Author: Mary Riley
Hans McKee had “a really bad feeling” as he and his friends watched two canoeists head out onto Algonquin Park’s largest lake on May 17, 2004.
“I’ve never canoed Lake Opeongo because it’s so big and dangerous when the weather is bad,” the paramedic said on Thursday from his Omemee home.
“I take the water taxi.”
He recalled the weather was bad on the lake that day, with two-metre high waves, high winds and whitecaps.
“We saw them come out of a portage area and start out on the lake.”
Mr. McKee, who works with Peterborough County EMS, said he and a group of friends have gone to Alqonquin Park on an annual camping/fishing trip for years.
The 2004 group included his friend, Northumberland County EMS paramedic Robert Miller, who lives in Fraserville.
The two men will receive the Governor General’s Award for bravery in Ottawa on Friday for their actions that day.
“It was the end of our trip that year; most of the guys had already left to go home,” he said.
“There were about four of us left.
“The couple was university students; they came out of the portage area, and as they started (on the lake) they weren’t wearing life jackets. We yelled at them to put them on and they did.”
Mr. McKee said the couple’s gear was stowed properly in their canoe, and he later learned they were experienced canoeists.
Still, he said he couldn’t believe they were attempting to cross Opeongo in the prevailing winds and high waves.
“We saw them canoe around the point. We could see them bobbing in the waves. And then, they disappeared. The next thing we knew, one of our guys was yelling, ‘They’re in, they’re in.’ The canoe was completely submerged and the man was hanging onto one end and the girl on the other.”
Mr. McKee said he and Mr. Miller knew the water was dangerously cold and that without help, the couple’s chances of surviving were slim to none.
“We weren’t sure if we could attempt a rescue in those conditions. But, we had four guys in camp. Two of us were experienced and two were not. So, we went. But, I was pretty nervous.”
The two men launched their own canoe and headed into the waves to rescue the couple.
“We were all right heading toward them,” Mr. McKee said.
“But, I was really worried about how we were going to turn around to bring them back. I said a few prayers, for sure.”
He said when he and Mr. Miller reached the pair, the young man asked, “Should we apologize now or later?”
The two paramedics told them to save their breath and strength; there would be time for apologies “when we get back to shore.”
Throwing a rope to the man, Mr. McKee tied it around his own waist. After waiting for a break in the waves, the two men managed to turn their canoe and begin towing the capsized vessel with the two victims clinging to it.
“It took us an hour to paddle back to shore,” he said.
After the couple, who were feeling the effects of the cold water, were given dry clothing and something hot to drink, Mr. McKee said he asked why they tried to cross the huge lake in such weather.
“They said it was the last day of their trip and they had to go home,” he said. “But, they had about a 12-mile paddle ahead.”
Mr. McKee said he didn’t feel his actions merited an award.
“The RCMP investigate these things and they nominate for the awards,” he said.
“They called and asked me about it before. I put it off for about a year because I didn’t think it was all that special. Other people have done much [braver] things.”
But, the RCMP persisted, and Mr. McKee agreed to accept the award.
He said about a year ago, he called the couple, who live in the Kingston area, to say hello.
“There’s a nice sidebar to the story,” he said.
“While they were in the water that day, they proposed to each other. They said they would get married if they survived. And they did.”
This Week was unable to reach Mr. Miller for his comments.http://www.mykawartha.com/article/10583