Swimming for MS: Part III of a Series

Diane Simms, who has lived with MS since being diagnosed at the age of 18, interviews Matt Bonin following the first frigid leg of his journey.

Matt re-starts his swim with North Channel focus

EDITOR’S NOTE: When journalist Diane Sims learned of Matthieu Bonin’s plans to swim around Manitoulin Island this summer to raise awareness for people living with multiple sclerosis (MS) she leapt at the opportunity to report on Mr. Bonin’s motivation and progress as she was diagnosed with MS at age 17.

by Diane Sims

MELDRUM—Matthieu Bonin stepped into the relatively balmy 55°C waters of Meldrum Bay Monday morning of this week with the same objective—swimming in support of Multiple Sclerosis research but this time targeting only the North Channel with his destination—Little Current.

 On July 1, Mr. Bonin had left Harbor Vue Marina in Little Current with the stated aim of swimming all around Manitoulin, all for MS.

 The water temperatures took their toll and hence this week’s re-start.

 Matt and his “amazing ground and boat team” plan to resume the 56-nautical-mile, 104-kilometre, swim from Meldrum Bay down the North Channel to Little Current. Prevailing westerly winds and warmer channel waters should ease his passage.

Mr. Bonin’s heroic efforts in last week’s swim are chronicled as follows.

I must take you back to the day, July 4, Matt abandoned the swim, just days after stepping into the North Channel at the Harbor Vue Marina at Little Current July 1. For those new to this series, I am a former editor of The Expositor, have MS and am now in an electric wheelchair. I was emotionally invested in his planned swim to circumnavigate the Island in a month.  As a journalist I should be detached.

I couldn’t get hold of Matt and team members stayed aloof, protecting his privacy regarding this post-swim interview. My husband, Dennis Thomas, and I were booked on the morning ferry on Friday, July 8, to return home from our Manitoulin visit so I wondered if I would meet Matthieu in person.  Then I received a message that Matt had agreed to see me at a cabin near M’Chigeeng where he was recuperating. They texted directions and a time of 2:30 p.m. last Thursday.

That afternoon, Dennis and I headed to M’Chigeeng with a planned stop at Lillian’s art shop and gallery. I wanted to wish Lillian well, check directions to Matt and, of course, I left with a local artistic treasure.

We wound our way through back roads to Matt’s cabin on a slight hill above Lake Mindemoya. Matt greeted us from the cabin deck with a big wave. He grabbed lawn chairs for Dennis and himself. It was sunny with a gentle breeze whispering through the leaves. Matt turned to me, stood up and said:

“I’m coming in for a hug,” and we hugged after so many interviews, messages and texts. He and the team were resting, processing what happened to end the swim. Then he started.

“The night before I started wasn’t good. I was very anxious, very afraid and didn’t sleep well. I was nervous and not in a good head space. But in the morning, there was a smudging to bless the swim.

“Day one was super amazing. I felt so loved and supported. The water temperature was 62F. We were in the Strawberry Channel and I got to swim by the Strawberry lighthouse. We were all really enjoying it. I was very present in the moment, soaking in all the natural beauty,” he recounted.

Matt mentioned the wonder of swimming by Ten Mile Point at which point I interrupted. Dennis and I stopped at the Ten Mile Point Trading Post to check out the art and take photos. Dennis chatted with a clerk about Matt and she had met him. Dennis found me to interview her. Matt had stopped at the shop to hang a poster on June 30.

“I thought it incredible. I was amazed and, considering the currents, it’s quite a feat to do,” commented Laura Dionne, sales clerk at the trading post.

Matt smiled at her remark and continued speaking about the first day’s swim. It was grand to swim by Heywood Island. Waves were between three to five feet but he was maintaining six kilometres an hour.

“Quite far along, a fishing boat stopped by us to give a donation!” he said, laughing.

He accomplished 20 kilometres that day landing on the south shore of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. Maureen Peltier welcomed them into her cabin that night.

“We had an amazing first day,” Matt attested.

Day two was to be a recovery swim but Matt, wearing a sleeveless wetsuit, encountered four-to-six-foot waves with water temperature dropping to 55F. Still they put 16 more kilometers behind them.

“I couldn’t have made it without my team in the boat. Chris and Mel were giving me the proper encouragement.”

That second night, Lenore Manitowabi hosted them in her cabin.

“I was overwhelmed by the generosity, hospitality and warmth of the people of Wiikwemkoong,” said the swimmer, clearly touched by his experiences there.

Day three was a rest and recovery day.

“I needed rest and eating and more eating and then sleeping. My team was extraordinary,” he stressed.

Then came day four.

“There was this stunning sunrise and, all around, this awe-inspiring nature,” Matt remembered.

The water temperature going in was 55°F so the first eight kilometres he managed well.

“I was swimming great and then I hit a wall and the temperature dropped suddenly. It was 45°F. I could feel my skin stinging so much it was burning. My hands and feet really swelled up, blood drained from my lips. But I was able to keep swimming that last 800 metres,” he told me, accomplishing another 11 kilometers.

He got out of the water shaking and was “mildly hypothermic,” Matt affirmed.

Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures such as water below 40F. Similarly, if your clothes are wet, i.e., Matt’s wetsuit, heat loss is much faster.

Matt’s team enacted their emergency cold water plan: strip, dry clothes, toque, Matt crawled under a silver foil emergency blanket and then “hid under a pile of blankets,” he told me.

Matt expressed his gratitude to Jerrold Webkamigad for housing them that night. Elle Pheasant and Rachelle from Ed’s Restaurant also helped a lot.

“My team was pretty scared and very tired. Yes, I’m sad and disappointed and I’ve had to process calling off the swim. I don’t regret this. I didn’t fail in anything within my control,” he emphasized.

 They planned for a team meeting Friday to determine if Meldrum Bay to Little Current was a “go.”

The swim has raised more than $17,500, thanks in part to a $2,000 donation from Manitoulin Transport. All monies raised go to the MS Society of Canada. Cheque donations made out to MS Society can be mailed to Sandy Stretch, #109, 884 Regent St., Sudbury, Ont., P3E 6C7. The website is: msmanitoulinswim.com