Breaking Barriers: Day Two

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Two

This is the big day; yesterday’s ten km swim was just a warm up. Tom was determined to make the second day a long and productive one. The forecast was for a warm day with light winds so Tom set an ambitious goal. He hoped to cover 34 km and reach Jesse Lake. Tom wanted to travel a great distance on this day so that they would have a cushion if the weather took a turn for the worse. There was a celebration planned for French Lake on Saturday at 12:00 and Tom and his crew definitely planned on being part of the celebration.

In anticipation of the first full day of the swim, the rest of the swim crew arrived during the previous evening and now everyone was present and eager to get started. They reviewed the logistics of how they were going to take care of the details of travelling, portaging and camping in a wilderness park. From here to the swim’s completion at French Lake, seventeen people would be paddling eight canoes in support of a solitary swimmer. All of this had to be done so smoothly that Tom could concentrate solely on swimming. Dave Maynard was in charge of logistics but all team members contributed ideas and they decided as a group what roles each person was best suited for. The entire crew was here because they were proud to give their time and energy to help Tom meet his ambitious goal.

Four of the most experienced canoeists and wilderness travelers – Bob Nault, Tom Nash, Glenn Nolan and Tim Beyak – were affectionately known as ‘the grunts.’ They not only had many years of canoeing experience, they also all had detailed knowledge of the park. Their job was help break camp in the morning and then move ahead of the group and have lunch prepared when Tom and his entourage arrived. They then had to cleanup from lunch, leapfrog the rest of the group and have camp set up, supper prepared and have a substantial amount of hot water heated so that Tom could warm up in a plastic swimming pool after a long day swimming in cold water. Since they were carrying the food and tenting supplies for a group of eighteen, the portages were a challenge. If the swim was a climbing expedition, they were the sherpas.

When they were travelling, they always had a canoe in front that was the navigator and kept the swim on course so that Tom didn’t swim farther than necessary. It was important to stay on course since straying into a wrong bay or even going on the wrong side of an island would add extra distance and additional time in the water. Since Max Clement was a trapper and spent so much of his time in the bush, he and his son Albert where often the navigator canoe.


Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as 'wing men' as Tom swims down Quetico Lake
Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis act as ‘wing men’ as Tom swims down Quetico Lake

The people travelling with Tom were broken into two groups that would alternate jobs as the day progressed. Tom always had a canoe on each side of him – his “wing men”. Their primary role was to keep Tom swimming in a straight line. With canoes on both sides to guide him, Tom didn’t have to keep looking ahead and could concentrate solely on swimming. Since he breathed on his right side, the canoe on that side had a person who would give him advice on his pace and answer any questions. Randy Makarenko, Tom’s Atikokan swim coach, was the best person to advise Tom on his pace or technique and he was with Larry Gashinski in one of the right-side wing canoes. They would alternate with a canoe that had Dave Maynard, Tom’s sister Brenda and Tom’s girlfriend Joanne Mucz.

Flanking Tom on the other side was a canoe with either Dr. Henry Vlaar and Mike McKinnon, Susan and Glen Armstrong, or Tom Hainey Sr. and Dan Ellis. One of these three canoes would sometimes replace Max and Albert as the navigator canoe. The canoes that weren’t on active duty had time to prepare snacks for Tom or fish for fun or for the evening meal.

It was important to have a medical person near Tom at all times in case any medical problem arose. The swim was unfolding in a wilderness park and they were always many hours from a hospital or medical clinic. Henry Vlaar was a doctor in Atikokan and Susan Armstrong was a physiotherapist and a masseuse. Since Tom was swimming all day in cold lake water, Susan had the important job of giving Tom deep massages to losen him up at the end of a long day. She could also give Tom a massage during breaks during the day or on portages, if required.

Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.
Susan Armstrong gives Tom a quick back massage during a food break.

Dr. Vlaar was concerned that being in the water for ten to twelve hours a day would lead to hypothermia. In addition to the wet suit, they put a thick layer of Vaseline on the exposed parts of Tom’s body – a daily ritual that led to Henry Vlaar being called “Dr. Lube.” It was a warm morning when a lathered Tom left the ranger station and it continued to get hotter as the day progressed. Both Beaverhouse and Quetico Lakes are deep, cold lake trout lakes and the cold water, even on a hot day, took its toll. The grunts were waiting with hot soup for the first break and the canoes not on swim duty would go ahead and prepare a second morning warm food break. Tom was very cold when he got out of the water on Quetico Lake for his break. Dr. Lube went to work re-applying a heavy coat of Vaseline. Tom ate hot soup and lay on the rocks in the sun to warm up. He was eager to continue and was soon back in the water.

His Atikokan swim coach Randy Makarenko and others in the canoes flanking Tom would keep track of his pace. During his training, they had found that Tom would consistently take 47 strokes on each side to cover 100 metres, a speed of about 4.8 km/hr. They found that he was moving at that same pace as he started down Quetico Lake and kept up the pace as he moved down the long, narrow lake. They reached the east end of Quetico Lake before noon and the whole team was ecstatic that twenty kilometers of cold lake was behind them. After two short portages, they would be on Oriana Lake. The ‘grunts’ were ahead of the rest of the crew and had most of the food and camping supplies. In addition to canoes and paddles, there were still packs with some food and camping supplies, clothes and personal items to carry across the portages and Tom wanted to help, but had to be reminded that he had to conserve his energy and simply get himself across the portage.

Once back in the water, Tom kept his rapid pace across Oriana Lake. The 700 metres long portage between Oriana and Jesse Lake is known as the Cedar Portage. As the name implies, it is a swampy portage and the footing is treacherous. This difficult portage was a challenge on a 32 degree Celsius day. Tom again picked up a pack and began to portage but he was told, emphatically this time, that his job – his only job – was to swim. Portaging on a hot day is sweaty work but portages helped Tom warm up before getting back into cold lake water.

A very weary crew found the campsite that the grunts had set up on Jesse Lake. The distance covered and the unexpected pace kept up by Tom meant that they hadn’t had enough time to heat up enough water for the swimming pool. The swimming pool was an inflatable kid’s pool that, when filled with warm water, was used to bring Tom’s core temperature up at the end of the day. The secondary benefit was that the warm water made it easier to get the thick layer of Vaseline off his body. With the Vaseline removed, Tom could warm up more quickly in the tub and, conversely, he could cool down better at night. Due to the lack of enough warm water, they were unable to completely remove the Vaseline from Tom’s body. It was fortunate that it was an unusually warm evening. Even without the benefit of warm water, Tom was able to quickly warm up by simply sitting in the sun.

Due to park restrictions limiting the number of people on a campsite to nine, the group had to always camp on two separate campsites. It was a windless, hot evening and everyone went for a swim to clean up after a hot, sweaty day and to cool off. It remained unusually warm all night, and many, including Tom, got up during the night and jumped in the lake. Tom had a restless night. The insulating layer of Vaseline that wasn’t completely removed kept Tom from cooling down completely during the night.

Continue Reading:
Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Three

This article – written twenty years after the swim – was made possible by the co-operation of the Hainey family and by members of Tom’s swim support group. They provided valuable background information and supplied insights and stories about the trip. Special mention has to go to Mike McKinnon who not only wrote articles for the Atikokan Progress but also wrote a very informative commemorative edition of the paper after the completion of the trip. This is not just the story of a personal triumph but also of how the Atikokan community came together in support of this swim. The ‘Breaking the Barrier’ swim is an important part of Quetico’s history and it is noteworthy that this is Quetico’s 100th Anniversary as a Provincial Park.