Matt Ridgway's Last Summer

by Douglas Keith

In 1971, Matthew Ridgway Jr. met with a freak accident that ended his life before the Bay Trip had put it's first canoe in the water. This summer is the 30th anniversary. In this moving account, Doug Keith fondly remembers Matt and that fateful incident. 

I admired Matt Ridgway almost from the very beginning. In 1968 I was a 16 year old at Camp Keewaydin, small for my age and very inexperienced.  Matt was the guide of my section.  Afterwards I realized that that summer must have been a difficult one for him too. 

He was 19 and it was his first season working on the staff and I was his bowman.  The summer before he had been on the mythic '67 Eastmain Hudson Bay Trip, which had been the first to open up the Eastmain River to modern canoe-tripping.  It must have been quite a letdown for Matt to go from that experience one summer to being in a young Waubeno section, like Section W, the next.  We weren't very fast movers. We often wouldn't be on the water until 9:30 or 10:00, and I believe that we may have set a record that year by taking eight days to do the five-day Wakimika circuit. 

Photo: General Ridgway and son Matt, 1967, Keewaydin, Temagami

                                                                                               Photo: Keewaydin Archives

Matt (center) in 1967 before departure on Bay Trip as a camper. He is flanked by his father, General Ridgway (left) and Heb Evans (staffman).

Matt was very quiet and kept to himself a lot that summer.  Some of us even thought that he might have been part Indian with his wiry build and relatively-dark complexion. Soon I found out that he was actually the only son of General Matthew Ridgway, the supreme allied commander during the Korean War.  We didn't find that out from him, though, since he almost never spoke about himself.

I will surely never forget one hot, humid afternoon of the kind that can turn a relatively easy portage into a sweating nightmare.  We had already taken several portages and I felt like I was nearing the limit of my endurance, unloading the monstrously heavy gear, getting my loads across, and then loading back up again.  I was his bowman and I would never have dreamed of asking for help, but Matt must have realized that, psychologically at least, I was nearing the end of my rope.  After letting me head off on the portage with a fairly light baby, he swung up our double-packs on top of his jewelry and carried both our loads to the other side, then told me to wait while he went back for the canoe. And somehow, despite his withdrawn nature, and his occasional frustrations, I never doubted for a moment his commitment to those of us in his section.  

At the end of that summer on our last rest day, I recall Matt getting someone to take a picture of the two of us with his camera. I felt that he was proud of how I had developed during the summer.  For myself, while he seemed too far above me to be my friend, I had a good deal of affection and respect for him.  

The next summer I was in Section C. He was the staffman of Section X and also the Gigitowin's Ogima who shook my hand, welcoming me into the Gigitowin with a wink and a warm smile.  We exchanged Christmas cards for a year or two, and then, he missed a season at Keewaydin when he entered a summer military-officer training program. 

After being a Manitou assistant for one year I decided that I wanted to go on the Bay Trip.  I was already excited, anticipating the trip down the Attawapiskat River, when I learned that Matt was going to be the guide of the trip.  Those spring months seemed to pass so slowly as I waited, brooding over my L.L. Bean catalog deciding what I had to have for THE trip.  

At that time when the regular camp season was longer, the whole camp could turn out to see Section A off.  With the cannon booming in our ears, we left the main dock after lunch paddling into the teeth of Shawandasee, a stiff headwind from the south. We were met at Boat Line Bay and driven down to North Bay through a ferocious thunderstorm. We got on our train in North Bay around 9:00 p.m. and rode it west through the night and the next morning towards our jumping off point near Savant Lake in far northwestern Ontario.  All of us seemed to be in exceptionally high spirits as we watched the monotonous spruce forests whiz by.

As we approached the town of Savant Lake, the plan was to have the train stop first at Chivelston Lake, our real starting point about a mile east of the town.  There, all of us bowmen would hop off with the gear we had brought along. Meanwhile, the sternmen would ride the extra mile to the station to get the canoes, which had been shipped out a week before, and carry them back to us.  

Camp Wabun's Bay Trip was also on the train with us to do the Albany River, and they were following the same procedure.  I remember Matt and the others quickly shoveling all our gear out to us on one side of the baggage car, while the Wabun section was doing the same on the other side, as the train impatiently waited.  The job was completed, the train pulled away, and we carried the loads down to the shore of the small lake. We sat down to wait for canoes and sternmen.  

After what had already seemed like a very long time, we heard a railroad horn in the distance from towards the town. It went off several times, urgently repeated.  Some of our bowmen ran up to the track to put Canadian pennies on it.  But, no train came and no one else did either.  

There was another long wait, swatting the black flies, when some of us were beginning to consider walking down the track to find out what was causing the holdup.  Then, unexpectedly, a big freight train came creeping slowly and unnaturally down the tracks from the town. It stopped when it reached our lake.  The engineer was talking to some of the Wabun bowmen as I came up the embankment.  His story was garbled, but we quickly understood that one of our people had been struck by a train (only afterwards would I realize that it had been this train), and had been flown out to a hospital.  He thought that the injured person's name was Ridgway.  

For a few stunned moments after the train had passed on, we stood there trying to figure out what the best thing was to do.  Then, most of us began running down the track the long mile to the town of Savant Lake.  It was a beautiful summer day, and the sun beat down on the tracks that first day of July. What thoughts occurred to me in that sweating slow motion of awkward running were incoherent, but I do remember thinking with wonder how blue the sky was, as if it were impossible that disaster should strike under such a blue sky.  I did not cry then, but my throat was one clustered knot.  

When I arrived at the edge of town, a number of young men from both of our sections were quietly sitting or standing around, some talking in subdued voices.  I went up to Skeeter, a friend of mine from previous summers, to ask what had happened.  Reluctantly, and almost absentmindedly, he told me.  

He had been carrying his canoe along the track, right behind Matt with his canoe.  Suddenly the sound of a freight train had come from behind them, approaching fast with no chance to slow down, but signaling frantically.  With the canoes on top of their heads, those sternmen who were standing between the siding and the main track didn't know which way to move. And they didn't dare swing their canoes around so that they could see.  As the train roared by, a few feet away, the suction from the massive train pulled at the canoes.  Skeeter said he had barely been able to hold his straight.  Matt hadn't been able to hold his.  

The impact shattered the rear end of the canoe, throwing Matt clear.  But the center thwart of the canoe had struck the back of Matt's head with tremendous force.  The train had stopped as quickly as it could.  Someone had given Matt artificial respiration, and had done what they could until the float plane came. It took Matt, Heb Evans (our staffman) and the Wabun guide away. It had been obvious that Matt was in very bad shape and nobody that had seen him had much hope.  

The unreality of the whole situation deepened as the minutes passed. Others slowly came up the track to find out what had occurred.  The demolished canoe lay over on the railroad embankment.  Near it, next to the track, lay a pillow and an open first aid kit.  

I had no idea of what to do, but then it didn't even occur to me that perhaps there was something that should be done.  We waited.  My mind was numbed.  The young staffman from the Wabun section was still there and, realizing that we all needed to get a camp established for the night, he took charge of both our sections.  He must have noticed that I seemed to be in a state of some shock, because he took me under tow.  Unable to think clearly for myself, I didn't resent his orders. Indeed, I was grateful for them, happy to be able to do something without having to think.  I don't believe that he let me out of his sight until we got out to the campsite.

A big meal of macaroni was cooked, but I had no desire to eat.  I had to be prodded to help my tentmate set up our tent.  At 10:30, it was just beginning to get really dark. It was about that time that the Wabun guide returned from Sioux Lookout, where he had flown with Matt.  

Years later his words are still clear in my memory.  "Matt was alive still when we got him in the plane, and he might have been alive when we got him to Sioux Lookout, but by the time we got him into the emergency room he was gone.  The doctor who looked at him said that it wouldn't have made any difference though, even if the accident had occurred on the front steps of the hospital."

Photo: Matt Ridgway's section, 1971, Keewaydin, Temagami

                                                                                                      Photo: Doug Keith Collection

1971 Section A at Devil's Island before departure. Top row, left to right: Matt Ridgway, Jon "Skeeter" Webber, Pete Simpson, Phil Danciger, Heb Evans. Bottom row: Jim Neil, Dave Slater, Doug Keith, Jon Davis, Hank Bauer.

Although it took a while for us there to realize it, this catastrophe would not end the trip.  As life has a way of continuing against all probability, arrangements were made to bring out a replacement canoe from Keewaydin and another, though much less experienced, person to act as guide.  Even by just the next day it slowly became possible to laugh again at small things.  Heb returned to us with the news that the General and Mrs. Ridgway had flown in to Sioux Lookout and that Matt's ashes had been scattered over the Canadian Shield that he so much loved.  He said that they expressed the wish that we should continue the trip. We then voted to go on.

Three days after the accident, with everything in place, we gratefully shoved off the campsite on Chivilston Lake. I would begin what would prove to be one of the extraordinary experiences of my life, the trip would take us some eight hundred miles down the Otoskwin and Attawapiskat Rivers to James Bay.  

I could not, of course, forget Matt.  Nor did I want to.  But within a few days, the routine of breaking camp followed by long days of paddling, portaging and shooting rapids, lifted most of the burden from me.  The recollection of the terrible accident at Savant Lake ceased to be a regular part of my conscious, daily thoughts, and became more like an old injury that was still capable of causing pain, only with some unexpected movement. 

There are some experiences that are so terrible they become a core part of who we are and how we see our world.  But what I learned that summer above all else is that we always have to move on, carrying with us the memories of those special individuals who we were forced to leave behind.  

Today a plaque hangs in the lodge in Matt's memory.

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