A front-runner for 1930s “it seemed like a good idea at the time” award was 40-year-old Harry Baxter of Syracuse. In early September, he and his wife, Louisa, and one of their sons were camping at Black Lake in western St. Lawrence County. Thirty-six hours later he was in desperate straits, clinging to a small, rocky island and life itself.
Harry’s troubles resulted from a series of questionable choices. The first was fishing from a small boat in conditions that Baxter himself later described as heavy seas. The second was going alone, perhaps not the best idea, and the third was where he chose to fish — after all, alone and in stormy waters, where else to set up but near the center of the lake, which spans more than two miles at its widest point.
Because the water was quite rough, he anchored both ends of the boat, enabling him to stay in one spot to fish. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, it also prevented the boat from moving with the water, thus making capsizing much more likely from wave action and water splashing into the boat.
Pre-storm conditions often produce excellent action for anglers, and such was the case on this unsettled day. Said Baxter, “I had caught many fish in the spot where I was. They were coming in so fast that, after awhile, I didn’t put them on the stringer, but threw them in the bottom of the boat.” Again, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but ….
In a small boat in rough conditions on open water, it’s best not to move around unless necessary. But since the fishing was great from the bow (the front), he reasoned (reasoned?) it might be even better from the stern (the rear). What seemed like a good idea — to a lucky fisherman haulin’ ’em in one after another — proved disastrous. While attempting the change, he stepped on a fish, causing him to slip, flail, and fall overboard, capsizing the boat in the process.
With his wits still about him, Baxter did a quick assessment. Thick weed growth between him and two potential landings — the main lakeshore and a large island — would make swimming difficult if not impossible. Espying an option later described as “an isolated rock that juts out of the dark waters,” Baxter chose it as his destination. The overturned boat was sinking, and so was he, thanks to the extra clothing he donned that morning as protection against inclement weather. With little time to spare, he removed a raincoat and sweater and discarded them, which seemed like a good idea because of the difficult swim ahead. In retrospect, the removal was a good choice, but the discarding, not so much.
Feeling briefly hopeful upon reaching the tiny island, he soon realized how important the raincoat or sweater might have been to his survival in rapidly deteriorating weather conditions. On the plus side, it was still morning, so there was plenty of time for a rescue to happen. With that in mind, he spent the remaining daylight hours waving his arms and shouting loudly, which seemed like a good idea at the time. However, there was no one to see him, and his voice was lost in the wind. By the time darkness fell, he was even worse off, with a hoarse throat from all the shouting, and physical weakness from exposure to the elements and all the arm waving. With temperatures dropping, winds increasing, his energy waning, and no way to get dry, death from hypothermia was a distinct possibility.
What a night it must have been, battling hour after hour to maintain physical and mental resistance in a situation described succinctly by the Syracuse Journal. “Throughout the night a tempest raged, washing high waves over the rock and making it difficult for the fisherman to hang on.”
When he hadn’t arrived at camp by evening, Baxter’s wife, Louisa, sounded the alarm, launching locals on what proved to be a vain search of areas other fishermen thought he might have visited. The following day, guides and fishing veterans took to the water, expanding the search as time passed. Finally, in the afternoon, about 36 hours after his fishing trip began, Baxter was located by guide Louis House, who found him draped across the rocky islet. As the Journal described it, “The rock … is in an isolated spot on the lake, which extends for 25 miles, and at a place rarely visited by fishermen or campers.”
In a badly depleted physical state, Baxter was wrestled aboard House’s small craft and rowed to shore, where blankets and liquids helped warm him. Showing signs of recovery, he was shipped off to Syracuse, where he gradually recuperated at home under a doctor’s care.
Many lives have been lost on Black Lake, including at least two triple-drownings. Harry Baxter was fortunate not to be counted among them. Was his survival proof of making the right decisions, or did he survive in spite of those decisions?
I’d go with the latter. Taking a small boat out on a big lake in poor weather conditions; anchoring near the middle of the lake amid large, wind-driven waves; tossing slippery, slimy objects on the boat’s floor; deciding to stand and walk in a small boat during turbulent weather; and discarding clothes instead of removing and retaining them. Sounds like the perfect not-to-do list for all your future fishing trips.
But one thing’s for sure: Harry Baxter was one tough son-of-a-gun.
Photos: Harry Baxter (Syracuse Journal, 1930); headline, Syracuse Journal, 1930