Revisiting this story is a tribute to my Dad—of blessed memory. My father loved to tell stories and, even more, by virtue of the madcap things he often did, he was a prominent character in many family tales. This narrative is no exception.
Backstory first: I grew up in northern Minnesota. When I was three years old, my parents, who were both teachers, bought a small island just north of the Minnesota/Canada border. My father had grown up in the boundary waters region; it was his home and became our anchor as well. Over the years, my father’s chief relaxation consisted of construction projects on the island. Among other things, he was making the main cabin livable for the winter as well as summer because they wanted to spend a year of their retirement there.
Our island is in a relatively isolated arm of a larger lake, accessible only by boat in summer and by small plane or miles of hiking across the frozen lake in winter. Getting to the nearest town in summer takes over an hour. In the winter, the flight out is about 15 minutes, but walking straight across the ice to the nearest road that has consistent traffic takes about three hours of steady trekking. A more sheltered route is about ten miles and takes considerably longer. Hiking in and out can be challenging if the northwest wind is fierce and temperatures significantly below zero. Just for the record, my parents noted the temperature in January sliding to minus 52 Fahrenheit early one morning.
In 1981, long before cell phones, the sole connection with the outside world for those of us who were on the islands or deep in the woods was via the local radio station that broadcast phoned-in messages three times daily. Our lives were ordered according to the scheduled message broadcasts—5:55 am, shortly after noon, and approximately 6:05 pm.
Because my parents had planned to spend much of the forthcoming winter at the cabin, because of its isolation, and because they were at that time in their 60’s, they thought it might be wise to be able to have a way to call out if necessary. Thus, my father was planning to set up one of the clever bits of new technology, a CB radio for two-way communication. Installation was scheduled for our post-Christmas vacation in 1981. One more note: whenever we spent the Christmas holiday there, the only other person we would occasionally see was Tom. He lived year-round in a small cabin about two miles away from us.
As I describe my father for you, please realize that I do so lovingly. Depending on your perspective, he either had a strong will or was excruciatingly stubborn; he was very creative in figuring out how to make things work his way. He was also, oddly enough, both a worrier and a huge risk-taker. Dad had an uncanny way of being rather unpredictable which was often unnerving.
In December that year, four of us (my parents, my husband, Perry, and I) flew to the island several days after Christmas with everything we needed for the week crammed into a small plane. Because of the general confusion, it was not until the next day that we discovered that the CB unit itself had gotten left in the car at the “airport”—a plowed path on the frozen river just outside town. My father, being determined to accomplish his goal, decided that he would return to town and fetch it. The question was how. He concocted a plan to go over to Tom’s—who, you will recall, lived several miles away across the ice—and talk him into going to town on the day of New Year’s Eve on his snow machine. My father would ride in with him, collect the CB from the car at the airport, and then hitch a ride to where he could walk via the sheltered route to the boat landing, down the inlet, and across the last stretch of lake. He figured that Tom would be staying in town to celebrate the New Year. You will recall the approximate distance of ten miles and my father’s age. The rest of us were dubious, but years of living through innumerable harrowing adventures made us aware that he would not be dissuaded. Just after noon on December 31st, he and Tom set off.
December in northwestern Ontario means darkness begins to settle in shortly after 4:00 pm. Calculating all the various stages of his journey, we figured he would be back by about 6:00. As dusk fell, however, it began to snow rather heavily. It hadn’t occurred to us to listen to the weather forecast, although it likely would not have made much difference.
Shortly after 6:00, we listened to the evening message period on the radio, heard nothing, ate a quiet dinner, and waited. Finally, at about 8:00, I persuaded Perry that we ought to go out looking for him which, of course, was not a particularly sensible suggestion. I have, however, a most active imagination and by that time, I was convinced some crisis had occurred. So, packing blankets, rope, food, and a hatchet onto the toboggan, we set out from the island, heading in the direction Dad told us he would take back. I was carrying a flashlight but, with the whiteness of the snow even in the storm, we did not need to turn it on.
A short distance off the island, we realized that we had forgotten something, and Perry turned around and went back for it. I kept on going. Suddenly, coming from the direction of the absolute wilderness to the northeast (in other words the entirely wrong direction), I saw a light, moving rather quickly across the ice. My first thought was “what on earth is he doing over there?” Immediately, however, I heard the accompanying motor noise and realized it was probably not Dad. Nevertheless, I was puzzled as to who it might be in this blizzard. Tom was the only likely person, and he had gone into town. It was heading toward Tom’s place and was far enough away that the driver couldn’t notice me in the darkness. It passed to my left and kept going—and so did I. Perry caught up, and we continued to trudge across the snow-covered ice. Some twenty minutes later, the light reappeared, coming back toward us. We hesitated a moment and then decided to signal with our light. Perhaps it was someone lost, although we couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind out in this weather.
The machine abruptly swung over toward us, cruised into the path of our light, and I looked at what seemed to be one of the most frightening faces I have ever seen close-up. No doubt my perceptions were shaped by the darkness and my own fears. Nevertheless, in this face were caverns for cheeks, deep set eyes that I could not even see in the darkness, long straggly hair, all topped by a very dirty cap. All I could think of was Mom alone back in the cabin and this character on the loose! Above the roar of the engine, we explained what we were doing and to our surprise, he offered to drive down the inlet looking for Dad, which he did.
Sometime later, he returned, having found nothing. As we were trying to decide what to do next, we exchanged names. He told us he was Wild Running Horse; we later came to call him Bill. He said he lived in the trapper’s cabin across the portage and on the other side of the next lake. We had never walked that far; it was quite a trek we found later and even more in the middle of nowhere than we were.
We invited him to come back to the cabin for a cup of coffee. He agreed, all three of us packed on to his machine, and we made short order of the distance back to the island. As we sat around the wood stove, he regaled us with story after story of life in the woods, encountering bears, trapping, running across ice floes in the spring, and reflections on his native heritage. He left at midnight, promising to come back the next day for New Year’s Day dinner and disappeared into the night of the New Year. He said later that he struggled with whether to come back. We were white people and, as we would learn later, white people were associated with severe pain in his life.
My mother, who had survived decades of my father’s escapades, correctly assumed that everything would turn out all right. When the radio messages were read at 5:55 am, we heard: “I am at Cousin Ethel’s and will come out in the morning.” Now, don’t think for a moment that Dad had gotten to Cousin Ethel’s as part of a wise change of plans upon viewing the bad weather. Not a chance. He really did determine to get back to our island that night and tried to do so. The route he chose, however, was quite the opposite of what he said he would do. He hitched a ride to a place called Reef Point and set out across a wide expanse of frozen lake in the blizzard. Even though he had traveled that route countless times by boat in the summers, through all kinds of weather and at night, this time in the whirling snow, he veered to his right. By the time he realized that he had gone astray, he was hopelessly lost. He neared a completely unknown shoreline, dotted with summer cottages, all locked for the winter—except for one that was open, empty, dark, but the phone was working. He called the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). You will remember it was New Year’s Eve, and they had someone on the line who couldn’t tell them where he was! Nevertheless, they tracked down the right house, no doubt intending to arrest him for breaking in and entering the property. Turned out, however, the chief officer was someone he had grown up with 50 years ago. Thus, they took him to his cousin’s place, and there he spent the night.
Early the next morning, New Year’s Day, Dad went back to the airport, got the car, and drove around to the landing, even though that would eventually complicate our leaving plans. After a long hike across the lake, he arrived just before noon. Bill came shortly thereafter, and dinner was complete with swapping stories, filling in details, and getting to know Bill. He said he had worked as a fishing and hunting guide for tourists and, from what he said, some of his groups had included followers of Christ. He had a daughter who had recently become a believer, and he was sorting through things he had heard from her. He spoke longingly of wanting to leave this life and “come back as a star”; I remembered that line. He came back every day, and there was a compelling eagerness about him to talk about matters of the heart and spirit. After Perry and I left, my parents stayed there for January and February, and he continued to come frequently. They often visited his trapper’s cabin, sampling beaver, learning about his trapping operation, and discovering more of his heritage.
At this point, dear reader, I will switch lenses temporarily and report what Bill has entrusted to us as part of his side of the story up to this point. The matter of trust is significant here; it took us a very long time to be blessed with that. There is no way we could have earned it. He had the courage to allow us—slowly—into his own past, but we only learned these details much later.
Bill’s story goes way back because he, along with so many other Anishanabe and native children in Canada, was forced into the notorious residential school system when he was a child. His father had been raised in traditional ways; his mother was Catholic, but all the kids were removed from the home to “civilize” them. They were not allowed to go home even though home for some of them was visible from the school. The kinds of things that were done to him and the other children in the name of the Church are horrifying; they scarred him terribly. They also made him extremely wary of and bitter at white people. He describes himself as violent, incapable of expressing emotions, and angry at the God of the Church.
By the time of our encounter on the frozen lake that New Year’s Eve, his life had become a mess and he knew it. He had been running from the law, hiding out in his trapper’s cabin. He was desperate to change something but did not know what or how. Woven into the fabric of this narrative was an inexplicable desire to have God show him answers, even though God continued to be a stranger to him. He said that he longed to go to “the place where Jesus lived” but could not, so he asked God to send him someone—anyone. (Recently, he said that when he asked God to send someone to him, he understood our appearing on the ice that night as God’s answer, and he was not happy. We were white people. How could God send a white woman, in fact, a crazy white woman? That was me—out on the ice in a blizzard.)
He describes his life as having been full of deep and horrible darkness, laced with addictions to alcohol and drugs, abuse, depression, and thoughts of suicide. At one point about half a year before we met him, he had asked one of the elders of the band what to do and was told, “go to the bush” (the wilderness of lakes and forests) and find your spirit again. He was skeptical, having spent all his life in the bush, but decided to give it a try for four or five days. He headed back to the trapper’s cabin in August and was there until December when he went home (keeping under cover) briefly. Before he left for the bush again, his daughter gave him a radio tuned to the local Christian radio station. At first, he refused to turn it on, but then did so. Every time he flicked the “On” switch, a voice said: “suicide is not the way,” “suicide is not the way.” Even so, his attempts to seek God seemed hopeless; he felt the increasing weight of darkness.
In the meantime, back to the two middle-aged folks (my parents) on the island for that year. Sometime in mid-February, the roar of two snow machines shattered the frozen winter silence; the OPP were on board. They asked the way to the trapper’s cabin. Not thinking much of it, my parents told them, they disappeared, and so did Bill. He did not come the next day, or any day thereafter. Their treks across the portage brought them to a closed cabin; there was no further contact. Toward the end of March when the snow gets heavy and the slush on the ice is more treacherous, my folks returned to town for several weeks. Shortly after arriving, they received a phone call. It was Bill, asking to meet up with them at a local Christian coffee house. What he told them filled in gaps.
The OPP had taken him into custody. For the months prior to Christmas, when he was on the run, only a few persons (Tom being one of them) knew his whereabouts. Whatever he had done continued to gnaw at him and in those months before we met him, he was in increasing torment of spirit, having a deepening sense of wrong but unable to deal with it. The very night he met us—New Year’s Eve—in desperation he had decided to go over to Tom’s cabin because he needed to talk with someone. As he told it to my parents, he had determined if Tom was not there, he was going to return to his trapper’s cabin and “blow his brains out.” You will recall that Tom was not there; he had taken my father into town. Bill’s snowmobile light went past me to Tom’s, and then he returned, and something, or Someone, made us turn our light on in that darkness to signal him.
At this point, permit me just a few observations regarding this thing we often so glibly refer to as the sovereignty of God. Fascinating that this was the year my parents planned to stay on the island for the winter. Humbling how our frail forgetfulness regarding the CB unit, Dad’s willful and perhaps not-too-wise decisions, and my over-worked and nervous imagination had us out on the ice that night. What perfect timing for a snowstorm! In shining our light at that moment, we unknowingly drew a criminal into its light and God drew a saint to Himself and to the Eternal Light of Life.
The story has not ended. Each time we see Bill, he invariably returns to his utterly transformative experience, because it is as alive for him as it was that night almost 40 years ago. He served his time in a maximum-security prison, but on his release, he had countless opportunities—in schools, in band meetings, in his extended family—to tell his story. Everyone in town and the surrounding area knew who Wild Running Horse had been, and no one could deny the radical change in his life.
In the Gospel of John we read, “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…” Bill’s life had been dark; all our lives are so until the Light of Christ shines into that darkness. St. Paul says: “For God made His light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Beautifully written, thanks for sharing Dr. Phillips!