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The Case Of The Missing Canoe

by Andrew F. Maksymchuk


In 1967, with just three years of police work behind me, I was given the unenviable task of being in charge of the most northerly detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police. My destination was Central Patricia, situated approximately 225 miles north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

This part of the province was definitely the place to be if you had a mind for adventure and were a little foolhardy. All you had to do was turn north off the Trans-Canada Highway onto Highway 599 at Ignace and leave behind the reality of life commonly referred to as civilization. As I drove along the road with Myra, my bride of less than a year, my feelings of apprehension and excitement increased with every mile.

At Savant Lake, a whistle-stop along the Canadian National Railway, the gravel slowly disappeared from the roadway and a sign just north of town warned travellers that there was no gas for the next 85 miles. In fact, the next available gas station was in Central Patricia, 110 miles up the twisting, turning, dipping dirt road. I remember thinking at the time that the road’s poor condition would lead any sensible man to believe that speeds over 45 miles an hour would be suicidal.

The narrow road meant that someone would have to pull over and stop if two vehicles met. We had to be extremely careful because the snowplow operator sometimes unintentionally over plowed sections of the road, making it appear as if the road had a much broader shoulder. Driving onto an over-plowed section could put your vehicle into the ditch. If that happened, you could wait a long time before help arrived in the form of another vehicle.

The scenery north of Savant Lake was constant. There were small, ice-covered lakes, black spruce trees, which became smaller the further north we drove, and swamps that undoubtedly supported a large population of moose. Occasionally we passed an old shack or tent that had been occupied by native families.

At about the midway point between Savant Lake and Central Patricia, I spotted a tree branch sticking out of the snowbank. The branch supported a small, paper sign stating: OPP Stop. I slammed on the brakes, got out of the car and went over to the sign. There was a trail in the snow that led into the bush and I followed that for a short distance until I arrived at a cabin. I knocked and the occupants came to the door. Not being in uniform, I showed my badge and did my best to explain who I was. Communication was difficult because I could not speak Ojibwa, but I soon got the message that the family wished to report the theft of some animal traps. I tried to make it clear to them that I or another police officer would return as soon as possible to investigate.

Night had fallen by the time Myra and I reached Central Patricia. Our home for the next two years would be situated in the residence wing located on the opposite side of the detachment’s cell block.

Central Patricia had been a booming gold-mining town during the 1940s. It had nice homes, good sewer and water systems and regular garbage collection. The closing of the mine in the 1950s left very little except a hotel, school, post office, church and OPP detachment. A new mine was discovered six miles to the east where the town of Pickle Crow was established. The Pickle Crow gold mine closed just a few months prior to my posting and the community quickly became a ghost town. Pickle Lake, situated 2 1/2 miles west of Central Patricia, bustled with activity in 1967. Among other businesses and conveniences, it was home to at least three small air bases for bush plane operations. The planes were used to transport supplies and carry out emergency flights to the settlements situated to the north.

Prior to the arrival of the bush planes, these remote settlements were serviced and supplied by tractor-train units that consisted of a bulldozer pulling several loaded sleighs. The “trains” crawled over the frozen lakes and muskeg at a speed of roughly four miles an hour, and they would operate 24 hours a day with the trainmen working six-hour shifts and then sleeping during their off-hours in the shifting, lurching caboose. Only one of these trains remained in service when I arrived in 1967.

The coverage area for the Central Patricia detachment was huge, 47,276 square miles to be exact. Within its boundaries were at least 13 Indian reserves and settlements, only one of which was accessible by road. Providing police services to the other communities meant a plane trip fraught with the hazards of questionably serviced planes, poor communication, working alone, unpredictable weather and the mood of the community and its leaders towards the police and other government officials. My staff consisted of one other constable. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.

Investigating any matter on a settlement, while you are alone and away from assistance, is a strangely exciting experience that I’m sure adrenaline addicts would die for. During one of my investigations, involving the theft of a canoe, I was flown to Wunnummin Lake settlement, approximately 100 air miles north of Central Patricia. Unfortunately, shortly after we landed on the lake, one of the plane’s floats struck a rock. The nearest parts for the damaged float were located in Sioux Lookout, some 250 air miles to the south.

I was told that the canoe was stolen from the Wunnummin Lake Hudson’s Bay Company post, and it wasn’t long before my investigation pointed to a suspect who had taken the canoe across several portages to a lake roughly 40 miles east where he and his brothers had set up a small fishing camp. As luck would have it, a small plane landed and taxied up to the dock where it unloaded a passenger and some cargo. I was able to hire the plane on the spot, but what followed was one of the most white-knuckled flights of my life.

The plane looked like it had placed second in a wartime dogfight. One broken side window was covered with cardboard and tape. Another window wasn’t even given that consideration. Haywire was used to replace a broken cross strut over the instrument panel, and the passenger seat wasn’t attached to the floor. It therefore came as no surprise when the seat and my body flew into the air when the plane hit an air pocket.

When we arrived at the fishing camp, the makeshift pier was so rickety that I had to hold onto the wing strut while carefully placing one foot on the pier and the other on the float. The pilot, a muscular man who appeared to be able to handle himself, wasn’t prepared to leave his plane in such a position, and so he did not join me on the pier.

Soon the brothers arrived and after talking with them for a considerable length of time, my suspect admitted to taking the canoe as a means of transportation from Wunnummin Lake to the camp. The canoe, they said, was not at the camp, but hidden on the shore of a nearby lake.

I placed the suspect under arrest, but was informed by the suspect’s brothers that they would not allow me to take their sibling away. The talks went on for over an hour, but I managed to convince them that I had to leave with my suspect. I did this by promising to return him to their camp after he pointed out the location of the stolen canoe. Once in the air, the pilot and I looked at each other with great relief. The tension on both of us had been immense, but the fun wasn’t over yet because we still had some stolen property to recover.

After landing on the nearby lake, I waded ashore in chilly, waist-deep water. I located the canoe under a pile of brush and then flipped it upright. I then dragged it into the water and used rope to lash it to one of the plane’s floats. Takeoff was a little tricky because of the short distance across the lake and the added burden of the canoe, but the pilot soon had us back in the air. A short time later my prisoner realized that we were not heading back to the fishing camp, but I figured that the plane’s altitude would quickly rub out any thoughts on his part of becoming violent, a dangerous move that would risk his life and ours. I told him I hadn’t promised to bring him back to the camp immediately after finding the canoe. He was told he would have to attend court and that the system would provide for his return to Wunnummin Lake following court if acquitted or jail if convicted.

The canoe was returned to the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the pilot appeared relieved as he flew off to his next destination. It was too late in the day for me to return to Central Patricia and so I set about looking for a place to spend the night with my prisoner. The chief of the Wunnummin Lake Band heard of my predicament and arranged for us to stay in a nearby abandoned cabin. I was very grateful for his kindness, but spent a fitful and restless night because numerous mosquitoes and sand flies, commonly known as no-see-ums, entered through the many cracks and holes in the walls to take a share of blood.

The door didn’t have a lock and so I had to handcuff my prisoner to his bunk and then push my bunk up against the door. All through the night I was aware of every little sound, convinced that the prisoner’s brothers would be attacking at any moment.

Thankfully, morning came and we were soon in the air again. The pilot was instructed to fly directly to Sioux Lookout where, as luck would have it, court was in session. I was able to add my prisoner’s name to the docket, and we must have made a grand entrance, smelling of fish and unkempt in appearance with my damp leather boots squeaking with each step into the courtroom.


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