Back in 1985 Kathy and I were displaced teachers from BC and living on the shores of Cole Lake. (I know what you’re thinking…. but the Bay pulls strongly…..even to the far coast mountains!) We were teaching paddling and skiing in our spare time, and had a long background working in outdoor centres in Ontario, Alberta and BC. One summer day we got the bright idea that maybe we ought to start up a ski and paddling outfit of our own. Forget a business plan or market forecast, we just decided to do it. Surely everybody would want to hang out on the Bay with us on skis or in a kayak wouldn’t they?
We love Canadian roots music, and at the time- the late Stan Rogers had penned the song “White Squall” which tells the tale of a young deckhand out on a Wiarton freighter. The ship was bound for Lake Superior one fine summer evening. The boy was lying on the foredeck, lost in dreams of his girl – when a rogue wind threw the ship over on it’s side. A green wave washed the deck and he was lost. The first mate knew the lad should have been tethered in….
” and I tell these kids a hundred times don’t take the lakes for granted, they go from calm to a hundred knots so fast they seem enchanted… tonight a red-eyed Wiarton girl lies staring at the wall….for her lover’s gone into a white squall”
The term has been around for over a hundred years to describe the burst of wind at the leading edge of a cold front. It can blast out of a blue sky, and pass just as quickly. A book called “The Georgian Bay”, written in the 1890’s, chronicles the voyage of a group of men out of Wiarton who circled the Georgian Bay coast in a Mackinaw schooner. The Mackinaw was a traditional double-ended open sailboat built for fishing and if you can imagine a few guys sailing away their summer just for fun – they must have been quite a sight. We were thrilled to discover later that the book was dedicated to the crew of the “White Squall”! It describes them landing at the fishing village on the southern Minks – our favourite islands. The families welcomed the sailors in and a wonderful party ensued with jugs of wine, fiddles and late night dancing. A hundred years later here we were – new adventurers in kayaks visiting the same islands under the same name – and probably wouldn’t walk away from a party either.
The first few summers, customers were a rare sight indeed. If we sold a boat, Kathy and I would hold hands and do a little dance and a yip like whirling dervishes. Our grand opening was pretty funny. A big urn of coffee and a box of donuts sat untouched on our front lawn as we sat forlornly on the picnic table and waited. Five people showed up, two were good friends and another came because he heard there were decent door prizes. The first winter, we bought some skis and gear and drove around in our old van teaching nordic skiing. It was great, but not much of a barn-burner in the revenue department. Slowly, ever so slowly – Parry Sounders started to visit, checking out these young folk from away. For many years, we joked that we “weren’t a real store” and in many ways that was true – we had no cash register, no fax nor computer – but a few fairly friendly chickens and friends who felt compelled to lend a hand to keep the Squall afloat.
Summers came and went with ever increasing numbers of boats, stuff and staff! I began to see the Squall as an orphanage for wayward kayaks and canoes. Young gaffers would come to live with us for a while, get a bit scratched up – and learn the ways of being a boat. The time would come when they needed to leave, and it was simply our job to make sure they went to a good home. But a lot of them didn’t want to go and every year Fred Eaglesmith would open his spring concert with the same wisecrack, “Doncha think Tim has an inventory problem? …..he seems’s a bit boat heavy to me ” Things haven’t changed much as at least 200 boats end up staying with us each winter, but it all seems to work – each spring hundreds of new arrivals join the crew – and building new racks to house them is an annual chore for the early spring staff.