John Freeman recounts near tragedy on Lake Champlain

JOhn-Freeman-Small-BoatBy John Freeman, Small Boat Exchange

Three years ago on a late April day I went fishing after work. It was one of those 70 plus degrees days, my boat was in the water already and I had spring fever in the worst way. I headed south from Burlington to Red Rocks, my favorite early season spot for salmon. As I was cruising down there I saw a canoe heading for Shelburne Point. I said to myself, I hope they’re not heading into the open lake, because the south wind was picking up.

I started trolling but my trolling motor wasn’t working like it should. It didn’t idle down to a low enough RPM. Trolling into the wind was fine, because it slowed the boat down, but trolling with the wind I couldn’t keep my trolling speed down enough. After a couple of trolling passes frustration kicked in and I decided to call it quits for the day.

As I was heading out of the bay I saw the canoe beyond Shelburne Point and the paddlers were waving at me. I knew something wasn’t right. I reeled in my lines in a hurry, started my main engine and raced out to the canoe. As I approached I could see the canoe was swamped. There were three people in the canoe, two men, a woman, and a dog. The heavier man, in the fully submerged part of the canoe, was completely unresponsive. I grabbed him by the belt and hauled him aboard. He flopped onto the deck immobile. The other two were wet up to their chests, weak as kittens, but coherent enough to know what was going on. The poor dog, the only one with a life jacket on, looked at me with terrified eyes as I hauled him aboard.

Luckily the day was so warm that the floor of my boat, a 24’ center console, was toasty warm and I laid everyone down on it to warm up. I gathered up all the floating gear; paddles, PFDs and backpacks and flung the canoe across the rear of my boat. I asked if they wanted to go to Burlington and the hospital and they said no. As they warmed themselves on the deck of my boat I slowly headed for shore.

Making sure they were okay I offloaded my passengers, helped them get their gear on shore and carried the still terrified dog up as well. Even though the dog was half Lab, I’m not sure he will voluntarily swim again. The smaller man and the woman had physically gotten their bearings again and he assured me he was driving home. The larger man, still stiff with cold, could walk and help carry the canoe. They were okay. Thank God.

Although the smaller man asked me how I felt, having saved their lives, I had no response. They never asked my name or offered a thank you. I think we were all in shock. Although I have saved lives before while commercially fishing in Alaska, the enormity of what had just happened hit me hard as I was driving home, those three people and their dog were very lucky.