Monday, January 15, 2007

Lore of the lake

This woman, Abigail Becker, is something of a legend down Long Point way. In case you don't know, Long Point is a forty-kilometre sandspit that sticks way out (almost halfway across, in fact) into Lake Erie from the Ontario shoreline.

In all, Abigail reared seventeen children, many of them in a small cabin among the dunes of Long Point that was built out of driftwood and planks from ships wrecked on the point's many sandbars. The cabin was located near the Old Cut, a natural canal that bisected Long Point near its base, allowing ships to pass through without having to go all the way around the tip. The Cut was marked by the Old Cut lighthouse, pictured here.

In her early twenties, Abigail married Jeremiah Becker, a hardscrabble local trapper who was considerably older than her and, incidentally, came with five children of his own.

Today, all of this would be enough to qualify Abigail for the Order of Canada; but this is only one small part of her story.

The event that changed Abigail's life took place on November 24, 1854. A fierce snowstorm had raged through the previous night, rattling the small cabin and stirring Lake Erie into a froth. With Jeremiah away trading furs for supplies, Abigail hadn't slept a wink. In the morning, she groggily made her way down to the lake, before her numerous children stirred, to fetch some water.

That's when she saw, just up the beach, the white, rectangular form of an overturned lifeboat. While she was going in for a closer look, something far more dreadful caught Abigail's eye -- what turned out to be the wreck of the schooner Conductor, hung up on a sandbar 200 yards offshore with only her rigging peeking above the surface of the water. What's more, Abigail could see eight men clinging to the rigging, exhausted and nearly frozen to death. Not missing a beat, she roused her children and set off down the beach, where she lit a fire and made tea, in hopes that the men would be tempted to swim for it.

And they were; one by one, starting with the captain, they dropped into the freezing, churning water and Abigail, wading in all the way up to her neck, reached out and pulled each of them to shore before the current could sweep them away. Only the cook, who couldn't swim a stroke, stayed put. Amazingly, he survived the next frigid night in the rigging and Abigail retrieved him the following morning when the lake had calmed.

Her heroism brought Abigail notoriety, a small fortune in rewards, a gold medal, and even a visit from the Prince of Wales while he was hunting at Long Point.

It's a remarkable story; one that makes me feel like, well, a bit of a lightweight, really.


Marcel LeHouillier said...

Astonishing tales of the sea! Greetings from the chilly windswept pacific northwest... Prince Rupert, BC!

Chad Fraser said...

Ahoy, captain. I see you have decided to flee fair Vancouver before she inevitably slides off into the ocean, leaving only a few old hippies and a couple bags of fair-trade coffee in her wake.

You are wise (and hopefully dry).