The bloody beach of Bondi

By Gillian Brunette

Bondi Bay. Just the name conjures up images of golden sand and azure-blue waters.  A surfers’ paradise, its beach draws thousands of tourists each year.

Closer to home, another Bondi Bay offers a far more tranquil setting. Although named for its Aussie counterpart, the only resemblance Bondi Bay in Lake of Bays can lay claim to today is its horseshoe shape.

But in May of 1905, when Joseph and Elisabeth Tapley arrived from Sydney, Australia, the two bays were very similar. Both sported sweeping sands and the surrounding areas were rural.

Joseph Tapley enjoyed an illustrious career on the comic opera stage in the late 1800s in Australia and England, but decided to become a farmer and move his family to Canada. After searching and rejecting several properties in Muskoka, Tapley came upon a farmhouse and tract of land with a bay that so resembled the beach he had left behind, he immediately bought it and named it Bondi.

The bay in front of the farm has been known informally as Bondi Bay ever since.

Now, more than a century later, the Province of Ontario has given credence to the name. Nancy Tapley, who with her brother Brian owns and operates Bondi Village Resort said: “We knew it all along, but isn’t it wonderful to discover that the Ontario Geographic Names Board has recommended that it be enshrined officially?”

That the group was even contemplating the designation came as a complete surprise, Tapley said. “Apparently the board goes through various areas occasionally and someone noticed (the bay) wasn’t officially named. My brother notified me of the declaration after someone else had brought it to his attention.”

People often ask if Bondi is named for the famous beach in Sydney because they don’t see the resemblance, Tapley said. “That’s fair. Bondi has been heavily developed, but their beach is not much longer than ours. And when my grandfather came here it was before the dam went in at Baysville. That dam raised the lake almost five feet, flooding a lot of the shallow sand beaches on Lake of Bays and leaving our original big crescent of sand as a more narrow strip of beach.”

The dam may well be responsible for far more than flooding beaches. If a certain Norse saga is to be believed, it might also end any hope of finding buried treasure. It’s a stranger-than-fiction story that Tapley unearthed quite recently about a Viking expedition to Muskoka more than 900 years ago.

“Tucked away in a box of old papers I found a newspaper clipping from the Muskoka Advance that suggested the Vikings had been in Lake of Bays,” Tapley explained.

“The Advance had reprinted a story from a 1977 Muskoka Sun, which in turn had taken it from an archaeological magazine printed 60 years earlier.”

While the name of that magazine remains unknown and none of the assertions made in the article can be verified, it remains a story worthy of the big screen.

The tale begins in the early 11th century when a certain Ronald Admundsen set sail from Norway to Labrador (known then to the Norse as Vinland) on a trading expedition. Along with his own long ship were two others, commanded by lieutenants Rolf Ericson and Valdemar Holmgang.

After a successful winter of trading in Labrador, Admundsen decided to push on westward toward Cathay (China), which even then was known to the Europeans through the trading caravans. However, troubles back in his homeland put paid to Admundsen’s plans. He was forced to return and the exploration was left in the hands of his two lieutenants.

The first major difficulty to face the expedition arose at Niagara Falls when it was immediately apparent that the Vikings’ long ships were unsuitable for the terrain. Not to be defeated, Ericson decided to build five small boats and continue the voyage westwards. This step was bitterly opposed by Holmgang and some members of the crew who wanted to return home.

Lake Erie was crossed without incident, but on reaching the narrows at Sault Ste. Marie, native peoples attacked the ships. They were no match for the well-armoured Vikings, however, and soon beat a hasty retreat.

As the expedition pushed forward, dissention continued among the mutinous members of the crew. To protect his followers, Ericson separated the two factions, putting the malcontents and Holmgang in three ships and his men in the other two. Shortly thereafter, one of the three ships mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

By now it was early fall. Autumn gales were beginning to blow on Lake Huron and insubordination was rife. Holmgang’s followers told Ericson they’d had enough and left, taking a large part of their trading treasure with them. Holmgang, becoming crazier by the minute, decided to take a short cut back to Labrador. He and his men sailed northeast, eventually arriving in Georgian Bay where one of the boats was wrecked. The survivors were heartlessly abandoned.

Holmgang, with the remaining nine sailors and the treasure, sailed on and found the mouth of the Muskoka River. This brought them to Fairy Lake, Peninsula Lake, and after a short portage, into Lake of Bays.

Meanwhile, Ericson and his followers continued their voyage westward and probably reached the Pacific coast, because a giant boulder covered with runic inscriptions detailing the story of their expedition has been found.

Or so the story goes.

There is little doubt that Holmgang always intended on destroying his men and keeping the remaining treasure for himself. Two, who had fallen ill, he deliberately abandoned knowing they would fall into the hands of native peoples. Their screams of agony as they were tortured were plainly heard by their comrades who were camped on a hill nearby. This was too much for Holmgang’s men who rose up against him. In a fury, Holmgang slew four of them. The remaining three capitulated.

With the party now reduced to four men, it was impossible to carry the treasure chest any further. Plans were made to bury it. Using their swords the men dug a hole. Although it was soon large enough to contain the chest, Holmgang urged his men to keep digging. Only one man suspected they were digging their own grave.

Suddenly Holmgang sprang from the deep hole and killed one of the diggers with a blow of his sword. The remaining two scrambled out. One hid behind a tree while the other continued to fight. Blood flowed, but in the end Holmgang, with a final thrust of his sword, destroyed his opponent.  As he stood there watching the dying struggles of his victim, the remaining man crept toward his chief and with one deadly stroke of his knife ended the life of Valdemar Holmgang.

That last survivor somehow found his way back to his own people via Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. To them, he told the story of hardships and fighting to account for the disappearance of his companions, but of the treasure he said nothing.

It was only on his deathbed that he divulged the information that he had killed his commander and friends. He also described how he had dragged their bodies to the hole and buried them with the treasure chest.

So is this swashbuckling adventure based on fact, or is it purely fiction? What is undisputed is that a Norse colony was established on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in 1000. That said, a once-popular theory that the Vikings penetrated Hudson Bay and reached the upper Great Lakes region by overland routes is unsubstantiated.

Truth is, we will never know. But what fun to imagine that somewhere in the now-flooded 330 miles of Lake of Bays shoreline there lies a grave that holds the remains of three Norsemen and a treasure chest.

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