You never know where the twists and bends of the deep, clear aquamarine of the Snye and the mud-green murk of the Sydenham River will take you. You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet.
As described in Part 1 (“Voyage to “the Dark Bend” – Origins and a War Story”), this story had three starting points: the summer of 1942 (when my father, Dino Martinello, sailed on the Ben E Tate); Sunday, March 7, 2021 (the day I met and interviewed brothers Dave and Cyril Cogghe and their cousin Maurice Seys); and Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021 (the day I rented a boat at Bass Haven for my voyage to “the Dark Bend”).
The plan for Aug. 15, 2021 was to motor slow (at two or three miles per hour; the speed the Ben E Tate would have travelled on my father’s voyage) up the south leg of the Snye from the Bass Haven channel to the confluence of the Snye and Sydenham River, turn west at the confluence and motor slow up the Snye to the very west end of the Baseline Road (the starting point of my father’s voyage on the Ben E Tate in the summer of 1942), and then turn east back down the Snye, past the confluence of the Snye and Sydenham and then up the Sydenham to the site of the former, and abandoned, Canada and Dominion Sugar Company (“the Sugar factory”) ship dock on the east side of the Sydenham in Wallaceburg (the end point of my father’s voyage on the Ben E Tate).
I wanted to see and take photos of the things that my father might, and might not (because they were not there in 1942), have seen on his five-mile voyage – down the Snye and then up the Sydenham – on the Ben E Tate and to take photos of the things my father and his fishing buddy, Reg Slater, might, and might not, have seen when they fished the seven-mile-long south leg of the Snye in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.
That was the plan.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
I had successfully taken photos along the south leg of the Syne and from the confluence of the Snye and Sydenham River to the point where the west end of the Baseline Road meets the Snye.
The plan fell apart just as I turned my “ship” (the trusty 16-foot Lund aluminum fishing boat with a 20 horsepower motor on the back I had rented from Bass Haven) northeast up the Sydenham towards Wallaceburg; right after I had crossed that unforgettable, constantly-twisting and turning – but never far from where it always is and has always been – line in the water where the deep, clear, aquamarine of the Snye meets the mud-green murk of the Sydenham, to flow south, as a murky mix, down the south leg of the Snye to Mitchell’s Bay.
No. My “ship” didn’t sink. The outboard (it always starts with one easy pull on the starting cord) kept purring along like it always did.
The problem came down to four small cylinders; each about two inches long and one half inch in diameter. The viewing screen on my camera had gone black. The AA batteries in my camera had died.
Undeterred by dead batteries, I motored on. Under an arc of blazing-brilliant, blue sky, I continued my voyage up the mud-green murk of the Sydenham River. Through the ghosts of all the ships that – for 140 years, until July 1987 – once steamed up to Wallaceburg’s Government Dock and all the other working docks that once lined the Sydenham in Wallaceburg. Through the serene but eerie quiet of a section of the Sydenham that was once embedded in the round-the-clock grind and hum of the Dominion Glass Company (“the Glass”), the Wallaceburg Brass and Iron Company (“the Brass”) and “the Sugar factory.”
When my original plan failed, I decided to write this series of stories without the benefit of photos of that stretch of the Sydenham River from the confluence of the Snye and Sydenham to “the Sugar factory” dock. But even that would change. I couldn’t leave any good photos behind. There is now a fourth starting point to this story. But more on that in another story.
Before I go any further in this story, a note about friendliness. On my Aug. 15 voyage, I passed by about 60 people. People whizzing by in pontoon boats. Fisherman trolling or jigging slow from simple fishing boats like my own “ship” or much sleeker and speedier bass boats. People fishing from shore and mowing their lawns. And whether it was just the joy of being outside under an arc of cloudless, blazing-brilliant, blue sky on or along the placid waters of the Snye and Sydenham River or the relief from the prior week of sweltering heat and humidity or the knowledge that summer was fast winding down, I don’t know. But most all the people I passed by, or that passed by me, waved. A simple wave of the hand and very brief eye contact. And then gone. Up or down the river. Of course, I always waved back.
On Aug. 15, as I was heading north up the south leg of the Snye, and still about 2.25 miles south of the confluence of the Snye and Sydenham River, I came across three men fishing from the deck of the St. Anne Island cable ferry as it was moored to the mainland side of the Snye; at the end of the St Anne Line. So I pulled up (kind of; the current on the Snye was about two or three miles per hour, so I was constantly adjusting the motor throttle to stay within speaking distance of the men on the ferry) and asked how long the ferry had been there.
One of the fishermen replied with words to the effect that he had lived in the area for 50 years and the ferry had been there for as long as he could remember.
We talked about fishing and then the same man mentioned – out of the blue – that Maurice Seys was growing corn on the island this year; the same Maurice that I interviewed more than six months ago, on March 7, 2021.
Just a note. A cable ferry is a vessel propelled by a motor that pulls the ferry along a cable that is anchored to the mainland and island shore. By my own gestimate, the ferry is about 28 feet wide and 80 feet long.
As the fisherman on the ferry was talking, another story from the past flashed into my mind. It was the story my father told me from the time when he was a kid, living in a rented house at the southeast corner of Mill and Wallace streets in Wallaceburg. I don’t know exactly when this story happened, but it must have been sometime before 1943, when my father and his family moved from the rented house, to the new house my grandfather, Primo Martinello, built on the south side of Gillard Street.
The story goes like this. One summer day, Doug Woolever – at the time a young man who lived directly across the street from my father, in a house along the Sydenham River on the north side of Wallace Street – invited my father to go for a car ride to see the wild horses of St. Anne Island. Other than that, I don’t know much about that summer day. But it was a day my father never forgot. Much like his story of his voyage on the Ben E Tate.
I spoke with a number of people trying to find out more about that trip to see the wild horses of St. Anne Island and maybe even more about Doug Woolever. As best I know, Doug Woolever’s father, Charles, was a carpenter and Doug Woolever travelled the world purchasing gem stones for resale in different markets.
On Sept. 8, I had the great fortune of speaking with 70-year-old Rocky Sands of Walpole Island. Rocky is a veteran hunting and fishing guide; started guiding when he was 11 years old. As a student, he didn’t want to disappoint his teachers (Alan Mann was his Grade 7 teacher at WT Laing School) but, as Rocky puts it, “hunting and fishing is all I ever wanted to do.” And Rocky has guided senators, sports stars, presidents of very large companies and a man who walked on the moon; all people who have provided Rocky with a very good education. More on that in, yes, another story.
Rocky Sands also knows a lot about the wild horses of St Anne Island. He recalls that Napoleon King was the first farmer on St. Anne Island. To the best of Rocky’s recollection, there has been a ferry service to the island since sometime in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, and that the red, steel, ferry that currently crosses from the mainland to St. Anne Island was built – sometime in the 1980’s – by Ross Arnold, a marine fabricator formerly located at the intersection of Kimball Side Road and Highway 80.
Rocky also remembers that the wild horses were removed from St. Anne Island sometime in the early 1970’s, and that his family bought the last wild colt of St. Anne Island from the Johnson family that used to live at the north end of St. Anne Island.
Rocky also recalls that until the arrival of that tall, purple-headed, wetland-choking, invader known as phragmites, you could look across the Snye, from the mainland, and see many parts of St. Anne Island.
I asked Rocky if he knew anything about Doug Woolever or the Woolever family. At the time of our Sept. 8 conversation, he didn’t.
I also contacted Marylou Ross, now living in Sarnia, to see if she knew anything about Doug Woolever or the Woolever family. She didn’t. But she sent me a photo of the wild horses of Walpole Island; a photo that connects this story – and my father’s story about his trip to see the wild horses of St. Anne Island – to another war story.
Marylou Ross was born Marylou Wisby in Wallaceburg. Her parents were Lloyd B Wisby and Lucy Albertina Simonato. As a young girl, Lucy Simonato lived a couple of houses down the street from my father’s house on the south side of Wallace Street in Depression-era Wallaceburg. The Simonato and Martinello families were part of Wallaceburg’s small, tight-knit – and now mostly vanished – immigrant-Italian community. Lucy and my father were childhood friends.
Lucy Simonato, born 1923, had an older brother, Enrico, born 1922. On April 15, 2006, I met and interviewed Lucy. That interview became a three-part story, mostly about Enrico’s fast and fiery death, in the June 2006 edition of the Courier Press. In that interview, I learned that Enrico was a very skilled craftsman; that he loved to build wooden model ships and airplanes and pieces of small furniture. Pieces of furniture that, to this day, Marylou Ross holds dear in her home.
What I didn’t know from that interview, was that Enrico was an avid photographer who operated his own darkroom in the basement of his parent’s house on Wallace Street. And that the photo, of the wild horses of Walpole Island, was taken sometime shortly before Enrico left Wallaceburg – for the very last time – on Monday, Sept. 20, 1943.
By Sept. 20, 1943, Enrico Simonato was a fully trained, Royal Canadian Air Force, wireless air gunner; the crew member on bomber airplanes who operated radio and other electronic equipment and, in the event of the injury of the mid-upper and tail gunners, the machine guns in the mid-upper and rear turrets of the bomber.
Less than a year after his departure from Wallaceburg – at 2:10 a.m., Tuesday, June 13, 1944 – Pilot Officer Simonato and his six crewmates on a 427 Squadron, four-engine, Halifax heavy bomber airplane were shot out of the pitch-black terror of the bullet-torn sky and plummeted into the ground at Ecurie, in northern France. By the time all the unused fuel and ammunition had exploded and burned, there was nothing left but a smoldering ruin of twisted aluminum and steel, leather flying equipment and mangled and blackened bodies.
Twelve days after I interviewed her, on April 27, 2006, Lucy Simonato died a peaceful death.
In writing this story, I was not able to learn much about Doug Woolever. But I know he was born 1918 and died 1997.
From my conversation with Rocky Sands, I learned that the red, steel, cable ferry that I passed by on my Aug. 15 voyage to “the Dark Bend,” was the very same ferry that my father and his fishing buddy Reg Slater would have passed by as they motored slow up the pickerel-rich, murky mix of the south leg of the Snye in the 1980’s.
Prior to writing this story, I knew about the wild horses of Walpole Island. Until I spoke with Rocky Sands, I didn’t know anything about the wild horses of St. Anne Island. So I was able to confirm my father’s story about his trip with Doug Woolever to see the horses of St. Anne Island. Whether Doug Woolever and my father (and whoever else accompanied them) actually crossed a ferry to see the wild horses on St. Anne Island or they just stood somewhere on a cattail-lined bank on one of the many turns and twists on the mainland side of the Snye, will probably never be known.
But as I motored slow up, then down, the Snye that sun-bleached, Sunday, Aug. 15, there is a really good chance that I passed by the spot from where Doug Woolever and my father once gazed at the wild horses of St. Anne Island. A long time ago. Almost 80 years.
Many of the people in this part of this story are long gone. But that photo of the wild horses of Walpole Island – taken by Enrico Simonato, not long before he left Wallaceburg forever – stands silent watch on the wall of Marylou Ross’s home. Just like the twists and bends of the deep, clear, aquamarine of the Snye and the mud-green murk of the mighty Sydenham River. Running quiet and unstoppable. Carrying mud and memories and ferries and fishermen. Connecting us all to each other’s stories.