Lake Couchiching, ON - David Town
My Watermark is Lake Couchiching, Ontario.
From the air the island looked just like a battleship. Long and narrow, tapering off at each end, it extended out under the water as rocky shoals for hundreds of feet. Some imaginative soul aptly named it Ship Island many years ago.
Out in the middle of Lake Couchiching one summer, our Blue Boat began arriving there often, off the island's northern tip, full of adventurous explorers. We would peer over the side into the green water anticipating the treasure we were about to find there, wedged between the rocks, but guarded by voracious, monster crayfish and stealthy muskellunge. The thrill of discovery made these trips the highlights of our summers.
It all started with my oldest sisters. One summer, for some obscure reason only teenagers can understand, they became adverse to touching anything on the lake bottom. When you live at a cottage on a shallow lake that is a very inconvenient fear. They would walk on the hard packed sandy bottom at the end of the dock where it was only two feet deep but would not dare touch the low curly weeds out where it started to get deeper (a transition point succinctly called “weeds”). Heaven forbid they touch one of the tall, sparse weeds that could reach up ten feet from the bottom to lick the water’s surface.
That was the way it was for my two oldest sisters that summer of 1966. For my father, an athletic, easy-going man, it was becoming a game to help them overcome their trepidations. In one of his typically creative and subtly misleading approaches, my father arrived home at lunchtime one day with six boxes, one for each of the children and one for himself. Inside each box was a professional-looking skin diving mask, just like Jacques Cousteau would use.
It wasn’t long before we were floating at the end of the dock in two feet of water exploring the sandy bottom. In the sand we discovered clam shells, curly snail shells, sunken driftwood and our own footprints, left from previous games. The clarity of our vision was fascinating. However, inevitably, someone came face to face with a crayfish in the shade under the dock, with those huge gaping claws seemingly inches away. With a shriek the game abruptly halted.
It was time for a new approach. Obviously we needed to be in a more exotic location to start the game again. Deeper water and a more interesting terrain were required. A little more room between us and the crayfish too. Next day, we all piled into the Big Blue Boat for the short ride to the rock pile a few hundred yards down the shore, out in front of old Dr. Knots’ cottage. Anchoring the boat in the five feet of water, over the sides we went, five Jacques Cousteaus practising our backwards rolls off the boat to keep our masks from filling up with water, just the way we saw Lloyd Bridges do it on TV.
We discovered a different world down there, just as my father wanted. Weeds swirling between the rocks, swaying with the currents, hiding minnows. We paddled on the surface exploring this new world, but merely as spectators. That five foot buffer zone between the crayfish and us remained intact. We could see my father down on the bottom lifting rocks and pushing the weeds aside but we weren’t going down there. We were still afraid of what lurked in the depths.
Then came the breakthrough. An old paint can filled with cement with a stump of shredded rope tied to a ring imbedded in it. Treasure! My father lugged that old homemade anchor, long since abandoned on the bottom when the rope broke, to the Blue Boat and showed it to all of us wide eyed tadpoles. There’s treasure at the bottom of the lake, we just have to find it! (Not to mention go down there and pick it up off the bottom).
That was the beginning of our summer tradition of clearing the bottom of the lake of lost anchors. Over the years we found hundreds, having scoured all the rocky shoals up and down the lake. It was a badge of honour to have found an anchor, a rite of passage. Any visiting cousins or friends were always indoctrinated into the wonders of treasure hunting underwater. An anchor was the ultimate prize but fishing lures, interesting bottles and anything else discovered were worthy goals. We found newly lost fishing rods, a set of car keys, two props off motorboats and even a disassembled woodstove off Split Rock at Geneva Park. Most interesting were two old milkwagon anchors, used to keep the horses from wandering off while the milkman delivered bottles of milk to people’s doorsteps at the turn of the century. My favourite was the ten pounds of solid lead with a small iron ring embedded someone made (and lost). On our best day ever six divers found nine anchors in ten minutes at a new spot up near the limestones. One was a three foot long, 25 pound beauty off a cabin cruiser.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Back to Ship Island. This had soon developed into the mecca of our trips. It was the largest shoal with the biggest rocks and most fish. Fishermen in their tin boats would regularly putt out there and drop anchor hoping to pull in a few of the bass we saw swimming around those rocks. Every summer a handful of them would lose their anchors, wedged into the rocks, and we would be there a few days later to claim them.
Well, this day in 1966 was one of our first trips to Ship Island. We were still getting our feet wet, so to speak, in the anchor reclaiming business. My sisters were just getting comfortable touching the rocks and poking at bottles gingerly. I was five years old, the youngest, but I had my own mask, the strap having to be pulled as tight as it would go. I had no fear of the water. With my five year old’s imagination I never hesitated to journey away from the boat, living for the moment. My mother, on the other hand, had plenty of hesitation. She didn’t skin dive. She watched us, carefully. After we all came safely back to the boat she’d have a quick dip, careful not to get her hair wet, just to cool off.
Imagine any mother in her situation. Her husband was always the first to jump in... and promptly disappear to the bottom for up to a minute and a half at a time. “Oh, the kids will be all right dear.” Then her five children, ages five to fifteen, would leap out of the boat and start bobbing off in different directions. I can still picture her standing there in the boat trying to watch us all. “How long has Debbie been under? Should Robbie be so far from the boat?” I remember she kept a closer eye on me, the five year old, until I got over to where I could stand up on the biggest rocks. I spent most of my time there, playing mostly.
By letting us go my father taught us to not be afraid. There was a kind of nervous loneliness out there in the deep water far from the boat. A sudden sense of isolation would sweep over me at times when I became aware of my perilous situation, aware that I was on my own. Our father trusted our abilities and judgement and we knew it, so off we went, unafraid. His trust was good enough for us. Sure, sometimes it was a long swim back to the boat but we always made it. I’ll never know if he was really keeping an eye on us from afar or not. I rarely knew where he was.
Being only five and more interested in playing in the cruiser waves than treasure hunting I was the only one who had never found an anchor... until this day at Ship Island. As usual my mother was lifeguarding from the boat as the kids swam farther and farther afield. My Dad, as always, spent far more time on the bottom than on the surface, always out in the deeper water. And I, as usual, headed straight for the big rocks where the waves broke.
I liked to stand up to rest so I ended up puttering along the edge of the big rocks where boats never anchored. It was too shallow to catch fish there. Not knowing that I excitedly searched the gravelly bottom between the big rocks as I hopped from one to the next bobbing in the big cruiser waves. On this particular day I bobbed closer to the island than I ever had, until it was less than two feet deep.
Suddenly, right in front of me, poking very slightly out from a deep crevice between two of the big rocks was some metal.
Holy cow, an anchor! I was yelling to my mother even before I had my head out of the water.
“I found one, I found one! An anchor!” I screamed. No one responded.
Undaunted by the lack of attention I went under again for another look. It was under a rock and not easy to see. I touched it, half expecting a crayfish claw to reach out suddenly from under the rock and grab me. It moved. Up for air for a split second and then under I went again pulling on that metal bar for all I was worth. With some wiggling it scraped free of the rocks and sat there on the bottom, plain as day, my treasure, my trophy.
“I found one, I found one! I’VE GOT AN ANCHOR!” I screamed. This time my mother heard me and waved.
Under water again I studied the odd anchor. It was actually two iron bars tied together with rope. I didn’t recognize them then but they were a pair of fire irons, used to hold logs in a fireplace. Each weighed about five pounds so together they were heavy enough to hold a small rowboat. That’s probably why they were so close to shore, a small boat trying to avoid the waves.
What they were and why they were there were of no interest to me then. My only concern was how I could get my prize back to the Blue Boat. I firmly placed one foot on each of the two big rocks and hoisted the anchor up with all my might. With superhuman strength I lifted that anchor right up into the air for all to see from its two foot deep watery grave. My mother clapped her hands as I dropped it seconds later. I was a conquering hero.
Then relaying it from rock to rock in between gasps of air I worked it over to the rock nearest the boat. It took forever. Why did I swim so far from the boat? The last stretch was about 20 feet of open water, seven feet deep. I weighed a scrawny 50 pounds with spindly limbs and no body fat. Common sense should have told me I’d never make it across with that iron weight. From my rock I could see my mother smiling at me across the undulating waves, not understanding my dilemma, and making no move to rescue me. All the other skin divers were blissfully unaware of my predicament as they searched for their own treasure. There was only one thing to do.
I grabbed my treasure with two hands, took a deep breath and pushed off that rock with all my might and promptly sank right to the bottom,15 feet from the boat. With a push off the bottom and some frantic thrashing of two legs and an arm I broke through the surface again only to sink when I stopped swimming to get a breath. With three limbs churning I would muscle my way to the surface every few feet to get some air only to be pulled under again. It was, and still is, the hardest swim of my life, but I made it. Finally one hand clamped onto the Blue Boat while the other one dangled straight down clutching the most important thing in my world then.
My mother hauled the anchor into the boat and I scurried in panting, too happy to feel my exhaustion. There it was, my first anchor, lying on the floor of the boat just the way Dad’s big fish lay there after the fight, lifeless and heavy. I had won the game the way Dad won the game with those muskies. I was the hero. Life was good.
We still have that anchor. One of the fire irons is tied to the paddle boat by a five foot rope so the kids can jump out and swim at the end of the dock without the boat floating away.
It is one of the few we have left. First my older brother started to scrape and paint them, delivering them up to the Lazy Farmer Trading Post for sale. Then a few years later my cousin and I scraped and painted the remaining anchors to sell at the end of the driveway. Only a few remain, the lead sinker, the milkcart anchors, a few we use for our own boats and my fire irons.
I still go skin diving every summer but rarely find anything now. The lake has changed and people don’t seem to lose anchors like they used to. The memories, however, of those glorious years live on though, when we would jump into the lake like audacious pirates laying claim to the lost treasure left by feckless boaters.
Many people know of Ship Island on Lake Couchiching today, but, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. As the big cabin cruisers head from Lake Simcoe on up the Severn River to Georgian Bay they pass right by Ship Island, within a few hundred feet of it. The island is unmistakeable today, it reeks.
Maybe 100 metres long and no more than 10 metres wide at its widest point, Ship Island is home to literally thousands of cormorants. The handful of mature trees are all dead now, and stained white by guano. There’s not a speck of green on the rocky spit. From our cottage three kilometers away the island looks ghostly in the mornings, a tangle of bare branches crammed with sleek, swaying forms, backlit and eerie. In the afternoons, when the sun reflects brilliantly on the bleached bird droppings that coat the island, it absolutely glows. A beacon that draws attention for miles and miles. From afar it is impressive, but as one approaches to investigate the strange land it becomes repulsive. The stench hits you from about a half kilometre away. Up close you can hardly breathe on calm days.
We never skin dive there any more. You could only swim there on windy days now. I’ve tried to introduce my children to the joys of skin diving, but not at the Ship Island shoal. It’ll be my memory, not theirs.
Those cormorants moved onto our lake maybe 15 years ago and quickly took over. It was amazing how fast they propagated. With the shoreline of the lake ringed with cottages there were few nesting habitats for them. They chose the tiny spit of land that afforded them easy access and good sight lines. Just a stone’s throw away is Big Chief Island, part of the Rama Indian reserve, 20 acres of uninhabited land with miles of waterfront. Nary a bird nests there, they all like Ship Island. They like it so much they have utterly devastated it.
I feel fortunate to have my memory of that remarkable little island in the years before the cormorants and zebra mussels. My children’s memories of the lake are vastly different than mine. But isn’t that the way the world works?