Our river chose many of us.
Once chosen, we are life-long islanders, regardless of where we may be.
The water was already seeping up through the floorboards.
The year was 1960. It was a beautiful July day in the Thousand Islands, the height of tourist season in Gananoque. The weather clear but hot and the river was glass-calm. So why was the boat sinking?
The people sitting in the rear of the single deck wooden tour boat were already exchanging nervous glances at one another. One woman pointed out her wet shoes. The deckhand spotted the problem while making his rounds up the aisle selling souvenir books. Trying not to panic, he walked up to the captain who was seated at the front, entertaining his passengers on his microphone.
“Captain,” he whispered, “we have water coming in.”
Without missing a beat, Captain Charlie Brooks looked at the kid, and asked, smiling, “Do you know where?”
“It’s a small stream on the right side, just below the water line.”
A caulking problem, Charles thought. He adjusted the volume switch on his microphone. “Ladies and Gents, I’d like to point out, over here on our left side... yeah that’s right... look hard now...”
Passengers got up from their seats and everyone moved to the left side of the boat.
Very quietly, Charlie asked the deckhand, “Have a look. Has the leak stopped?”
“Yeah, the seam is up out of the water.”
So the boat continued on, bilge pump running, with a fifteen degree list to port. The captain continued with his commentary, “Now isn’t this better? And aren’t we all cozier now? Never mind that water sloshing around, ma’am. It’s perfectly natural... yeah, most of it is outside...”
When Gananoque Boat Line celebrates its 60th year of operation this coming spring, one of their founding, pioneer skippers won’t be there. Shortly before Christmas, on December 17th, Captain Charles Egbert Brooks of Charleston Lake, passed away. He was 84.
“Charles, a Sutton, Ontario native, came to the Thousand Islands region after a stint in the Canadian Army then Forest Ranger turned Game Warden,” said son Tim. “He loved the outdoors.” Tim Brooks, also a captain with Gananoque Boat Line, followed a family tradition of ‘river rats’. His older brother Peter also skippered one of the brand new aluminum triple decker Thousand Islanders and both brothers helped their father when he owned the Gananoque water taxi service in the mid sixties. “They were big wooden boats painted black with a yellow snout,” Tim said. “A lot of old timers will remember the ‘Bib’ ‘Nymph’ and ‘Rockport’. We delivered everything and carried anything through the maze of channels to the different islands.” Later, Marlin Yachts built two thirty foot all aluminum boats for taxi service designed and owned by Captain Brooks.
“Charles as a young game warden knew the job was eighty percent public relations and twenty per cent ‘by the book’,” said long time companion Karolyn Massey. “He just loved telling this one story when he first came to this area. He caught a youngster spearing pike in one of the upper streams around here,” she said. “Well, instead of giving the kid a ten dollar fine which probably would have been paid by his father, Charles said to the boy, ‘See that stack of wood by your barn? When I come back next week, I want to see it cut and split and neatly stacked chord wise’. Well, the kid did it, and Charles later said, ‘You know, his old man probably sent him out to spear the fish in the first place!’”
A love of the St. Lawrence River led Charles Brooks to a career as a fishing and later, tourist guide, showing countless throngs of newcomers the wonders and delights of the hidden bays and inlets making up the Thousand Islands. Legendary fishing guides Huck McGuire, V. R. Hunt and ‘Muskie Jake’ Huntley took a liking to the personable young Brooks and took him under their wing showing the secret hiding places of the elusive Muskellunge, known locally as a ‘Muskie’ and the equally evasive Sturgeon. These monsters of the deep often weighed sixty to a hundred pounds and were sometimes three feet in length. Very intimidating once they appeared by the side of the boat with a hook in their mouth. In later years, Muskie Jake, wanting to share a secret, would call out over his VHF radio to one of the big Gananoque Boat Line Thousand Islanders passing by, “That you, Charlie?”
“Yes!” came the assertive reply.
“Yes, I said, that’s me!”
“Ok, go to channel six. I got something to tell ya...” Naturally, every local fisherman and guide adjusted their radio.
His touring guide career began on the single decked, wooden bus-like tour boats popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. These were the early tour boats of the Gananoque Boat Line, the Lynda boats, equipped with a steering wheel in front, a gear shift to the right and a throttle stuck somewhere near. And it usually did get stuck – either dead slow or flat out – leaving the guy at the wheel to maintain his sense of humour; talking or even singing to the public while frantically trying to slow the boat down. That was it for equipment, navigation wise. Wired through the cabin top, mixed in with the spiders and lifebelts, was a somewhat hap hazard public address system that usually crackled and sputtered but when it worked, oh the magic. We skippers of the big Thousand Islanders of the next generation heard many a tall tale about the ‘real origin’ of many Thousand Islands characters at the end of our working day. Carefully pouring himself ‘two fingers’ Charles would wait until everyone’s glass was full, and then continue with his stories. We learned what really happened at Boldt Castle... Pirate Bill Johnston’s actual hideout... all the good stuff, now long forgotten.
“Underneath that gruff exterior was a Charles Brooks many people didn’t know,” said Karolyn. “Four weeks before he died, we took some apples, a bottle of wine with two glasses and went to the spot where I shot my first deer, just north of Charleston Lake. We spread out the apples and waited, just to see them in their natural habitat” she said. “Well, no deer appeared but the full moon was out. We filled our glasses, toasted each other and said that life doesn’t get better than this.” Massey pauses for a full minute, then continues. “Charles’s favourite song was ‘The sun will come out tomorrow’ remember that one, from ‘Annie’? I was just out the other night, on the deck here by the lake. The moon was full, but it was snowing. I knew tomorrow would be a good day because I could hear him, you know? Humming those words over and over.”
Cap’n Charlie, you really were one of a kind.
By Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III captain and former skipper at Gananoque Boat Line
Brian 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 28 years, with well over 20 years as captain. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also the founding and past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society. Several of his articles are also published by the Kingston Whip Standard. This tribute to Captain Charles Brooks was given by Captain Brian Johnson in December as part of the memorial service.
Editor’s Note: The River will miss Captain Charlie and we are glad his memory will live on.