The Terrible Odyssey Of Howard Blackburn


Shortly after daylight I went back to the dory and found it full of water with nothing in it but Welch’s body. The boat had pounded on the rock and knocked the bottom plug out, and also stove a hole through a plank on the port side near the bottom. The oars and thwarts were floating around in the water under the wharf. I managed to get them and threw them on the wharf.

I took the gaff and stuck it into the instep of Welch’s rubber boot and hauled him up on the stern of the dory. But he slipped into the water under the wharf, between the rock on which I stood and the bank of the river. He sank in about 12 feet of water.

After my failure to get Tom’s body upon the wharf I hauled the dory up on the flat rock by taking up the slack in the painter around a pile with my teeth as each wave came in, and tried to make her seaworthy. I put the plug back but I could not patch up the crack near the bottom on the port side. I had to list her to starboard after that to keep her from filling.

While I was at work on the dory I heard a noise like a gunshot. I crawled up on the wharf and made a loud cry for help, but got no response. You know a man’s mind works fast in times like these and like a flash the thought came to me: “I’ll set the house afire and the hunters will then come to me!”

I remembered seeing a flint and some tinder in a small tin box in the hut. I found I could not hold the flint, and the tinder was so damp no man could have made a fire with it. Not being able to attract the hunter’s attention, I got into the dory and rowed to the eastward to a cove called Gulch Cove. There were a number of huts at the head of this cove but no signs of life.

As I did not know how much farther east I would have to go before finding any place where people were living, I decided to make the attempt to get back to Little River to spend another night in the old hut. Perhaps the tide and the river current would then be more favorable. It was not a bad sea in which to row, for an experienced fisherman, well-fed and with normal hands, arms and legs. For one in my state it was an almost hopeless task; but one naturally clings tenaciously to life and I knew my only chance was to get under cover and find some sustaining food. I had hardly started on my return journey when I sensed the fact that as I rowed portions of my hands and fingers were being ground off on the oar handles. It is surprising how fast dead flesh disintegrates when rubbed hard. In a short space of time it seemed as though I was holding the oars with bones and muscles only. Soon the handles became too small for my finger bones to encircle and I had to use one hand to clamp the fingers of the other down so I could work the blades.

I finally made Little River and, in time, by taking advantage of the eddies at the points, I managed to work the dory across from one side of the river to the other, making a gain each time, just as a ship does when tacking.

I crossed the river not less than four or five times. Each time I reached an eddy I would stop rowing long enough to bail out the dory. After a struggle of a couple of hours I reached a place where the river was frozen across. A steamboat could have gone no farther. A man passing from one hut to another saw a shadow on the ice. He gave the alarm and soon every man and woman in the neighborhood…came out on the ice to see who I was and what I wanted. They were accompanied by 15 or 20 dogs. When they saw my hands, they cried:

“Your poor hands, go to the house at once.”

I answered, “I cannot just now, I want a couple of men to get in the dory with me and go down to the mouth of the river for my dorymate.”

“You poor man, go the house, we will get him for you.” I told them where they could find him and three men put off in the dory.

The villagers [eventually] brought Tom’s body from its resting place under the old wharf to the settlement and kept it until the ground thawed in the spring, when it was reverently buried.…

I followed the people to the home of Francis Lushman. My feet, of course, were frozen stiff, but I still could walk. As I stepped into the room the first thing that attracted my attention was the fireplace in front of which stood a number of homemade benches.

The first thing the Lushmans did was to cut my clothes off.

I begged for water but Mrs. Lushman would only give me a few drops. She said more would kill me. She brewed tea out of some boughs cut from a young spruce tree. I drank a large bowl of it without either milk or sugar.

Old Mrs. Lushman turned her attention to my poor hands and feet. She saw at once they were frozen. They set me on a bench and in front of the fire and wrapped a dry coverlet about me. They filled a tub made of half a flour barrel about two-thirds full of cold water used in curing fish. They made me put both hands and feet into this brine. Soon the frost began to come out; the pain was horrible; I wished I had died like poor Tom. I asked them how long I had to keep my hands and feet in this brine and they told me about an hour. That was the longest hour I ever spent in my life.

After the frost had all been withdrawn, Mrs. Lushman set about preparing a remedy that I never had heard of before and never heard of since. … Mrs. Lushman mixed a poultice of flour and codliver oil and bound up my aching hands and feet.