In 1963, a group of scouts from Texas were on a trip in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, only to have tragedy strike. Fifty-three years later, one of those scouts returns to reflect on the awesome but ruthless power of the natural world. Here’s Part 1 of Bertram Bruce’s story of his two trips to Quetico, decades apart.
Story and Photos by (and courtesy of) Bertram C. Bruce
On my first canoe trip to Quetico, I was too young to grow a beard. If I had been able to do so, it would have been dark brown, almost black. On my second trip, I managed to grow a thick beard, this time one that was all white. Experiencing these trips to one of Ontario’s most pristine provincial parks, and even more, counter-posing the two, has made me deeply aware of how wilderness brings us closer—not just to nature but to ourselves, and to the meaning of our own life and death.
In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta writes: “Death is water’s close companion, and neither of them can be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death.”
Nowhere is that more evident than on a wilderness trip, especially when it occurs long before the summer crowds appear. ’
“Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both,” she continues. “Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us.”
Again, the truth of that does not require wildness; but it is wildness that can make us aware of it in a way that no city experience can do.
Explorer Scouts Expedition, 1963
In August 1963, our Explorer Post 52 from Fort Worth, Texas—a scouting unit with a long tradition in the United States—travelled to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park for what was supposed to be a 10-day wilderness canoe trip. In order to get to Quetico, we journeyed for three days in what was even then an aging, yellow school bus.
We stayed in Air Force bases (it was a Boy Scouts-sponsored expedition), sleeping on their gym floors and experiencing steam baths for the first time. This was a year of big events, including Dr. King’s March on Washington civil rights’ rally (indeed, taking place that very month, where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech), and the assassination of President Kennedy.
But the trip to Quetico was the major event in my life that year, for reasons that should become clear. It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, storytelling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires.
It was good exercise too, especially with the canvas packs of those days. On portages, one of us would carry the canoe, one a food pack, which weighed 110 pounds in the beginning, and one all our gear, including cotton sleeping bags, canvas tent and clothes.
Our group of 12 embarked in four aluminum canoes from the Charles L. Sommers Canoe Base on Moose Lake north toward Prairie Portage. (Our total group number was actually twice that size, but we broke into two parties of 12 for most of the paddling.) We made our way through Bayley Bay, Burke Lake, North Bay, and with some hard portaging to Sarah Lake. From there, we continued northwest through McIntyre Lake, Brent Lake, then on to Darkwater Lake, where we may have stayed for two nights. (My journal is unclear on that point).
It was at Darkwater Lake where we saw the Aurora Borealis and talked in the imagined wisdom of teenagers about the meaning of life, God, politics, and what life would hold for each of us. There were awkward and uneasy jokes that one of our group would be struck by lightning for his heretical statements, and we had no way of knowing how life would unfold in its own way.
After several great days we began turning back south, camping at Wednesday Bay on Crooked Lake along route. The lake is a narrow, tortuous body of water, essentially a wide section of the Basswood River. We had been out for a week and were heading home.
Setting out the next morning, we enjoyed a sunny day with little wind. We were on the Basswood River, in the Crooked Lake section below Lower Basswood Falls. The date was August 22, 1963.
We were ill-prepared for what was to happen. Sometime in the midmorning, a thunderstorm changed all our plans. There were whitecaps, three-foot waves and heavy rain. When the storm arrived, we decided not to risk a crossing and pulled into a cave at the base of a huge granite cliff with pictographs that we could not see. We had little chance of noticing that we were clinging to the famous Picture Rocks of Crooked Lake.
To anchor my canoe, I grabbed onto the rock face under an overhang on this 60-foot high cliff. Fred Moyer, who was our guide, also held his canoe to the rock. Fred was a naturally skilled guide, even though he was only 23 years old. He was from McAllen, Texas, and this was his first year as a guide. The other two canoes were secured to ours, connected in a chain to avoid capsizing or being drawn out into the lake.
The rain was coming at us sideways and I wanted to tighten my poncho. As I did, lightning struck a solitary tree at the top of the cliff. The current travelled down the cliff, through the granite, to our cave. Everything turned suddenly white, for some indefinite period. If you told me today that it lasted for 10 seconds or just one, I would not be able to dispute it because time did not exist for me then.
I could feel the charge in the air, and am still sensitive to changing electrical conditions, all these years later. When I have felt a similar charge while canoeing, I get very nervous.
The current reached Fred’s hand, which was still touching the rock. His canoe, which was the only wood and canvas one, was totally shattered, sending its passengers into the lake. Bob Cocanower and Gary Rall were the two paddlers in Fred’s canoe. Bob popped to the surface first, saying that his arms were paralyzed. Then Gary appeared, calling out that his legs were paralyzed. Fred did not come up. Someone in our group dove in to pull him up from beneath the water and we tried to revive him, but he had been killed instantly.
Part 2 of Bertram Bruce’s story: All’s Quiet in Quetico: Returning to Reflect in 2016
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Scouts are of course, supposed to “be prepared.” But for us, at that time, it meant knowing how to paddle a canoe or build a campfire. And first-aid was about cuts and burns, or on rare occasions life-threatening conditions such as hypothermia—not about paralysis, even though temporary, much less death itself. Even more than not knowing what to do, we didn’t know how to deal with our feelings about the trauma. At that age for me, death was something that happened to distant relatives, or to characters in books.
I was stunned by it all. At the same time there was a protective distance, an unreality. My mind refused to accept that it had happened, and especially rejected the idea that it could have impacted me even more directly. Only slowly did I realize that I was the only one other than Fred holding on to the rock just before the lightning struck. If I had not let go to pull on my poncho, all 12 of us might have died, because it would have completed an electrical circuit connecting all our canoes.
Tall already, but not mature, I wanted to think of myself as sophisticated and worldly. Philosophical musings around the campfire were useful for the insecurities I had and my ignorance about what life can hold.
I wish I could say that at least the tragedy made me instantly wise. To be honest, I wasn’t the least bit wiser, but simply shaken in a way that told me my life had changed. Yet the memory would resonate long after and with other life events, in particular just a few years afterwards when my father died.
These thoughts would come in their own time. At the moment of crisis, we had to act. We decided to risk crossing the narrow, but turbulent lake anyway. Fortunately, we made it without incident to a beautiful campsite a short distance away, toward Lower Basswood Falls.
After Fred died, we put his body into a sleeping bag cover. Chuck Borgeson, our strongest paddler, and Duane, the guide from our companion group, took his body to a nearby ranger station. Chuck would carry the canoe, while Duane would carry his friend’s body. Once they reached the station, the ranger called for a pontoon plane to retrieve Fred.
We were filled with strong and conflicting emotions. In his account of the incident (on Explorer Post 52’s historical site), another member of our group, Bobby Coalson, wrote: “I remember the overwhelming feeling of being alive, and happy about the fact. I didn’t expect to feel such joy. I thought I was just supposed to feel sad.” I, too, experienced that odd sensation of joy amid the fear and sadness.
I must have gone into shock, because I went to sleep later that morning at the campsite and slept until the next day. We, of course, cut the trip short from what was planned originally, but not by much, because there was just no easy way to exit from the remote location.
The accident was reported in Texas newspapers as “lightning strikes Scout group, at least one killed.” Naturally our parents were distraught, but unable to learn much about what had happened for a couple of days. This was well before cellphones, and we had no portable radio. Eventually we managed to complete the journey home and reconnect with family. I believe that we all remained in shock or denial.
Aspects of the tragedy are still vivid for me today, perhaps even more now than they were then, as I’ve had time to reflect and to connect it with other experiences. I became more aware of how close death can be. That stayed with me when I worked the next few summers as an orderly in a hospital, and saw more of it firsthand.
At a physical level, I feel I can sense changes in the electrical charge of the atmosphere. I wouldn’t say that I’ve developed a phobia about lightning, but I do have a healthy caution coupled with an awareness of the conditions under which it can become deadly.
After the wilderness trip, we went to Winnipeg and found a restaurant that offered all-you-can-eat lunches for 49 cents. After two weeks of vigorous exercise and eating our own cooking from dehydrated potatoes, we teenage boys were hungry beyond any measure that a restaurant should have to endure. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear we had put them out of business.
When I returned from the trip, I discovered the September 1963 issue of National Geographic magazine in our living room. There was an article titled “Relics from the Rapids,” by Sigurd F. Olson, the longtime Boundary Waters guide and writer. It included a two-page photo of Picture Rocks on Crooked Lake in Quetico, exactly where the lightning had struck. How strange is that?
That article, by the way, shows that Quetico Provincial Park holds wonders and mysteries beyond those that we can easily see. Portraits of life there hundreds or even thousands of years ago are even now being revealed by archaeologists exploring the lake bottoms and underground.
A voracious outdoorsman, Olson lived in Ely, Minnesota for much of his adult life, where he worked as a wilderness guide, writer, advocate, activist and teacher. His efforts helped spark the environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and contributed to the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (known as BWCAW, which abuts Quetico) 15 years after our ill-fated scouts’ trip.
It is now 60 years since Olson wrote The Singing Wilderness, where he talks about how wilderness helps us become “aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.” Even then, he realized how modern life can destroy our “sanity and equilibrium.”
On the 1963 trip, I found the quiet beauty that Olson describes.
This happened even though the trip ended in a tragedy no one could have foreseen. I never met Fred’s family, but I’ve thought often about what the loss must have meant for them. It happened so far from their home in the southern tip of Texas. That’s a land of sun and palm trees rather than lakes and boreal forest.
For me that trip should have been a two-week adventure; instead, it punctuated how I remember my teenage days and influenced how I think about life, even today. Despite what it meant for me, and even though I had canoed in the general area, I had never returned to Quetico itself, and definitely not to the Picture Rocks where the disaster occurred. That is, until May of 2016.