The Paddling World’s Greatest Unsolved Mysteries


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Tom Thomson
It’s been 100 years now since the body of Canadian painter Tom Thomson bobbed up in Canoe Lake, a week after his empty canoe was found ominously adrift on this same stretch of water, but the exact cause of his demise remains an enduring mystery. The official verdict was accidental drowning. Yet Thomson was a strong paddler and swimmer; he disappeared on a calm day in July. Fishier still, there was a gash on his temple, copper trolling line cinched around one ankle, and no water in his lungs.

Cue the various murder, manslaughter and misadventure theories. Figuring out what happened to Thomson, whose reputation as an artist has steadily climbed in the decades since his death, has become something of a national sport in Canada, with countless books and even a board game devoted to the subject. Variously blamed are an American cottager (with whom Thomson supposedly tussled), a fiery lodge owner (to whom Thomson apparently owed money), and the artist himself (said to be depressive and a heavy drinker).

Neil Lehto, a Michigan lawyer whose 2005 tome, The Last Spring, represents the latest contribution to the canon, goes with the suicide interpretation, arguing the artist was not only depressive but bipolar. One of the more novel suggestions made over the years is that Thomson slipped while taking a leak off the side of his canoe and banged his head on a gunwale. The most credible scenario, posited as far back as 1930 by Thomson’s first biographer, Blodwen Davies, is foul play. “Who met Thomson on that stretch of grey lake, screened from all eyes, that July noon?” she muses in Paddle and Palette: The Story of Tom Thomson.

Davies’ conclusion was that someone must have struck Thomson in the head, possibly with a paddle, then sunk his body using fishing line and a weight. But Thomson rose. And so, ever since, have the questions.
–Jim Moodie

Grant Hadwin
When a busted sea kayak was found on the shore of a remote Alaskan island in the spring of 1997, along with related flotsam like a rain coat, sleeping bag and axe, the immediate, logical conclusion was that the craft’s owner had simply been swallowed up by the icy tidal seas. That, or consumed by a grizzly.

This was before it was ascertained that the boat and its attendant possessions belonged to a certain enigmatic individual named Grant Hadwin. He could be anywhere, those who knew him promptly conjectured, not to mention very much alive.

A rugged woodsman who had worked as a timber cruiser before revolting against the logging industry, Hadwin was capable of some Herculean outdoor feats. He was known to jog up mountains at the hint of a bar bet, goad grizzlies towards him when he didn’t even possess a gun, and swim through sub-zero waters just for fun. Hadwin was also half nuts, and wanted for a recent act of shocking environmental violence: in January of this same year, he had plunged into a frigid river on a British Columbia island, towing a chainsaw behind him, and, in a moment of misplaced anti-establishment fury, carved a fatal cut into the last living example of a revered golden spruce.

Hadwin quickly fessed up to the crime, but somehow convinced authorities that he should be allowed to attend his trial via kayak, crossing a difficult strait off BC’s mainland in February to reach the courthouse. On February 13, he set off in a Nimbus ‘Telkwa,’ an 18-foot ocean-goer with a V-bottom, and was never seen again.
In his award-winning book about contradictory logger, titled The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, John Vaillant concedes that the tree feller was not an expert kayaker, but notes that Hadwin had earlier survived a similar misadventure in rough coastal waters, winding up on an island off Alaska where he subsisted for days with little more than the clothes on his back, a few matches and some coffee.

Where is Hadwin now? Who knows. He could be dead, or he could be happily encamped in some obscure corner of Alaska, or even Siberia, living off fish, game, coffee, matches, and his wits. The biggest fear, for many, is that he resurfaces with an axe — or more to the point, a chainsaw — left to grind.
—-Jim Moodie

Etienne Brule
Arriving in the new world in 1608 at the mere age of 16, Etienne Brule, while still a teen, was dispatched by Samuel de Champlain to live among the Huron Indians. A fearless adventurer, he traveled deep into the unmapped corners of present-day Quebec, Ontario and Pennsylvania, ranging as far west as Duluth and south to Chesapeake Bay. Since he left no journals, much of his life remains a cipher, but he is generally credited with being the first white man to paddle the Great Lakes and descend the Susquehanna River, and is considered the initial ‘coureur de bois’ or runner of the woods, the breed of rogue fur trader whose paddling missions in search of pelts opened up the North American frontier.

Returning to Quebec from a southerly foray in 1616, Brule nearly met a vicious end. He was intercepted by the Iroquois and tortured, but according to his own account (as told to Champlain) bluffed his way out of harm by convincing his captors that an approaching storm was a sign from the heavens that he was their ally. Ironically, it would be his supposed friends among the Huron tribe, with whom he had lived for over 20 years, who would torture and kill him in the end, then dine on his remains.

Exactly why this grisly event occurred remains an enigma. Some theorize that Brule had made the mistake of trading with the rival Iroquois. The Huron tribe’s chief was suspected of the murder, but denied responsibility. There was talk of a woman being involved, which didn’t seem that far-fetched, given Brule’s reputation as a skirt-chaser. But we’ll never really know.

The same goes for so many details of his life. Little is known of his origins, and less still of his time in the wilderness. As one historian notes, “The forest swallowed up the young adventurer, and we lose sight of him.”
—-Jim Moodie

William Sommer
“Nineteen is not the age of reason.” So sings Rhett Miller of the Old 97s in the Texas band’s 1999 song “Nineteen.” In the same year of that song’s release, William Sommer, a dreamy 19-year-old from Ancaster, Ontario, loaded a kayak onto his beat-up VW car and headed west and north, looking for adventure, only to vanish on a frothy tributary of the famed South Nahanni River of Canada’s Northwest Territories. As his father put it after his presumed death by drowning: “He was 19-years-old and boys that age often think that they are invincible.”
Sommer wasn’t completely naive, having done some paddling in the past and a bit of homework on his destination, but, like Chris McCandless, whose tragic tale of youthful wanderlust was trenchantly told in the Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild, he seems to have put faith well above caution.

When his kayak was found hung up in willows on the Little Nahanni River, a Class 3 and 4 gusher he’d opted to descend against the warnings of Nahanni National Park wardens, his journal was still in the boat. The last entry read: “Even if something does happen to me, I am sure that in life and death, God will be the Father and I will be his son and without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head.”
—-Jim Moodie

Barry Tessman
Barry Tessman was a legendary photographer whose images transcended paddlesports like no one before him. But on the morning of January 16, 2001, he mysteriously perished on Lake Isabella near his home in Kernville, California during a routine flatwater workout. His death remains unsolved. His 19-foot Phantom racing kayak was found upright in the middle of the lake with the paddle sticking suspicously out of the cockpit. His body wasn’t recovered for another month. Barry is survived by his wife, Joy, their daughters, Ellie Rose, 8, and Alana River, 5, who was born that June, and his parents, Norm and Gerry.

Tessman photographed remote rivers all over the world including China’s Yangtze, Peru’s Apurimac and the Chyua in Russia and was regularly published in National Geographic Adventure, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Esquire, Outside and Men’s Journal. His athletic prowess was just as noteworthy, avidly pursuing kayaking, climbing and mountain biking. The autopsy attributed his death to drowning but further examination discovered blunt force trauma to the head that caused “massive bruising and subcranial hematoma.” How does a phenomenal athlete become separated from a flatwater race boat, suffering massive head trauma in the process? The answer may be buried with Tessman himself. A reward of $20,000 is still being offered for information leading directly to the arrest and conviction of the party or parties responsible for his death (contact Barry Tessman Reward, P.O. Box 4407, Prescott, AZ 86302).

“I’d say it was a really strange and unexpected accident,” says Tom Moore of the nearby Sierra South retails hop. “That’s what makes it so hard to believe–he spent ten years doing dangerous rivers and was extremely athletic and a great climber. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
–Joe Carberry

William Colby
In the world of espionage, mysterious things happen to well connected people. On April 29th, 1996, former CIA Director William Colby disappeared from his rural Maryland home, an apperant drowning victim on the nearby Wicomico River where his canoe was found swamped. His body was recovered a week later and the initial autopsy showed drowning. But Washington insiders smelled a conspiracy. Colby—once on the shortlist as suspected “Deep Throats”–was a contributor to the Strategic Investment, a prominent financial newsletter critical of the Clinton Administration regarding the administration’s ties to the shady DC underbelly and the Whitewater scandal. His endorsement of such critical articles is believed by some to be his demise.

According to Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Washington DC reporter, several factors in Colby’s death remain in question. The autopsy report sited drowning induced by heart failure while the coroner found no evidence to support such claims. An Associated Press (AP) report stated that Colby’s wife had spoken to him the day of his death and he’d felt sick but was going canoeing anyway. She was away in Texas at the time and refuted this claim by the AP. Finally, Colby was an experienced canoeist and he died without a lifejacket (it’s said he never boated without one) and without shoes. The obvious question is why would someone having a heart attack take the time to remove their shoes or go out on a blustery spring day without them?

Colby’s death is perhaps the highest profile because of his deep political ties and remains an unsolved. ex-CIA director, Bill Colby, who went out for a paddle in his canoe in 1996 and wound up dead, with foul play suspected in some quarters? once on the shortlist of candidates who were thought to be Deep Throat.

Water Music of Yellowstone Lake
Paddlers have reported hearing more than just the dip of their blades on Yellowstone Nat’l Park’s Yellowstone and Shoshone lakes—they’ve also reported poltergeists. People have reporting hearing mysterious music emanating from the popular paddling lakes since the 19th century. The sounds, which have been likened to organ pipes, could be air moving over the water, or sounds from nearby thermal activity. 19th Century Naturalist Stephen Forbes described it as “the vibrating clang of a harp…or sound of many telegraph wires swinging with the wind, or voices answering each other overhead.”

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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