Breaking Barriers: Tom Hainey Swims Across Quetico Park

Map of Quetico Park swim
Map of Quetico Park swim

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On May 10, 1992, Sheila Hainey decided to go to town during her lunch hour to pick up some bedding plants for her garden. She was an avid gardener and she was concerned that if she waited until after work the plants would be sold out.Sheila worked at Quetico Park’s Nym Lake entry station and it was only fifteen minutes to Atikokan. On her way to town something unexpected happened. For reasons unknown, Sheila lost control of her car and it plowed through many guard railings. Her car hit a rock cut and Sheila was dead when help arrived.

Sheila was only fifty-two years old. Her death was devastating not only to her family but to the entire community as well. Sheila had an outgoing personality, was well known in Atikokan and was active in community affairs. Both Sheila and her husband Tom Hainey were born in Scotland. They met in Thunder Bay, Ontario where they married and they moved to nearby Atikokan when Tom took a job in the iron ore mine outside of town. Tom worked as a mechanic in the Caland Iron Ore Mine until it closed in the late 1970’s and then he opened a small business in Atikokan. They had three daughters -Tammy, Brenda and Debby – and a son Tom.

Tom Hainey decides to swim across Quetico Park

The entire Hainey family had a strong connection to Quetico Park. When the accident occurred, it was the eighteenth year that Sheila had worked in Quetico Park and her husband Tom (known as Tom Sr. after the birth of their son) had also worked at French Lake as well. All the Hainey children learned to swim at the beach at French Lake and had gone on numerous canoe trips in Quetico.

After the tragic death of his mother the previous summer, Tom decided that something should be done to honour his mother and that it should be done in Quetico Park, a place she loved. Every summer, hundreds of people paddle their canoes and kayaks across Quetico Provincial Park. Whether you choose to go from east to west or north to south, it is about eighty kilometres of paddling and portaging to make the traverse. Tom Hainey grew up just a few kilometres north of the park in Atikokan, Ontario, and having taken many canoe trips in Quetico Park, canoeing across the park would have been an easy trip for him. Tom Hainey, however, decided to do something more innovative.

He chose to swim. Tom had been a highly successful competitive swimmer who had won gold medals in both national and international events. Tom decided that using his swimming ability to swim across Quetico would be a challenging and innovative way to honour his mother. In addition to people leisurely paddling across the park, canoeists had raced from Ely, Minnesota across the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) and Quetico Park to Atikokan, Ontario in the 1960’s. Winter enthusiasts have also skied and snowshoed the length of the park. As far as Tom could determine, no one had swum across Quetico Park.

The Hainey family decided to call the swim “Breaking the Barrier” in honour of Sheila’s conviction that no barrier should go unchallenged. Swimming eighty kilometres across a wilderness park is a huge challenge and Tom knew he had to prepare diligently for this daunting swim. He had been a very successful competitive swimmer, but those events were conducted in an indoor pool. He was now going to be swimming in lakes and coping with cold water, wind and waves. In preparation, he swam over 180 km on lakes near Atikokan. Tom is a strong swimmer and he needed to swim at a fast pace if he was going to cross Quetico Park in days rather than weeks. No one he knew had the stamina to swim with him at a fast pace for hours at a stretch but when he swam there was always someone in a boat alongside him. He usually swam alone but sometimes he was joined in the water by his father or a friend and they would swim with him for as long as they could.

Whether Tom swam across the park from south to north or east to west, the distance would be about the same either way. Since most of the large lakes in Quetico Park are oriented east/west, there would be less portaging and a higher percentage of time in the water if he swam the width of the park. He decided to swim from Beaverhouse Lake at the northwestern edge of the park to French Lake near the northeastern edge. Tom felt it was fitting that his swim would end at the lake where he learned to swim and where there was a new barrier-free trail. When Tom knew that the swim was going to include French and Pickerel Lakes, he knew he should conduct practice swims on these lakes. Since no motors are allowed in Quetico Park, he would paddle with others across French Lake and on to the middle of Pickerel Lake. He would then get a good workout by swimming the long, open expanse of one of the longest lakes in Quetico Park and end his swim at French Lake.

Although primarily known for its canoeing, Quetico Park also has a small campground and a Visitor Centre at French Lake in the northeast corner of the park. In 1991, the management of Quetico Park had decided to build a barrier free access trail along the Pickerel River that would start near the French Lake Visitor Centre. Jay Leather, Quetico Park Superintendent at the time, said that “The idea of establishing a barrier-free trail grew from the more basic notion of wanting to create some kind of natural link between drop-in visitors to the pavilion and the rest of the Park. An accessible boardwalk, with viewing pod and rest stops, would accommodate any visitor to the pavilion that might come off the highway.” After Sheila’s tragic death someone on the park staff suggested that the trail be named after Sheila and once that proposal was raised the idea was enthusiastically supported by all. Jay Leather then told the Hainey family that Quetico Park wanted to name the barrier-free trail at French Lake after Sheila Hainey and dedicate the trail to her.

The Swim

A person swimming across a wilderness park requires a lot of support and Dave Maynard was the person in charge of making things go smoothly. Dave was the Assistant Quetico Park Superintendent and had worked for many years on portage crew in the park. In addition to having an intimate knowledge of the park, Dave had worked with Sheila, and was a good friend of Tom’s. The support team was composed of a mixture of friends, family and a two-person medical team. Dave found that it wasn’t difficult to bring people on board who were willing to give five summer days to assist Tom in his swim – the difficulty was in limiting the number of participants.

Map of Quetico Park swim
Map of Quetico Park swim


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

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.