Thousand Islands Life thanks author Dan Denney for sharing this harrowing experience with our readers. No matter how inviting it is to venture on the ice in the winter, it is dangerous. Please read this carefully as the techniques he shares are something everyone should know. Also the subject speaks for itself, so few pictures are presented.
My fascination with Singer Castle, as it is known today, began innocently enough in the 1990s as a small part of production research for a tourism promotional video of the Thousand Islands. American history and its trappings have always grabbed my attention. Nearly twenty years later this captivation led to the most harrowing experience of my life.
Singer was originally called The Towers when built near the turn of the last century on Dark Island in Chippewa Bay, New York, by Frederick G. Bourne. Our production team was charged with creating a video to attract tourists to the region. When I left television to pursue other interests, I continued to nourish my creative urges doing still photography. Capturing Singer in all seasons became a near obsession. In some small way I hope this record helps you understand the fool-hardy actions of February 13, 2010.
A few years ago I had driven onto frozen Chippewa Bay where Singer Island sits just inside the Canadian-American border. The ice was heavily populated by ice-fishing shanties, snowmobiles, ATVs, and even pick-up trucks. That day I got out and walked over a mile on the ice to photograph the castle in winter. It was a difficult trek as snowdrifts covered much of the ice, making it slow, frigid going.
On this Saturday, I decided to try driving farther out on the ice. I stopped adjacent to a group of three islands that includes Cedar Island State Park and Temagami Island. Temagami is the location of Ingleneuk, the one-time summer studio of renowned painter and sculptor Frederic Remington, a native of the St. Lawrence Valley. With a 300mm lens I was able to fill the frame with the castle several times from the comfort of my Subaru Forester. Then, as I was passing Cedar Island, I noticed a long fault line running perpendicular to my path.
“Craaaack!” was my only warning before the Subaru’s nose settled slightly and the rush of water coming into the passenger compartment came to my ears. Instinctively, I guess, the seatbelt was popped apart and the electric window lowered. Somehow I remembered that if the car submerged, water pressure would make opening the door impossible.
The St. Lawrence passes many a balmy summer without its waters rising out of the low to mid fifties for temperatures. But this was February! In fact, during a check-out dive for SCUBA training in June, cold water had caused me to hyperventilate. And that day I was wearing a wet suit.
For a second or two, I pondered whether the car might just sit there off-balance. But as water covered my knees, the car kept nosing downward and I struggled toward the open driver’s window. My ample body squeezed slowly through the opening. I kicked against the A post (between the windshield and door) with my foot to propel myself upward, but the sinking Subaru offered no resistance and no reactive lift toward the surface.
Four minutes! Four minutes! The estimated time it takes hypothermia to begin sapping your energy and your consciousness in icy waters. It was like a neon sign flashing in my eyes.
I don’t remember taking a deep breath before submerging. I must have.
Whatever I got was quickly being used up by my struggle against water and cold. Then my head bounced off the ice above. No telling how far the shipping channel currents had taken me from the hole made just seconds earlier.
“Oh, #*@!” I thought, unable to see the path to life-saving air. Luckily, my sense of direction did not fail me. I still knew which way was up.
My life did not pass before my eyes as some have said happens to those about to die. Jokingly, I have told others that the camera shots from below the ice of big rigs passing on the television program “Ice Road Truckers” flashed before me. As my memories of the day get older and more surreal, I’m not sure that wasn’t the case.
I also thought: “Above all, don’t panic.” My familiarity with this survival mantra stems from shooting television for WPBS’ Rod & Reel Streamside at the Gouin Reservoir in Canada.
The Gouin is about 3600 square miles of pristine water in remote Quebec Province. Ninety to one hundred nautical miles north of Ottawa, Ontario, the Gouin is accessible virtually only by train or float plane. We had arrived at the outpost at Oskelaneo by the latter. Outfitter Germaine Cyr was along to handle logistics for myself and Don Meissner, the host of the show as we shot several episodes about a day’s fishing in the Gouin. While enjoying the day’s catch of walleye and pike in the evening, the topic of survival in such a remote area came up. We decided to do an episode about what to do if you became stranded in a place like the Gouin. The primary maxim that arose from that show and our discussions was about panic. Survival is primarily dependent on keeping your head, making and executing a plan to survive. This was among my uppermost thoughts as I rose through the water.
It was also at this time that I began thinking to myself that I did not believe that this end was in God’s plan for me. Drowning was not the way I wanted to die and I wasn’t going without a fight. Prideful of me, for sure, but repeating these two mantras probably made the difference psychologically.
After bumping my head two or three more times, the ice hole miraculously opened to me and I gasped for air, trying not to hyperventilate. Each time I grabbed the ice for support, it broke. I began to worry that the cold water would enervate me before I could get up on to solid support. As stated earlier, you have about four minutes before the cold overcomes you and your mental status begins to deteriorate into unconsciousness. Finally, I worked into a corner of the hole strong enough to support me. The buoyancy in my legs (I had kicked off my shoes while still in water) brought them near the surface. One of my favorite drugs, adrenaline, must have helped me roll over onto my belly and onto the frozen river. I have no memory of having been taught that maneuver despite multiple trainings in ice rescue as a fireman and EMT. I learned my instincts or subconscious memory files had been correct that day while later reading about Clarence Petty, a well-known native and champion of the Adirondack Park. In Christopher Angus’ book The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty, he writes:
“The secret was to let one’s feet rise to the surface…Then one should spread one’s weight along the edge of the ice and just roll out.”
The blue jeans I had on wound up around my ankles and almost immediately became crusty and stiff with frost. As cold as I was, it was too difficult to pull them back up. I desperately craved heat and knew I‘d freeze to death walking over a mile to shore drenched to the bone. My soaked clothing would have frozen stiff, preventing me from walking. Then I spied Cedar Island about 200 yards away. It’s small, I’d guess a couple of acres, but large enough to accommodate a large structure on the elevated side and a small summer cottage on a point much closer to the water line. The larger building may have been part of Cedar Island State Park, accessible only by boat. Too cold and weak to stand, I escaped my jeans and began to crawl towards the island.
When I got into the tiny bay that separated the two dwellings I somehow managed to stand up. No easy task on the slippery surface as my joints froze and my strength was quickly evaporating into the single-digit temperatures. Bleeding abrasions now covered both knees. The larger building had no steps coming down to the water, so I crossed to the ice-level dock of the cottage and stumbled toward it.
I had convinced myself that because the cottage was a couple of miles from either shore that the doors might be unlocked due to the natural security of the location. No such luck. But the sliding door entryway had multiple panes of glass. With a stray 2 x 4 I began hammering at the doors. I had read recently about a foolish would-be robber who wailed on a display window at a store he sought to plunder only to be knocked senseless by his weapon ricocheting off Plexiglas. So I stood to one side and pounded with everything I could muster. While there was little bounce to the panes, there was no give either and several exhausting blows later I was beaten. Nearby I found a kitchen window, also with multiple panes, but with standard glass in them that could not stand up to the board.
I don’t know how I climbed through the smashed window without cutting myself on the shards of glass which were scattered everywhere. I was both unsteady with weakness and shivering like a dead elm leaf in a Nor‘easter. It was good to be out of the wind, but the cottage was only a couple of degrees warmer than the elements. I was also feeling guilty for the damage I had done to someone’s home. I rationalized it all by telling myself it was better for them to have a damaged window than to find my frozen corpse on the porch.
The kitchen held a large electric stove. I eyed it hopefully and switched all the surface burners to ‘High.’ To my chagrin, the cottage owners were on the ball and had cut the power for the off-season. I re-positioned and reset the cottages breakers to no avail. My hope of finding a telephone was thwarted by the wireless age in which we live and my cell phone had drowned with my car.
Next was a living area occupied by two kayaks, an overstuffed sofa covered with black plastic, and a large stone fireplace and mantle presided over by the massive head of an eight point buck. There were andirons and logs, but it had been cleaned and swept to an immaculate state, making it look faux. Was there an actual chimney? The question became moot when no matches or kindling could be found.
Still soaked and trembling, I made my way to the second level to an alcove for reading and reflection that probably offered a panoramic view of the river and my original quarry, Singer Castle. I was too focused on finding dry cover to appreciate it. A bedroom with a large plastic-covered bed lay off to the left. The closet offered dry sweat pants and shirt which I quickly donned. It also offered up a large quilted comforter and a second blanket. Armed with these meager but welcome provisions, I stumbled back downstairs and into a near-fetal position on the couch.
To say that I warmed myself in this manner would border on the delusional. I did keep from freezing and sufficiently warm at my body’s core to keep shivering. Shivering creates internal heat by spasmodically working muscles. When your core temperature reaches the low nineties, your body realizes that shivering is not enough and starts shunting heat and oxygen to the heart, lungs, and brain and shivering stops. Eventually you become unconscious, comatose and deceased in that order. So shivering, while uncomfortable, told me I had a chance. The shivering and the burning tingle of my fingers, toes and knees kept me conscious all night long.
Light coming through a window near the top of the vaulted ceiling led me to believe the night had been clear with a large moon presence. I clung to this idea and the next morning stayed covered and resting until after nine a.m. in hope that the sun would clear the horizon and begin shining some warmth onto the bay. But day two of my ordeal dawned overcast and gray.
Foolishly I had made my impromptu photo shoot known to no one but myself, violating another rule of wilderness survival. If they’re going to find you, they have to know where to start looking. So, despite the conventional wisdom of staying put and letting rescue come to me, I knew if I were to be found, I had to leave the cottage and seek help.
I wasn’t really sure if anyone would consider me missing until Sunday at the earliest. The alarm was raised, however, when I failed to appear in Cape Vincent, my original destination.
But there was a stumbling block I had not come to grips with: What if I started the walk to shore and fell through the ice again? This fear nearly paralyzed my resolve to make the trek. And what about my bare feet? I was shoeless and my feet already badly frostbitten from walking on ice. I decided I could shuffle over the ice with a blanket under my feet, if needed, and then went to take one more look upstairs.
Bass makes many fine shoes for outdoorsmen. Low-cut canvas tops with cleated rubber bottoms presented themselves and were even the right size. Bolstered by this positive turn of events, I wrapped myself in a blanket and set out for the hamlet of Chippewa Bay. Not one hundred feet from the dock the ice gave way again. Thankfully, this time only up to my waist, but soaking me to the bone with ice water. Again, my pants wound up around my ankles and stiffened so that they would only go so far up my legs. It was necessary to hold them up with one hand as I began again to traipse toward shore. For some reason, modesty was still a concern for when I would finally make contact with people again.
Chippewa Bay hamlet cannot be seen from Cedar Island. I had to guess which islands to hike between to come out in a spot where ice fishermen were out in number. A derby had been in progress the previous day and customarily takes up both days on a weekend. This was Valentine’s Day weekend, but I had faith that the hearty male denizens of St. Lawrence County would deem the derby enough reason to be fishing while their spouses stayed home alone.
The drifting snow was not as big a problem as on my previous walk on the icy bay, but it did conceal many slippery spots. I slipped and fell many times as I doggedly pushed on. Later I would learn that my head had a bleeding abrasion where it hit at least four times as I went flat on my back. The other times I fell on my torso, bruising my ribs. With each fall my energy and ability to stand back up dwindled, leaving my resolve to reach safety and adrenaline to pick up the slack.
When I got close enough to shore so that the view of Chippewa Bay was clear, I found I was at least a quarter mile upriver. But there were the fishermen! They were drilling new holes and scooting around on their ATVs. I started toward them and when I felt I was within earshot, began yelling for help.
Suddenly a voice came from behind shouting assurances that its owner would soon be with me. I turned and saw Tony D’Annunzio running to me with two PFDs and a large quilt. Tony and his wife, Carol, are summer residents of Chippewa Bay. It was a fluke that they had decided to come to their summer home for Valentine’s Day.
Tony sat me down on the PFDs and wrapped me up. He had seen me struggling from his home on the shore. His wife called 9-1-1 while he grabbed what he could find and headed out the door. It seemed like just moments later a New York State trooper appeared and gave me her touque, a souvenir I still use. Then the volunteers from the Hammond Rescue Squad appeared and added more thermal cloaks and oxygen before summoning one of two airboats that were headed our way. I painfully negotiated the gunwale of the airboat and was whisked to shore to a waiting ambulance manned by the Ogdensburg Volunteer Rescue Squad and on to Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center‘s ER.
As it turned out, those expecting me at Cape Vincent, my original destination, and my wife began to compare notes about six o’clock the previous evening. The authorities were alerted and the manhunt begun. Thank God for my wife who correctly surmised that I had strayed off to take a picture, but had no idea where. Someone also had reported seeing my Subaru heading out in the bay, but had not seen it return. Thanks to all the troopers, rescuers and EMS professionals who aided me. And a special thanks to the owners of that cottage on Cedar Island where I sought shelter.
These days I’m getting a little tired of the jokes about staying off the ice every time I set out to take photos, but feel physically recovered. After losing a couple layers of skin initially, my fingers and toes have stopped tingling from frostbite. My knees remain discolored with scar tissue and occasionally itch. And I can draw breath without pain from bruised ribs. My hands and feet chill much more readily than they used to. The quilt supplied me has been returned to its owner, my regret being that we weren’t able to meet in person so I could again express my gratitude.
Many friends have asked me if I have nightmares. I joke that if I didn’t have the brains to stay off the ice in the first place, I probably am not smart enough to register Post-Traumatic Stress. Luckily, the memory card in my camera survived and I recovered the pictures I took just prior to my plunge.
As for the Subaru, it was dragged from the river by the company started by Mo Hunt near Clayton, NY. I’m not sure who took the pictures, but they were supplied to me by diver Chris Bidwell, an Ogdensburg resident and star of the underwater shots. He even came to see me in the hospital which I appreciated. The Subaru was declared a total loss. I’ll miss her.
I still crave images of Singer Castle. This past summer visited the island again with my wife to shoot this fascinating structure and its grounds. It would seem to have the potential to eclipse Boldt Castle as a tourist destination if it can override Boldt’s head start of several decades. No one ever lived in Boldt Castle and Singer is loaded with the artifacts and possessions of a family rich in the lore of The Gilded Age.
By Dan Denney
Dan Denney has worn several hats, beginning his media career in radio in Watertown, Gouverneur (NY), and Pulaski (NY). Dan started in the control room at WPBS-TV (then WNPE-TV), a Public Television affiliate. While at WPBS, Dan worked his way into videographer and producer-director positions. He spent five years shooting and editing Rod and Reel Streamside, working with host Don Meissner. He also worked with artist Michael Ringer on The Artist’s World, His interest in Singer Castle also began here while helping produce a travel video on the Thousand Islands for Jefferson County.
When Dan decided he needed a change, he turned his avocation of pre-hospital medicine (EMS) into a vocation working and volunteering for several organizations. In 2004 Dan graduated SUNY Canton’s Nursing program and was licensed as an RN. Dan and his wife live in Waddington, NY. His photographs of the Thousand Islands, the St. Lawrence River, the Adirondacks, Nova Scotia and more can be seen at dandenneyphoto.net.