blustery fall season; how the waves were reported to be quivering towers, twenty-five feet high. But we both understood that the tale of the wreck was only the warm-up. That other story of loss — the play of hope and despair in the Crawfords’ cramped red-brick home as they waited for news of the missing boat; the creak of the door as someone came to tell the captain’s wife and children that the Jones was definitely lost; the whispers and rumours in the streets and sitting rooms of their small town; the pall cast over the young family; the smells, the cracks and fears and shame — is what interested my mother, and what captivated me. I wanted to hear how the tragedy affected my much-loved grandmother. I wanted to hear about the girl she had been.”
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