It’s been 42 years since Charlie pulled us from the ice that frigid night in January 1974. In the years since then, Hunnie used to say “thank God Charlie was there.”
My mother, Hunnie Murphy was referring to Charlie Heath. Sadly, we lost Charlie last Fall but his spirit and the imprint of all he did for others over his long life lives on. Our stretch of the 1000 Islands has had its share of people who truly were “river rats”. Harry Chalk was a river rat, as was his son Duane; Tommy Mitchell, Francis Garnsey, Jim Dickson Sr., Jack Stewart and Charlie Heath are the names of some of the river rats I grew up knowing. These men were part legend, part tall tale and all heart, and I had the good fortune to know them. My tale involves the simple bravery of one of them on a bitter cold night in January 1974; thank God Charlie was there!
It was January 1974 and our family had just returned from 5 months living in Ireland. The “Doc” was itching to get out to the island. He called Dee McCormick, up in Clayton, and asked him how he could get out to the island for a winter weekend. Dee told him that Francis Garnsey had an “Inner outer” running across to Grindstone Island every day and that he’d haul us down there for a small price. The details were agreed to and in the fading winter light, on Friday, January 25th, 1974, Francis arrived out front of McCormick’s in his homemade ice punt. Our crew consisted of my brother James (age 11), my brother-in law Tom Montague (aged 24), my father, the “Doc” (age 51) and me (age 12).
We loaded our gear into the tiny craft and set out onto the frozen river. The noise was deafening as the huge motor and airplane propeller were mounted only a few feet from where we sat. We were heavily loaded and the boat kept breaking through the channel ice, and when it did, the stern would plunge into the watery hole. When this happened and it happened a lot it seemed; Francis would expertly gun the motor to get the “boat” out of the hole and back onto solid ice again. After a wild, bone rattling, frozen eternity we finally landed at Basswood where we set about loading in for the weekend. The huge, old, shuttered up house was a frozen mausoleum when we arrived and we hastily established camp. The fire was lit and a hot meal prepared and after dinner we went to bed, underneath a mountain of blankets piled so high, you couldn’t turn over in bed for the weight of them. Per Jeezus it was cold! We slept in our clothes and still we barely escaped hypothermia that first night.
Saturday dawned strangely warm and sunny for late January. What luck…we had arrived just in time for the infamous January thaw. During the day the temperature rose well above the freezing mark. We drilled holes into the 2 foot thick ice in the bay below Basswood and set up a couple of dozen tip-ups. All afternoon we lounged on the ice in our shirt sleeves and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune; there’d be no freezing tonight! As the day wore on the wind began to come up and it kept coming up all night long until it was blowing a hurricane…
We awoke Sunday morning to brilliant sunshine and a blue River. The ice had been blown clear off of it and except for pack ice in the bays, there was no ice in sight. The wind continued to growl all that day and by 3:00 PM it was apparent that Francis was not coming to fetch us at the appointed hour, because the River was much too rough. And so the sun began its early descent and the Doc knew that Hunnie would soon be fretting about her wayward island boys. Basswood had no telephone service in 1974 and so at 3:30 that afternoon the Doc instructed us to launch our 16-foot tin boat so we could row the ½ mile over to Grenell Island, where the general store pay phone was. The store was of course boarded up tight for the long winter, but odds were that the pay phone was working. Tom Montague and I made the trip in 15 minutes as we were going with the wind and the current. We landed at the Grenell Island main dock and to our immense relief we found the pay phone working. With a 10 cent phone call we informed Hunnie of our predicament and then quickly headed back to the boat to make it home before the sun set.
We had grossly miscalculated the physics of our situation, because we now had to row against the wind and the current in a heavy, unwieldy 16’ tin boat. The wind was still blowing at a steady 35 – 40 mph and after 10 minutes of rowing,we found we hadn’t gained an inch toward our destination, ½ mile up River. With sinking hearts, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have to abandon hope of making it back to Basswood and we hastily decided we would return to Grenell, where we would “let” ourselves in to a cottage and stay there for the night.
Now we had drifted down River a little, during our deliberations, and when we headed back into the island we were quite a way below the main dock. We rowed into the pack ice that had jammed into the bay of Grenell and for the next 20 minutes we wedged our oars between huge slabs of ice and pulled. Each attempt gained us a foot or two and only served to drive us further into the middle of a huge, impenetrable ice jam.
First my oar snapped right in half, while I was pulling on it with all my might. I ended up in the bow of the boat on my back, wondering what the hell had just happened. A few minutes later Monty’s oar fell to the same fate…and it dawned on us, we were stuck fast. We didn’t dare attempt to leave the boat; certain death would have resulted. No sir; we were stuck in this ice jam and there was nothing to be done about it.
The sun set, the wind died down and it began to get cold. I can honestly say that I was never worried, Monty (my 24 yr. old brother in law) never showed the least bit of concern or aggravation. Because he was cool; I was cool. As the hours slowly passed, the current carried our floating ice island down River. We cleared the foot of Grenell around 9:00 PM and by 9:45 we were floating ¼ mile up River from TI Park. And then all of sudden…wait a minute, is that a car on the coast road? It was a car and it stopped right in front of the Rochester boat house. We began to scream bloody murder…we yelled and hollered and screamed, as loud as we could, and then the person on the shore got back into the car and drove away…oh the bitter agony and utter despair we felt, as those tail lights disappeared from view. We began to speculate on whether or not we would make land fall or would the current take our floating ice island around the head of TI Park and out into the channel, below Castle Francis. But before we could lay our wagers, those headlights appeared again and this time they were pointing right at us. We commenced to raise a noise they claim was heard in Alex Bay that night and this time the head lights flashed, and a moment later,we could see the dark shapes of men moving along the shore. Out of the blackness, we at first heard him coming toward us and then we were able to make out the shape of a tin boat approaching. At the helm of our Carpathia was Charlie Heath. Charlie was calm and reserved, as he threw us a line and turned his boat back to the Park. Once ashore, the question flew at us like the wind had earlier that day. Who were we? Where had we come from? How long had we been out there? Were there more of us out there? Why the hell were we out there in the first place?
Charlie had been out on the TI Park coast road that cold winter night, checking the sewer system, due to the high wind and water as a result of the storm. He told us “I thought you were a pack of dogs stuck out on an ice flow and I went back to get my tin boat to have a look”. We assured Charlie we were the happiest, most grateful “couple of dogs” he’d ever seen. Charlie took us back to the TI Park Waterworks maintenance building, down in South Bay. We were greeted by a small group of men, hunched around a table sipping cups of steaming coffee and smoking cigarettes, after completing their inspection of the Island sewer system. With eyes wide and mouths agape they listened as we retold our story, a second time, of where we’d been and how we came to be here.
Among the men there was a general consensus that word had to be relayed to my father, out on Basswood, before he set out to try and come looking for us. We assured those gathered that my father, like all islanders, adhered to the simple River law of “Stay put”, whenever the weather is bad or there is a problem. Still,the good men reasoned he may do something foolish, out of desperation…clearly they did not know Doc Murphy. First they phoned The US Coast Guard; “no they would not dispatch their helicopter from Rochester”. Next they rang the local radio and TV station, over in Watertown; a “we interrupt this broadcast to give you an emergency update” was quickly put on the air, advising Dr. Murphy that his children had been rescued from the St. Lawrence River. Just after the 10:45 PM broadcast, the lights on Basswood went out. A raucous ‘hurray’ was issued by our little party, and sure that the message had been received, Charlie declared it was time to go to bed. He took us back to his charming home on TI Park, where his wife Mamie and their two sons Steve and Chris, were getting ready for bed. Mrs. Heath made us up warm beds, a plate of food and hot chocolates, as we told our tale for the third time that evening. I was so relieved to be out of the cold and in a warm, soft bed that I quickly fell into one of the most peaceful sleeps I’d ever had.
“Thank God Charlie was there”, is something I’ve thought many times over the years. The last time I saw Charlie, I asked him about that night and in his customary gentle manner, with his ever present smile, he replied; yes, I remember that night… “I thought you were a pack of dogs stuck out on an ice flow”. Yup, I said, I know you did, and you came out there on that cold, black night to rescue us. I thanked him again, as I had 40 years prior. Charlie didn’t dwell on it; it was the kind of thing men like Charlie did. It was the kind of thing that life on the River is made up of and thank God for men like Charlie…Charlie took a swig on his beer and then he began to tell me about the time he was duck hunting with Tommy Mitchell, out on Mosquito Island…. Charlie isn’t with us anymore, but the impression he left on this world will be felt for many generations to come.
I offer two side notes to the story. The first is the Doc did not hear the emergency broadcast that night, he simply went to bed. But later that spring when I saw my friend (and future brother in law) Jamie Dickson he told me that he and his parents had seen the emergency broadcast that night sitting in front of their TV set in Watertown. He recounted to me how he told Annie and Jim, “Hey I know those guys”. Today, 42 years later I’m mighty glad he’s still my friend!
The other is that 3 or 4 years after Charlie rescued us, I flipped that same tin boat, end-over-end, in a howling wind, off the head of TI Park (ironically in just about the same spot, Charlie had pulled us from the ice). I was heading back to Basswood at 6:00 AM, and it was really rough out; fortunately, it was mid-August and the River was warm, so I swam back to the main dock. As luck would have it, Chris Heath (Charlie’s son) was standing on the main dock, with a fishing pole in his hand. Clearly not fussed, he looked at me and said; “Hi Tom, want me to go tow your boat in”. “Yup, Chris, I do”, I said and then I ran off down the coast road, to where my sister Meg was staying as a nanny, for the Tormey family. You see I was buck-naked, having shed my pants and shirt, to swim into the dock, in the heavy seas…Chris didn’t bat an eye, as though this sort of thing happened every day, and that was the second time a Heath saved my bacon! In today’s age of 4G Wi-Fi and Twitter, we all still need a few real “river rats” like Charlie, around to rescue us every now and again.
By Thomas J. Murphy
Thomas J Murphy was born and raised in Syracuse, NY and currently lives in Kingston, ON. He is the CEO of a renewable energy technology development company, but many of his friends know him on the River as a musician, bird lover, poet and writer. He is also quick to say he is the father of “three amazing sons; Tom, Jack and Connor.” The Murphy family summered on Basswood Island for many years and we are pleased he is sharing his River memories with our Island community.
Note: Charles Heath died on December 18, 2015. His full obituary is available at http://www.cummingsfuneral.com/memorials/item/338-charles-e-heath.html.