Chapter Sixteen

Marilyn Bell really started something when she became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario Sept 8, 1954. Not that distance swimming was all that new – people had been greasing up and challenging the deep since the time of the Pharaohs – but the sixteen-year-old Bell was to come ashore in Toronto: a particularly healthy newspaper town hungering for a national story.

Marilyn had everything the press corps wanted. She was young, reasonably photogenic, shy, courageous – and, most important, she was Canadian!

In conquering Lake Ontario Marilyn had trumped Florence Chadwick, the American described as “the dominant distance swimmer of the 1950s,” who had established two world records crossing the English Channel. Chadwick – who was more than twice Marilyn’s age – was all set to be the first to cross Lake Ontario when Marilyn beat her to it. Overnight, the name ‘Marilyn Bell’ was on everyone’s lips. Single-handed, she gave distance swimming a huge boost in Canada and had swimmers in every part of the country looking for a suitable lake to conquer.

Kathie McIntosh chose Lake Winnipeg.

Canada doesn’t lack for lakes, God knows. Lake Winnipeg is one of the country’s largest, with a surface area of 24,387 square kilometers. It also has a nasty reputation, described by Garth Teel, a lifeguard in the ‘fifties at Winnipeg Beach, one of Lake Winnipeg’s principal resorts:

“It can be a very unforgiving lake. Although large, it is also very shallow, and the winds seem to blow from North to South, causing treacherous conditions at times. Within twenty minutes it can go from nice calm water to churning four- to six-foot waves able to swamp an ordinary rowboat!”

Kathie McIntosh’s handlers pitted her against the eighteen miles between Grand Marais on the lake’s eastern shore to Winnipeg Beach on its west. What characterized the twenty-year-old’s attempt from its conception was the degree of secrecy imposed by its sponsor, The Winnipeg Tribune. The newspaper was determined to scoop its rival The Winnipeg Free Press and any of the pesky radio stations in town who might somehow get wind of the venture, set for Sunday, August 14, 1955.

CKRC had just added Mike Sharpe to its newsroom staff. I remember Mike as a brash teenager who hung around the newsroom until he was hired as a sort of cub reporter. Rumor had it that the young fellow owed his job to the current mayor of Winnipeg, a close relative. The story didn’t exactly add to Mike’s popularity among us newsroom veterans. I for one was ready to dismiss out of hand any of the ‘hot tips’ he kept pressing on me.

I hated working weekends, but CKRC – like most private radio stations – would have nothing to do with the five-day week. I must have been especially testy with young Mike when he turned up one Saturday morning babbling something about The Winnipeg Tribune and a local swimmer who wanted to be another Marilyn Bell. She was to challenge Lake Winnipeg the following morning.

I don’t remember how Mike convinced me that the McIntosh swim was important enough to bring to the attention of Bill Spears, our fearsome station manager, but later that Saturday morning I did the unthinkable: I phoned the big boss at home – and on a weekend!

His wife answered the phone and told me the boss was playing golf: that only made things worse – spoiling the manager’s weekend was dangerous enough, but hauling him off a golf course . . .?

I had underestimated Bill Spears. He not only seized on the story, he authorized the renting of a suitable boat and brought CKRC’s Chief Engineer, Bert Hooper, into the picture. Bert was one of a select group of eccentric geniuses that kept prairie radio stations on the air in those pre-transistor days. With only hours to find and test the equipment I would need to broadcast from the middle of a lake a hundred kilometers from the radio station, Bert came through and then some.

The rented boat was a commercial fishing vessel out of Selkirk on the Red River, about halfway to Kathie McIntosh’s starting point, Grand Marais. Its skipper met me at the dock at dawn the next day and we went chugging off into open water that eventually widened into Lake Winnipeg.

Bert Hooper had equipped me with a professional ‘walkie-talkie’ that my mounting nervousness had me testing every few minutes until Kathie McIntosh and her team came into view on a sandy stretch of Lake Winnipeg’s east shore. Bert had installed someone at Winnipeg Beach on the opposite shore who kept assuring me that he was receiving my squawky transmissions. Somehow Bert had contrived to have my squawks relayed to Winnipeg and re-broadcast on CKRC. I remember seeking solace in the idea that there couldn’t be too many people tuned in on a Sunday morning.

We were close enough to the McIntosh team to see that they were shaking their fists at us and shouting. I recognized two Winnipeg Tribune reporters among them. They needn’t have bothered trying to shoo us away because our hefty fishing boat couldn’t handle such shallow water anyway.

Not long after Kathie entered the water it became obvious that she had more pluck than prowess. She didn’t exactly flounder but she wasn’t making a lot of progress, either. By mid-afternoon the winds picked up noticeably and Kathie had to battle just to stay in place. Another development: there were several more boats on the scene. I had no way of knowing at the time but my broadcasts had goaded the other radio stations into dispatching crafts of their own. As night began to fall, conditions worsened. Kathie was soon battling the sort of sudden squall Garth Teel had described so vividly:

“Within twenty minutes it can go from nice calm water to churning four- to six-foot waves . . .”

I could hear Kathie’s father shouting into the wind, asking her if she wanted to be hauled aboard. Her answer came back:

“No! No! Not yet!”

The darker it got, the more alarmed we all became. I fought to keep the panic out of my voice as I described the scene. Kathy’s white bathing cap was all that could be seen of her, disappearing all too frequently in the mounting swells. At long last her support crew decided Kathie had had enough. She was taken from the water, wrapped in blankets, and hustled ashore.

Early the following week The Winnipeg Tribune announced that Kathie McIntosh would try again to swim across Lake Winnipeg. That came as no surprise. What did come as a shock was the bitterness the newspaper exhibited towards CKRC. But – once the shock had worn off – we realized that The Tribune’s rancor was a dead giveaway that my crackly ‘walkie-talkie’ reports had gained a wider audience than I had realized while I was bobbing around in seasick isolation on that fishing boat.

A more telling indication of our success came from the preparations the station then undertook for Kathie’s second assault on the lake. Bert Hooper rented one of the many summer cottages at Winnipeg Beach and set to work converting it into a radio station, complete with its own transmitter and tower. This time the event was described from both ship and shore. As Kathy went into the final few yards of her second and successful swim, Cliff Gardner approached her in a motorboat while I waited to greet her where the beach met the water. We each had microphones at the ready and a technician close at hand. Cliff and I had something else in common: imminent danger.

Cliff was leaning well forward across the motorboat’s prow, extending the mike to Kathie in hope of a statement; I was at the very front of the sizeable crowd waiting at the water’s edge to hail the swimmer as she waded ashore. I could feel the crowd surging forward in their excitement, pushing me and my live microphone closer to the water and possible electrocution. Meanwhile, Cliff’s motorboat had gone nose-to-nose with Kathie’s support craft, and one of the Tribune reporters aboard began to swipe at Cliff’s microphone, hoping to knock it out of his hand.

Tell me: what is more relaxing than a day at the beach?

* * * * * *

Warner Troyer continued to unearth promising stories on the night shift. One of them had to do with a tree on Wolseley Avenue: I mean really on the avenue – right smack in its centre! How the mature elm ever got there I can’t remember. But any number of vehicles had failed to heed the large warning sign the city had attached to it and the complaints piled up until city council ordered the tree’s removal.

Responding to an instinct, Warner got on the phone that night to get the reaction of people living nearby. What he discovered was a strong and growing objection to the tree’s removal. Warner knew a winning story when he saw one and featured it on all of that evening’s newscasts. And after I had broadcast Warner’s story a few times the following morning, it was clear the tree had everyone’s attention.

As soon as Bill’s morning show was over, I rushed to the scene in a mobile unit and began broadcasting live reports: the city workmen being repeatedly hounded from the scene by a band of enraged housewives; various city officials arriving to plead in vain for compliance; and then the climax: the Mayor using my microphone to call off the tree’s removal. The other stations – including the haughty CBC – sent their own crews to Wolseley Avenue that morning as the story’s importance became apparent, but it was a question of ‘first come, first served’. By the time they reached the scene, most of the city was tuned to CKRC.

It was Warner’s story, but it was my voice radio listeners heard that day. I was the one who got all the glory while Warner remained all but anonymous on nights. But talent such as his can’t remain buried for long. His reporting from the Manitoba legislature made him the obvious choice to anchor the station’s election coverage, where his cool efficiency had Winnipeg’s leading entertainment columnist praising his ability to “fly off into a deep calm”.

That was just one of the qualities Warner Troyer brought to national television during the 1960s and ’70s. His incisive interviewing was to upset many an applecart before he found it more interesting to write books on subjects ranging from the history of Canadian broadcasting to the problems of native people and children of the divorced.

Warner and I kept in touch over the years, and I was to have one especially happy reunion with him before he succumbed to cancer in 1991 at the age of fifty-nine.

2 Responses to “Chapter Sixteen”

  1. Bob Says:

    HI Pat,

    Great story about Kathie – I just discovered some film of her second swim in our CBC Vancouver library – I don’t believe it exists in the Winnipeg CBC. Of course, it hasn’t been transferred to video yet – but I’m working on it. BTW – was she a Manitoban and is she still alive? Cheers.

    Bob Nixon
    Reporter
    CBC-TV Vancouver

    • debunko Says:

      Gee, Bob . . .
      I must apologize for my failing memory and my laziness: I should have replied LONG before now. And – speaking of ‘my failing memory’ – forgive me if I already have (?).
      Yes, I believe Kathie MacIntosh was a Winnipeger, if only because her swim was a PR stunt of the Tribune’s. She contacted me years ago to react (favorably, thank God)to my blog’s description of her swim.
      I’m going to be in Winnipeg in early June because my wife Marie is to attend a reunion of her Misericordia nursing school class. We’ll be staying at a big hotel named after Louis Riel. While she’s reuniting I’ll be meeting with the dwindling number of people I used to know there and wandering around St. Boniface where I grew up and my Dad was a policeman (he never let me call him a ‘cop’.)

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