The Good Ladies Of Prescott
by Norman Joseph Ayre
The canoe slipped easily onto a gently sloping sandy beach fronting a park in the town of Prescott, Ontario. It was a warm Friday night at the end of June 1967. My friend Don and I were traveling from Montreal to Toronto and had been on our journey for about two weeks. It was a warm evening and we were somewhat tired from our day on the river. We’d encountered some strong currents to paddle against. Before starting our mealtime preparations, we decided to relax for a while.
Our calm was shattered by the approach of a fairly large group of people in a somewhat agitated state all headed for the beach. The object of the excitement soon appeared paddling around the bend in the river; it was a freight canoe made in the image of the traditional canoe of the voyageurs. This vessel was one of ten that had set out from B.C. earlier that spring to emulate the travels of the fur traders. The occupants were a colourful crew all decked out in the customary clothing of the Voyageur. Their destination was Montreal where they were to participate in the celebrations for Canada’s 1967 Centennial.
A bus drove into the adjacent parking lot just as the canoe approached the beach. All of the supplies the paddlers could want were now available. A conversation between the bus people and the canoeists ended with the agreement that they would go on for another hour then make camp. The canoe and its voyageurs soon set off, disappearing from view. The people left the park as quickly as they had appeared, all except for two ladies who stayed to look at the river in sunset colours.
The women turned and noticed us sitting beside our tent. They came over and asked if we were a supply vessel or in any way a part of what we’d just witnessed. I replied that we were nothing to do with this event; in fact we were heading west to Toronto. This revelation seemed to strike a spark with the ladies. They asked us if this were a Centennial Project to which we replied, “No, we’re just a couple of guys taking a canoe to Toronto because we weren’t working, at the moment, and Don needed to store his canoe at his Dad’s shop.” They asked how we were enjoying our experiences. We replied it was hard work and a great adventure.
For our part we discovered that these two ladies were artists who loved to paint local landscapes. They left, after some pleasant conversation, and we enjoyed our meal of canned beans and toast, and then went to bed.
Don and I took stock of our situation the next day. We were running low on food, having two days worth, plus we were down to about $3.00 between us. We decided to stay in Prescott and see if we could get some casual work to finance the next stage of our trip. We made a plan and both of us felt better.
It was at this point that our visitors from the previous evening reappeared carrying boxes in their arms. We greeted each other. Our new friends announced that they had “care packages” and gave each of us one. Their generosity amazed us. Gratitude prevailed and I asked if they would like some coffee. While I busied myself with this, we enjoyed getting to know each other a little better. Don and I introduced ourselves then found out their names were Barbara and Jennifer. Over coffee we told them of our plan to get work in town. We thanked them profusely and they went about their business.
We excitedly opened the boxes to find all manner of food items that would feed us for about a week and, at the bottom of the boxes, our newfound friends had emptied their change purses. We came up with a total of $10.00 between us. These gifts put us in very high spirits, as we did not have to worry about eating for a while and even had a little pocket change. Nonetheless, we decided to stick with our plan to find work. We spent the rest of the day exploring the town and after supper we decided that we would give ourselves a break and go out for a beer. This rare treat refreshed us and lifted our spirits.
We spent Sunday as tourists and went to bed by ten as we wanted to be up early to see about work. We went to the Employment Canada casual desk first and once again ‘struck it rich’. Prescott had a small wharf where ships occasionally tied up to load miscellaneous cargo. The vessel was arriving that day. We were signed on as longshoremen to help load this freighter with elm logs for export to Germany. The job started at seven Tuesday; it would involve two days work with the possibility of over-time both days.
On Tuesday morning, we stood alongside the freighter looking at this looming pile of logs to be stowed in its holds. We were a motley crew: teachers, farmers, and vagrants seeking casual work - not one of us had any longshoreman experience. The foreman assigned us our tasks and everybody got busy.
We worked twelve hours that day and ten hours the next until all of the logs were loaded. At the end of the second day, the foreman asked for two volunteers to stay and cast off the lines. Don and I stepped up and got two more hours of over-time. When it came time to cast off, a crewman appeared at the top of the gangplank and gave us a six-pack of German beer. We watched the ship get under way then we returned to camp.
Payment for our efforts was to be made at the Manpower office, but the cheques had to come from the U.S. side of the river. We finally got our pay at 2:45 pm and made a mad dash for the bank getting there just before it closed.
We were headed back to camp with cash in our jeans and ran into our lady friends from the park. They were very happy for us that things had worked out as we’d hoped, insisting that we join them for a drink. We accepted and all of us walked up to the house - a rather nice colonial style home on a large lot in the middle of town.
The afternoon passed pleasantly and we were invited to stay for dinner. We quipped that we were hardly dressed to be dinner guests and that they had done such a lot for us already. Our protests availed us nothing. We were ushered in and offered the opportunity for a shower before dinner - a chance we both took with enthusiasm as showers are hard to come by on the river. The family arrived home from work and school. We sat down to a delicious meal accompanied by wine and warm conversation. Our hosts, who were rock hounds, had a vast collection of samples and items that they had made from their finds. They also had a considerable art collection, which we admired.
We expressed our gratitude to these wonderful people once again and told them how much we appreciated all they’d done for us. We asked if there was anything we could do for them. Pausing for a second, Barb simply said, “Keep in touch and send us a card from your journey’s end.” I write this in the year 2001, thirty-four years after it happened. I am still in awe of these two wonderful ladies, their families, and the helping hands they extended to two strangers on the beach. May God bless each of them and their families.