Breaking Barriers: Day Three

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Three

Everyone was up before sunrise to get an early start. Mike McKinnon, the editor of the “Atikokan Progress”, was writing articles about the trip for the Atikokan Progess. He noted that: “About eight of us were camped on the north side of the lake, and someone spotted an eagle approaching our point as we prepared to take down our tents. The majestic bird made three descending circular passes, then swooped into the lake and plucked out a fish not fifteen feet from where we stood.”

Even with the early start, it was uncomfortably warm. Due to the incomplete removal of Vaseline, Tom was warm and unusually tired in the morning. He was uncomfortable and unsure about how far he could go that day. Looking back on the trip, Tom thought that, both mentally and physically, the beginning of the swim on Jesse Lake was the low point of the trip.

When swimming long distances it can get monotonous because you are concentrating on swimming and only seeing what is ahead of you at water level and to one side. Tom knew that he was missing the rocky shorelines, cliffs and large red and white pine that he enjoyed seeing when he paddled in Quetico Park. He was aware that he was on a mission. He knew he would come back and enjoy the scenery, fishing and leisurely mornings with a cup of coffee and blueberry pancakes.

Since loons are common in Quetico Park and were at Tom’s eye level, they were always a welcome sight. Soon after he started swimming on Jesse Lake, Tom noticed three loons not far ahead of him and motioned for the flanking canoes to stop paddling. He treaded water and waited to see what they would do. The loons kept coming closer and closer until they were just two metres from him. Then they slowly sunk out of sight. He told those in the canoes that “the loons are with me.” Coming face-to-face with the loons reminded Tom of his mother’s love of these birds and of the purpose of the swim. His spirit was restored. There was a loon feather floating on the surface after the loons dove. Dave Maynard picked up a loon feather and gave it to Tom at the end of the trip.

The portage between Jesse and Maria is almost as long as the Cedar Portage on the other end of the lake. The team portaged as quickly as they could and were glad to reach the other side. On the portage, they met two men from Scotland on a canoe trip. Tom Sr. was especially excited to see people from the country where he grew up. He was able to have a short conversation with them before he had to get back to work. They gave him a drink – or possibly more than one – of Scotland’s home brew. Good Scotch at any time of day is a treat and at the end of a long portage on a hot day in a wilderness park it was a rare treat for Tom Sr. as well.

Tom and the two flanking canoes were always the last to reach the portage so Tom didn’t get to meet the people from Scotland or warm himself with a belt of Scotch. For some reason, Tom decided to pick up the pace on the kilometer-long Maria Lake. Being a competitive swimmer, Tom usually trained at a high tempo and he generally stayed in attack mode when he was swimming – even when swimming long distances. He found that a slow pace was to his disadvantage. Tom felt that “there’s a pace when you just die … your body drops down, and you end up fighting the water. If I slow down too much I’ll lose the advantage of physics.” The people in the canoes flanking Tom had found that when only one person in the canoe was paddling, they had a hard time keeping abreast of Tom. On Maria Lake, however, Dr Vlaar and Mike McKinnon had a hard time keeping up even when both were paddling. Dave Maynard said that he had never seen a person swim that fast.

From Maria it is just a short and flat portage to Pickerel Lake. From here there were no more portages to their destination on the east side of French Lake. Most of the rest of the swim was on Pickerel Lake, one of the largest Lakes in Quetico Park. Since its axis is east to west, the prevailing west winds mean that waves can build up and canoeists commonly get wind bound. Winds that make canoeing difficult make swimming extremely tiring and hazardous. Even light winds that are not a problem for canoeists can make swimming much more tiring.

In order to get to the main body of the lake Tom had to swim for about 10 km through the Pickerel Narrows. Everyone was tired, Tom included, as they began the swim on Pickerel Lake as the winds began to increase. The combination of tired people, worsening weather and loss of radio communication led to the only significant blunder of the trip. The navigator canoe went ahead to check to see if the narrow channel between Long and Emerald Lake was deep enough for Tom to swim. They found that it was, but a combination of radio malfunction and a bad decision by the canoes flanking Tom led them to angle south around Emerald Island. With storm clouds building up in the west, rather than go to shore they decided to let Tom continue swimming on the route they had chosen. When radio contact was re-established they discovered their mistake. They radioed the grunts, who had set up camp on Lookout Island, that Tom was cold and tired and they would get Tom into the canoe and paddle him to the campsite. They would then return him to the take-out spot to begin the swim in the morning.

The grunts were fortunate in finding that the wonderful campsite on the south side of Lookout Island was open. A fire was blazing, the pool was full of warm water and supper was prepared when the Tom and the rest of the crew paddled in. They had planned to have homemade pork and beans that had been prepared by Dan and Tammy Ellis prior to the trip. When opened, they found the beans in the carefully insulated pot were fermenting. Fortunately, they had brought extra food and another meal was quickly prepared. Lookout Island is named because it has a view to the east toward the expansive, open part of Pickerel Lake. The hot tub was placed so that Tom could look out over the lake while he warmed up and had the Vaseline removed from his body. *IMAGE* What more could Tom ask for – a hot tub with a wonderful view.

A storm struck in full force just after dinner. Everyone watched the storm – the only violent weather of the entire trip – from under the tarps. Tom, Joanne and Brenda went out to the point and enjoyed the storm despite the heckling from those standing dry under the tarp. After the storm passed, there was time for fishing and Glen Armstrong caught a 32 lb northern pike. They sat around the fire in the evening and talked about the day and what was in store for the day ahead. They loved hearing stories about the past in Quetico from Max Clement. Max started working in logging camps when he was fourteen, participated in the last logging drive in Quetico Park in 1940 and 1941 and told colourful tales of logging camp life. As they were paddling, Max would point out physical evidence of logging in the park, such as large metal pins in bedrock along the shore that were used to anchor log booms and the remains of docks and sluiceways visible from the end of some of the portages.

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


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.

0 Responses to “Breaking Barriers: Day Three”


Comments are currently closed.