I looked up at the huge silhouette of the “Thousand Islander” from my midship seat in the small boat. Swallowing hard I looked at my little companion pulling frantically at the outboard motor chord. Nothing. I hung on as the wake starting rocking the boat. It was right then that I realized that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all…
It was mid-morning, simmering hot and humid during early July, in the summer of 1975. I was mate on the Gananoque Boat Line’s “Thousand Islander” under the strict tutelage of legendary Captain Leland Earle. I was sitting at a table by the canteen, on the first deck, when canteen supervisor Shirley Thompson recognized the hum of an outboard motor just alongside the port windows of the boat.
“It’s the ‘Peanuts’ Gang,” she said, and jumped up. A small, fibre-glass Boston Whaler was alongside the tour boat while Shirley passed potato chips and soft drinks to the kids through the open window.
“Thanks Shirl,” yelled ‘little Kathy’, a wiry, little tomboy about 11 or 12 years of age who was piloting from the stern, easily handling the small, outboard Mercury motor. Expertly pulling away, she gunned the engine and all five kids raced forward, their little boat with its name ‘Peanuts’, painted in big, bold letters on the side, bouncing in the chop while they waved to Captain Earle way up in the pilot house. Answering with a salute of one long and two short blasts of the horn, Captain Lee waved back. Apparently, the ‘Peanuts Gang’ would pop up out of nowhere just after the “Islander” would enter the seaway just past Woronoco Island to about Point Vivian, NY. Sliding alongside the GBL boats, crew members would hand over candy bars, potato chips and the thrilled kids would speed off, disappearing among the many bays.
“They do this every once in a while,” Shirley explained. “Once they even took Gavin (Engineer Duffy) out for a short ride last year,” she chuckled. “Lee didn’t even know.”
By mid July I got to know this little gang of river rovers and they came to accept me, too. And then they vanished for a while. Until one quiet afternoon in late July.
It was near two in the afternoon, on another hot, humid and windless day as we approached Rock Island at Johnson’s Light. Only about 150 passengers aboard, mostly topside. I’m sitting at a back table, with my girlfriend Cathy and her sister Jennie, as relief engineer Gary Dingman joins us. Captain Earle is piloting upstairs. “It’s the Peanuts gang,” Shirley says, recognizing the motor. We all get up and move to the back deck. It’s just ‘little Kathy’ all alone. Shirley tosses her a bag of chips.
“Hey, Brian,” she said, expertly riding the wake alongside the Islander. “C’mon… jump in.”
I looked at Gary, he shrugged, so I opened the gate. Little Kathy had the boat right alongside as I carefully climbed down and carefully jumped in. Kathy throttled the engine up and we peeled back jumping the waves behind the “Thousand Islander”. “Don’t go forward, and let Leland see me out here,” I yelled. Kathy shook her head. People on the upper decks waved and laughed at the fun we were having, including my Cathy, her sister Jennie, Gary, Shirley and Mike Crellian, deckhand, watching us on the lower back deck.
‘Little Kathy’ motors “Peanuts” back toward the “Thousand Islander” as Gary opens the gate. Holding out his hand, I reach for it as Kathy drops power suddenly. I sit back down to keep the small boat stable. I look back at little Kathy as the big “Thousand Islander” continues on, rocking our little boat in her wake. Little Kathy looks toward me with no sound coming from the motor. And then she said, “I think we’re out of gas?”
I looked at her sharply. “What?!”
“I think,” she said, pulling on the motor chord, “…that we’re out’a gas…”
“Thousand Islander” is pulling away… everyone: engineer, deckhands, including my future wife, and all of the passengers on the upper decks watched helplessly as we drifted away in the small boat. No one wanted to tell Captain Earle to stop the boat. No one.
Captain Leland V. Earle, in his early 70’s now had a very distinguished background. His role as a tour boat captain was strictly a summer job, which he held for over 25 years. He took it seriously. During that time he was also a teacher and school principal in Gananoque, for over 30 years. After spending five years overseas, during World War II, as ammunition and explosives advisor, to the Fourth Canadian Armoured Division, in England, France and Germany, he rose to the rank of Captain and was awarded a mention in despatches before a wound sent him home. He retired from the Third Battery Reserve unit with the rank of Major. Lee was also on Gananoque town council from 1957 to 1974. An excellent teacher, but a real no-nonsense man.
From the small boat I watched too. Staring with my mouth open. And I couldn’t say or yell anything. I’ll be fired. I turned to my little Captain. “C’mon Kathy… no, you’re kidding, right?” I said, my stomach in my mouth. “Quit foolin’ around. Not funny…”
“I mean it Brian. We’re out’a gas!” She’s almost in tears. Oh man! What now?
“Here. Lem’me see,” I said. I opened the portable gas tank and… nothing. Bone dry. Looking quickly, I found one oar and then the other, laying length ways along the upper seats. Why not? I put the oars in their rowlocks. And what? Row after the “Islander”? Well, that’s what I did. I pulled hard on the oars, then headed toward shore… toward Wellesley Island State Park, while ‘little Kathy’ continued pulling uselessly on the motor chord. She was crying. I was on the verge of tears, too. Overhead, seagulls screamed. I almost joined them. When we get to shore… then what? “Where do you live?” I said, over my shoulder.
“Way down, (sniff, sniff) past the bridge…” I looked. “Thousand Islander” wasn’t quite there yet. What to do when we reach shore? Call a taxi? From where? Going where? I know, straight to the unemployment office. Suddenly, another thought, (light bulb). I’ll run across Wellesley Island. Yeah, through backyards, fields and meadows and maybe – just maybe - bribe someone to take me out to meet the boat on the other side. I continued to pull hard on the oars while ‘little Kathy’ kept time with her sniffles. It was then a small motor boat chugged alongside us and said, “Hey!! Do you need a tow?”
“Yes, we do!” yelled Kathy. Taking the towline, the motor boat proceeded to Kathy’s cottage, just past the Thousand Island Bridge opposite Swan Bay. He kept increasing speed until we were up on a plane. I looked down River. “Thousand Islander” was just past Point Vivian. There is still a chance of me keeping my job. Arriving at ‘little Kathy’s’ dock, I asked her where do they keep the gas can?
“I’m not sure…”
I spotted a small boat in the boathouse, with a tank attached to the motor. I leaned down and lifted it. It was full. We attached it to Kathy’s outboard and pulled the chord. It sputtered once, then caught. Just then, Kathy’s older sister was coming down to the dock, as I pushed us off. She shielded her eyes and frowning, yelled, “Kathy… Who… What’s going…?”
“We gott’a catch a boat,” I yelled, as we roared off. Wide open, ‘Peanuts’ planed like a kite. I looked at my watch. She should be at Boldt Castle. Hopefully held up there.
Roaring behind Knobby, St. Elmo and Florence Islands, just past the American Coast Guard Station, I spotted “Thousand Islander”, still at the dock, loading. Captain Earle was watching the passengers. We pulled up to the dock, just behind her. I jumped out. “Thousand Islander” was just springing off the dock. I ran… too late! Out she pulled! I jumped back aboard “Peanuts”. We roared after her once again; Gary swung open the gate and this time I jumped for his hand, all caution to the wind. I made it! Safely aboard. “Straight home!!” I yelled at the little “Peanuts” boat, as she roared off into the afternoon sun. Everyone started clapping. Oh, man, please have enough gas, I thought. All the crew were there, everyone glad I was back, my future wife shaking her head. And then I asked, “Does Lee know…?”
Everyone shrugged their shoulders. “He’s never said anything,” Gary said. It’s my usual turn at the wheel now. I gott’a go up there and face the music. ‘Knowing’ passengers on the top deck watched, as I approached the wheelhouse. Oh the poor mate’s gonn’a get it. As I came timidly through the door Captain Earle turned slowly in the pilot’s chair and faced me.
“Well, well,” he said, very ‘principally’ slowly.
“Captain, I am so…”
“I think… you’ve… learned your lesson, young fell’a,” he said as his face broke into a grin. “Here, she’s all yours.” No more was ever said about it. The ol’ man really had a sense of humour after all.
We were raided by ‘little Kathy’ and her “Peanuts Gang” a few more times that summer, albeit after a couple of weeks. “I got grounded,” she shouted, “but we got lots’a gas. Comin out?”
I said no, every time.
After that summer, we never saw ‘Peanuts’ or her little Captain and crew roaming the waterways again. Kids grow up and move on. That was over 40 years ago. I hope someone reading this – maybe they were part of the Peanuts Gang – or ‘little Kathy’ herself, remembers that day and smiles.
By Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III captain, retired.
Brian Paul Johnson is a recently retired captain of the Wolfe Island Car Ferry, “Wolfe Islander III.” He worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years. We also often see him pass-through the islands as Captain of the “Canadian Empress.”
Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area, he has written for the “Kingston Whig Standard,” “Telescope Magazine,” the “Great Lakes Boatnerd” and the website: “Seaway News”. Brian co-edited “Growing up on Wolfe Island”, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society.
And best of all, he is about to publish his latest book… Watch for more news in a forthcoming issue of TI Life. To see all of Captain Johnson’s articles for TI Life, Click Here.