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East Canton pastor shares narrative of tragedy, grace

By WALTER DOERSCHUK The Press-News Published: February 24, 2017 10:00 AM
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The memories are still vivid for Duane C. Miller more than four decades later. They may not always be easy to recollect.

Miller, a pastor at Living Hope Church in East Canton, recently finished his book titled "Survivor: A Story of Tragedy, Guilt and Grace." He shared the tragic story of what happened when he went on a canoe trip when he was 17 years old in the summer of 1970.

Miller traveled among a group of 23 people to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario Canada. The group's plan was to take a 60-mile loop on the lakes and rivers, and it would be on the interior for six days.

However, after three days, it had been raining the entire time.

"We never got past where we spent the first night," Miller said. "We just stayed there. On the third day, when we woke up, we were all soaked. We were cold."

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Some of the group members became sick with low fevers, and they decided to cut the trip short and head back. They had been camped in a protective cove. When they came out, they were "surprised with the carry of the storm," Miller explained, and the wind was blowing much harder than anticipated.

The group, which was in eight different canoes, was trying to make it across the north arm of the lake where they were positioned. The water became choppy, and they battled 3-foot waves. The last canoe held Chuck Schnittker, Miller's younger brother Vernon and another teenager. It took a wave over the side and became swamped.

Miller's canoe and two others turned back to help the three out of the water. Vernon climbed into Miller's canoe, and the two others climbed into the canoe of Don Enzor, the camp director.

The group started again and attempted to travel to a tiny island in effort to make it out of the storm. But another wave came and took Miller's canoe over the side.

Two canoes went back. Some climbed into Enzor's canoe and three others held onto the side of it. The wind and waves had taken the group closer to shore, so they tried to make it again.

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"We hadn't gone very far when a wave just swept right up over the stern of the canoe and swamped that canoe," Miller said. "The wise thing to do would have been to remain calm and hang on to the swamped canoe."

Miller explained the group would have been benefited by the buoyancy of the canoe, backpacks and sleeping bags.

However, Miller climbed into the swamped canoe and stood up. He said that set off a chain of events. It tragically led to three members of the group losing their lives, Schnittker, Enzor and Meadows.

Miller also had a harrowing experience in the sequence of events.

"There was a point that I was under the water, and I didn't have an ounce of energy left in me," Miller said. "Every muscle in my body was a charlie horse, or at least it felt like it. My lungs were full of water which was the most excruciating pain if you can imagine. It just daggers in your chest. Your lungs just being twisted.

"I was sinking down because I couldn't make it to surface one more time. I was conscious, and I remember thinking at the time, 'OK Lord is this what it's like to die?'"

Miller said he became peaceful, and he started to relax. He said he then heard God's voice.

"It was just like he said, 'I'm not through with you yet, get back up there Miller,'" he recalled. "I got this sudden burst of energy, and my muscles relaxed."

Miller made it back above water and to shore along with the rest of the group. He said the book details how the group was miraculously rescued.

But Miller also explains the guilt and shame from his actions. It led to depression which he described as "overwhelming."

"It was a seven-and-a-half year struggle before I was able to find victory over depression," Miller said. "It deals with the question of 'where was God in all of this?'"

Miller played high school football, and he said that helped him soon after he returned home. Two-a-day practices started not long after he got back. Two months after the accident was also the first time he put his thoughts on paper. He later shared that with his English teacher and still has that piece today. It was something that helped him turn it into a book which he began writing in 2011. He worked with Discovery House, and the book was released just a couple of weeks ago. The book is available where most books are sold including on Amazon.

The East Canton pastor explained he still has some doubts about why that sequence of events happened 47 years ago.

"My memory has been healed. That shame, the burden, all of the guilt, all of that is gone," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm not tempted on a regular basis to pick up that garbage."

Miller now uses his experiences in his church sermons and messages to others. Over the years, he has led wilderness canoe trips back to where the accident happened in Canada. He even stops where the accident happened to re-tell his story.

Miller also said he learned "to look at life from an eternal perspective." He used football season as an analogy.

"This life is the preseason," he said. "The real season is eternity. This is the preparation for eternity."

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