It stood out like a beacon, which in fact it was.
For seven days, Rob Morrisette had seen nothing but water, sunrise to sunset. Endless blue water blending to an endless blue sky to his right while a barren, rocky shore loomed constantly to his left. For the past three days it became endless rain. Overhead, screaming seagulls and terns followed in his wake while his two powerful arms and wrists turned in unison on a double ended paddle, propelling his sturdy kayak forward, another inch, another mile. From his left eye, Morrisette took bearings of his progress, watching the Georgian Bay shoreline move slowly back, until each day painted the same picture. The barren shoreline of wild, Lake Superior was exactly like this, when was it? A week ago?
Then he spotted a red roof and white tower-like structure amidst the rocks in the grey, afternoon mist way up ahead. A light too was flashing at different intervals. Checking his waterlogged chart with blurred pencil markings, he saw that it was the Pointe au Baril lighthouse. Pure adrenaline pushed him forward. For another soggy hour he watched the tower grow closer until, at last, he was alongside. Thrilled, he could only hope there was someone inside. He was barely able to pull himself out of the cockpit of the small craft and climb wearily onto the dock.
Suddenly, from a loud hailer came an elderly woman’s voice, “You feller! You there! Take your clothes off on the dock and get up here!”
That was twenty years ago. Rob Morrisette laughs as he remembers. “I was on a kayak trip from Thunder Bay to Kingston and just entering Georgian Bay. I had been doing volunteer work for the Heart and Stroke Foundation collecting sponsors along my route. I was soaked; wet, tired and hungry when I spotted the lighthouse.” As it turned out, the elderly lady was in fact the lighthouse keeper and had lived in the lighthouse all of her life. Emmaline Madigan was her name. When she called down, she had watched Morrisette’s progress coming down the shoreline and knew he would have been tired, wet and cold. “She turned the hot water heater on, washed and dried my clothes, and gave me shelter for the night,” he said. Emmaline told him about her life. Her father had lived here as ‘keeper’ and then she had married and both she and her husband kept the light. Later, she had stayed on as a hostess for the light which was no longer in service. “She lived here her whole life. When I went to leave, Emmaline asked ‘Where’s your hat?’ I said I didn’t have one. She got me one. She said ‘I want you wearing this Point au Baril Lighthouse hat when you get into Kingston.’ And I did. I’ll never forget her or that welcome light.”
Rob and his wife Mollie are originally from London, Ontario. Both retired from the Canadian Armed Forces some time ago and moved to Kingston where Mollie is from. “I was a big canoeist when I retired but found nobody to play with,” Rob said. “A canoe is difficult to handle alone. Someone suggested I try kayaking. Well, I went out for a two hour lesson and was hooked. I realized I can do this by myself. I can take this craft where a canoe can’t go. Deeper water, high winds and even out into the lakes. They’re wonderful, very seaworthy. I’ve since paddled in Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland and out on the west coast in B.C.
“I had been paddling for about six months when I took on mighty Lake Superior for the Heart and Stroke cause,” Rob remarked. It was the cause that kept his arms in motion when everything else just wanted to stop. Last spring, during a weekend kayak trip with neighbours, Rob noticed one of the younger ladies was having trouble keeping up. “Darcy,” he called out, “you should have no trouble keeping up with us ‘ol guys and gals. What’s wrong? Tired?”
After they landed for a break, the young woman told Rob of her problems with a disease called Multiple Sclerosis recently diagnosed. MS is an inflammatory disease in which the fatty myelin sheaths around the axons of the brain and spinal cord are damaged. This terrible disease usually occurs in young adults and it is more common in women. Although much is known about the mechanisms involved in the disease process, the cause remains unknown. “Twenty years ago, I had a heart attack,” Rob said. “It was a mild one, but a wake-up call, nonetheless.” That was when he got involved in the Heart and Stroke cause. Later, after the recent weekend paddle, he discussed new plans with wife Mollie. Remembering the success of his Heart and Stroke trip he had a new idea. Together, they conceived ‘20 Years to Enlightenment’ capturing Rob’s 20 years of recovery and the beacons of hope the lighthouses represent. This project would be a summertime paddle-a-thon in kayaks around every lighthouse on Lake Ontario and upper St. Lawrence River, accepting pledges and sponsors to help researchers find a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.
“Enlightenment and hope for the future is our cause,” Rob said. “We’re doing it with our friends and family and anybody that wants to come and join us. It’s an experience. Anytime we’ve gone out we’ve made new friends and have seen fabulous things at the end of the day.” Just recently, down through the Thousand Islands, the group stopped in at the Interpretive Centre on the Thousand Island Parkway. Here, they saw native artwork carved into the rocks. “Always something new,” Rob says. “At the end of the day we’re so pumped; excited by what we did and what we saw. Most of the time we’re just happy to get in on shore, dried off and have dinner.” This is where Mollie comes in. “She is our shore support for each outing,” Rob said. “Just recently, we were looking for a place to land and all we could spot were marsh reeds. We have walkie talkies to stay in touch. One of our paddlers was familiar with the area so he told Mollie just where to drive and she was there waiting with supplies by the time we arrived.”
Their summertime goal is to paddle, and either land at or record all of the lighthouses on Lake Ontario and upper St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands taking pictures of the structures. For now, their trips are every Wednesday, returning home that evening. “Originally, there were about 87 lighthouses in and around the lake,” Rob said. “There will be days when we can’t get out there so we’ll change the day on occasion. Our goal is to do them ALL, hopefully by September. Then, we’re planning to take the best of the pictures of each lighthouse and make a calendar. These we’ll sell for a few dollars where the money will go for MS research.
“Ogdensburg, New York and Prescott Ontario are considered the eastern part of Lake Ontario,” Rob continues. “The furthest west is Niagara. We’re planning to do both sides of the lake and area. As the summer progresses, we hope to save a few of the closer ones to home for the last as we may have many fair weather paddlers joining us. Some may not have a lot of gear with them and can only get away for a day and that is just fine.”
Everyone, novice and veteran alike is welcome to join Rob and crew on their ‘20 years to enlightenment’ tour. Just bring your kayak. “They can pick up anywhere,” Rob said. “If they want to make a donation – they don’t have to – we’re happy to have them on board to paddle with us. If anyone would like to donate, we would be happy to give them a pledge sheet and ask for a dollar a lighthouse or 50 cents a lighthouse, whatever. Anything over ten dollars the MS Association will issue a receipt. Everything helps.”
Great lakes lighthouses were beacons in the night aiding mariners through dangerous waters. Fast becoming relics of the past, these structures became symbols of safety when the going got rough and the night grew dark. Rob Morrisette never forgot that beacon of hope out on Georgian Bay that late, misty afternoon some twenty years ago. Or the hospitality of its keeper. It’s that same vision both he and Mollie foresee to help end the darkness of MS.
If you want to help, contact Chairperson Kelly Fraser at the Kingston Chapter for Multiple Sclerosis at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 613 384 8500 and say you would like to join the crew of ‘20 years to enlightenment’. Rob’s email is email@example.com . According to Rob, anyone can join in and drop off. “If they want to come and do a one day paddle and leave a five day donation, that’s wonderful too.”
By Brian Johnson
Brian Paul Johnson is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain. We 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 and the Great Lakes Boatnerd 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 former president of the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime mystery writer’s festival held on the island every August.