Breaking Barriers: Day Five

Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park – Day Five

They awoke to another beautiful, sunny day and they all knew that soon there would soon be a large group of people gathering at French Lake to see Tom complete the “Breaking the Barrier” swim. For the last three mornings they had been on the water by 7:00. This morning was different; most of the crew weren’t even out of their tents by 7. They enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the beach and set off as a group. This, the last day, was the only time that all eight canoes paddled together. It’s only a kilometer to the Pickerel River and Tom kept his usual rapid pace. On previous mornings the grunts had always gone ahead to get a head start on portaging, but today they got to flank Tom as he headed up the Pickerel River. Tom loves swimming in lakes but swimming in rivers and creeks is not his idea of a good time. Throughout the swim, Tom had to be aware of tree branches, boulders and weeds whenever he swam through narrows, between islands, in shallow parts of lakes, and as he approached portages. Throughout the trip, Tom found boulders and branches to be bothersome. Weeds, however, are different – Tom simply hates weeds.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.

Tom swims toward the mouth of the Pickerel River on the final day of the swim.

The Pickerel River is slow moving, shallow and has a lot of weeds and tall reeds. The river twists and turns and distances can be shortened by swimming close to shore on bends. Although it meant he had to swim further, Tom always opted to swim down the middle of the river. Occasionally he would swim into weeds and chaos would occur. He’d turn sharply to get untangled or simply to avoid weeds. The canoes could not turn as quickly as he could and he would bump into them and be struck by paddles. He would retaliate by splashing water on them and there was lots of laughter as they slowly moved up the river.

Even moving at a leisurely pace, they were well ahead of their schedule when they reached the end of the river. They were expected to arrive at noon at the French Lake beach so they had to find a place to go ashore and wait. Time goes by slowly when the end of the quest is so close and you are eager to get going. Tom doesn’t believe in swimming slowly so they waited, dressed in their new white jackets, until Tom could lead them across French Lake at his usual quick tempo.

Their group of eight canoes could be seen from a long way off. When the large crowd gathered on the beach saw the splashing of Tom’s arms, they started to shout and applaud. The swim team realized that they didn’t have a plan for what would happen next. Tom swam over towards his father’s canoe thinking that he should swim to the beach next to his father. Tom Sr. waved him away since he wanted Tom to have this moment of triumph for himself. All the canoes then slowed down and Tom moved ahead. Mike McKinnon described what happened at this crucial moment. “Finally, a moment I will never forget: We approached the French Lake beach lined eight canoes abreast. Tom in our centre. The distant cheers and screams of the crowd at the beach formed a counterpoint to the steady cadence of Tom’s strokes striking the water. The moment came – we let Tom spurt ahead. This was his, his alone. The cheering grew. Silently, tearfully, we lifted our paddles in salute to this amazing young man.”

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.

Tom raises his arms in celebration on completion of swim.

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


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.

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