Isabella Merrill never forgot ‘the storm.’
In the fall of 1927, she and her husband Harry, a Prince Albert National Park warden, were living in a cabin on the east shore of Waskesiu Lake.
One day, a fierce storm swept across the lake that seemed to blow itself out as quickly as it came up. When interviewed 60 years later, Isabella vividly recalled the spray from the breakers washing over her cabin roof.
Four people were out on the lake when the freak storm hit.
Reuben Dahl, Emile Faber and his wife Mildred, and Emile’s brother Joseph were on their way to Montreal Lake to build some fishing shacks for R.D. Brooks that winter. They were camped at the mouth of the Waskesiu River, waiting for freeze-up so they could take up freight.
The day of the storm, they were apparently coming across the lake by canoe to visit the Pease home (in present-day Waskesiu) to get supplies or mail.
When they didn’t show up at Montreal Lake, three weeks after their expected arrival, the company contacted Rueben’s parents, Alex and Mary Dahl, of Fenton, Saskatchewan. That was late November.
Harry Merrell and fellow park warden Harry Genge were given the grisly chore of trying to find the four missing people in January 1928. They discovered the party’s tent and equipment near the mouth of the river. They also stumbled upon a canoe full of ice.
But even though they probed the ice here and there, sometimes chipping away with axes, they never located the bodies.
The search resumed in the spring. In early May, Reuben’s father Alex and a friend, a psychic, started scanning from shore the still-frozen lake near the Waskesiu River.
At one point, Alex climbed a tree and spotted something dark in the thawing ice. He carefully made his way out to the place, only to be confronted by his dead son’s body. The clothes confirmed that it was the 23-year-old Reuben. The other three missing were found nearby.
The four bodies were buried on a small ridge, along the east shore of the lake, between the townsite and the Waskesiu river. It’s not known whether permission was secured from the Canadian Parks department. But it was the right thing to do — in a lovely spot near to where they had tragically lost their lives.
The four graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. Then, around 1935, Jim Manson, Reuben’s brother-in law (husband of Annie), visited the site and planted a small spruce tree as part of the memorial.
Thousands of people, on their way along the Heart Lakes road, probably drove by the gravesite. People travelling by boat would also have seen the four markers on the slight rise above the lake.
But two decades after the burial, the Parks department found the graves in the way of a new development. In order to ease growing congestion in Waskesiu, Ottawa approved a new auto bungalow camp just north of the townsite in 1948. The graves were in the middle of the new site along the proposed road allowance.
The Parks department wanted construction of what would become known as the Kapasawin Bungalows to get underway that fall. It was consequently decided to remove the four bodies in September 1948 and reinter them at St. Christopher’s Anglican cemetery at Christopher Lake — without informing the families. Ironically, it was only when Hector Dahl (born in the spring of 1927) pulled over to the side of the road out of respect for a funeral procession that he learned that his older brother Reuben’s body and the three others were being moved. Embarrassed Parks officials later apologized for the oversight.
Fortunately, the memorial tree at the gravesite was never touched. And it still stands there today on the slight ridge just beyond the parking lot at the Kapasawin Bungalows office.
Generations of families, staying at Kapasawin, have walked by the tree, unaware of its significance — unless told by the former proprietors.
Meanwhile, people who have been coming to the park for years might know the story of the drownings, but the details are often fuzzy or inaccurate.
That’s a shame.
There needs to be a plaque at the Kapasawin tree that names the four people who lost their lives in the lake and explains why they were once buried there.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.