photo by Donna Larson
It is a curiously named place - Battle Island - with a colorful history and an equally colorful character who once officially served as its lighthouse keeper and still continues, at age 72, to welcome summer visitors to the Ontario island.
He intends to be there again to greet boaters and kayakers this coming summer.
Lighthouse Keeper Bert Saasto enjoys telling visitors stories from his collection of Battle Island tales. He was the last keeper at Battle Island light and may have been the last keeper to serve anywhere on Lake Superior, officially retiring in November 1991 after the light was automated. Since then Bert has moved from his Thunder Bay home to Battle Island every summer as a volunteer caretaker and interpreter.
When my wife, Donna, and I anchored our 31-foot cruiser Keeper in the cove on the north side of the island in 1993, Bert was there to welcome us. He offered us a tour as well as many stories for our log. Since then, I’ve picked up other tales of Battle Island, like how the island got its name.
The island’s name has its unlikely beginning west in Saskatchewan, where the North-West Rebellion, an uprising of Métis people led by Louis Riel, started in the spring of 1885. The Canadian government sent a militia from eastern Canada to help the North-West Mounted Police suppress the disturbance. Troops were transported on the new Canadian Pacific Railway, except for a short stretch north of Lake Superior, which wouldn’t be completed until November 3 that year.
This meant that the soldiers had to march on the ice from Jackfish to Rossport. On the way, the local Ojibway, sympathetic with the plight of the western Métis, fired on the troops from one of the islands. Records of the encounter are obscure, but today’s only “memorial” to the skirmish is Battle Island, about 7 miles (11.2 kilometres) south of Rossport.
No one knows for sure that this island was the actual scene of the fighting. It doesn’t seem likely, as a route closer to the mainland would appear to be shorter and safer, but it has the name just the same.
Battle Island Lighthouse is the northernmost on the Great Lakes. It was built in 1877 to guide vessels into Wilson and Simpson channels on their way to Nipigon Bay.
But the light couldn’t penetrate a summer snowstorm on August 10, 1899. The 181-foot (55-metre) Canadian steamer Ontario grounded on the eastern tip of the island. The crew escaped, but the boat didn’t.
Bert told us Ontario’s boilers are still on the island and its sunken remains are frequently visited by recreational divers.
Battle Island’s first official keeper, Charles McKay, was on duty during that storm. Bert recounted how McKay served on Battle Island 36 years, long enough to see construction of a new tower in 1911, but retiring shortly before a duplex keepers’ house and fog horn building were completed in 1915. McKay was awarded the Imperial Service Medal by King George V for his faithful attention to duty.
McKay’s long tenure provides many enduring chapters among north shore legends. He once left the island in early December, rowing-sailing almost 300 miles (482 kilometres) to his family home in Sault Ste. Marie. He arrived on Christmas Eve but was impeded by ice when he tried to land. Another time he rowed-sailed to Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay), about 80 miles (130 kilometres), again mainly in unprotected water. McKay’s isolation was eased by frequent visits by mainland friends who brought picnics, music, games and fishing parties to the island.
Rossport, originally called McKay’s Harbour, was renamed in 1884 for a CPR construction supervisor.
It was 1932 that brought Battle Island’s only fatality, the drowning of Keeper Malcolm Sutherland in August. His wife served for the remainder of that shipping season.
Bert told us how persistent storms have taken their toll over the 132 years of the lighthouse’s vigilance. In 1971, huge waves struck the tower and lifted oil tanks off their cradles. Assistant Keeper William Hubelit lost a finger to a slamming door when a wave swept through the engine room. It was two days before Keeper John Joiner could get him to the hospital in Terrace Bay.
In 1977, a year before Bert first reported for duty, a powerful three-day, 80-mph (130-kph) blow washed over the tower and broke windows 117 feet above the lake, extinguishing the light and tearing loose the tanks again; they’ve since been re-secured behind a formidable dike.
The importance of lighthouses and fog signals is diminished today since instruments like radar and GPS have supplanted the navigator’s toolkit. Yet, modern electronics will never replace hospitality and assistance to mariners offered by keepers like Charles McKay and Bert Saasto, and the history they made, and Bert’s eagerness to share.
In these winter months as we settle by the fire, leafing through albums and logbooks to dust off pleasant memories of cruising the north shore, it’s the people we’ve met - like Bert Saasto - who leave the biggest impressions of our time on the Big Lake.
This issue’s Journal writer: Donn Larson, who divides his time between his Duluth, Minnesota, home and Cloud Bay, Ontario, cottage, is an avid boater and a member of Lake Superior Magazine’s editorial advisory board.