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BELFAST, Maine — Not only did Neil Edwards nearly succumb to hypothermia after his canoe swamped on Sheepscot Lake late last month, but the fishing hadn’t been so good that day, either.
Edwards, 72, is a retired physician who chaired the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee before moving to Belfast with his wife four years ago. He contacted the BDN because he wanted to publicly express his gratitude to his rescuers, Susan Hayford Wallen and her grandson Michael Daggett, both of Randolph.
The weather was clear but windy on Wednesday, Aug. 29, Edwards said, as he set out from the public access area off Route 3 in Palermo. At 1,193 acres, with a 16.3 mile shoreline, the lake is fairly large.
Fishing with lures for brook trout, bass and landlocked salmon and hooking only a few bass, Edwards decided to call it a day at about 3:15 p.m. when the wind and waves kicked up, and turned his 12-foot canoe, powered by an electric motor, toward the launch area.
“The waves were very high,” he recalled. “I noticed that my butt was getting wet. I looked down at the bottom of the canoe and there was at least 8 inches of water there.”
With his eyes fixed forward, Edwards hadn’t notice that the waves had been “lapping over the back of the boat,” he said. “I tried to move forward to balance it, but that didn’t work. That’s when I slipped over and flipped the boat. It was either that or go down with the boat,” he said.
He remembered doing the same sort of thing in ponds in northeast Pennsylvania,
when he was a boy, capturing the air beneath the hull and breathing there. Then, it was done on a lark. “It was something we thought was neat to do — I don’t know why,” he said.
The air pocket turned the canoe into a flotation device of sorts. And Edwards was wearing a personal flotation device, further increasing his odds of surviving, he said.
In an email to the BDN, he recalled what happened next:
“As I watched my gear float away from me at a much faster rate than the canoe and I were moving, it became amply clear that I would succumb from hypothermia before I reached the shore,” he wrote. “I’m not a strong swimmer, so I didn’t want to leave the canoe. I started hollering for help. I had seen only one other boat on the lake that afternoon. After about 20 minutes the two people in that boat heard me and motored over to where I was.”
Those people were Wallen and her 16-year-old grandson. They had been staying at the family camp and been fishing in their 12-foot aluminum boat. Wallen said the lake was “very choppy” that day, and she had decided to call it quits, but her grandson, who was to start school the next day, wanted to get in a little more fishing.
The pair headed to the “channel,” a narrow area of the lake, and switched from the 4-horsepower gas engine to an electric one for trolling.
“Did you just hear that? It sounded like ‘Help!’” Wallen asked her grandson, but he hadn’t heard anything. When she heard “help” a second time, she switched back to the gas motor and headed toward the main part of the lake, where she saw the overturned canoe.
“It’s really a miracle I heard him,” she said.
When they arrived where Edwards was floating, Wallen recalled, “He was pretty tired and he was very cold. I felt so sorry for him.”
Too tired to pull himself into Wallen’s boat, and fearful that he would swamp it if he tried, Edwards instead held onto the side and Wallen ferried him to a nearby public beach area called Iron Ore Point, leaving the canoe adrift. While Edwards recovered onshore in a chair she found for him, Wallen and her grandson retrieved the canoe and most of his fishing gear, picked him up and towed the boat back to the launch area.
Wallen and her grandson have made a new friend, she said.
“We’ve invited him to camp to go fishing. And he’s going to teach my grandson how to tie flies,” she said.
Edwards noted the importance of boaters keeping an eye out for each other, a point public safety agents have made, too.