Long-lost purse raised from lake bed and reunited with owner

A small, leather purse and the $200 it contained have been reunited with the woman who lost them in a canoeing mishap more than two years ago.

The owner of a small purse containing $200 in cash was stunned to have it returned after 2 years

Lost purse pulled from bottom of lake after two years and returned to owner

1 year ago
Duration 1:05
On a summer day in 2018, Ashley Spencer lost her purse — containing $200 in cash and a drawing by her young daughter — in Charleston Lake. This summer, Todd Svarckopf and his son Steven found it while snorkeling and made a family project of finding the owner. 1:05

A cash-stuffed purse that sat at the bottom of an eastern Ontario lake for two years has been reunited with its astonished owner after a father-and-son diving team discovered it and made it their mission to return it.

On a sweltering day in July 2018, Ashley Spencer and a friend spontaneously decided that they would cool off by bailing out of their rented canoe, midway across Charleston Lake.

The hurried disembarkation upset the craft and sent Spencer's treasured purse containing a drawing by her young daughter and more than $200 in cash to the bottom.

"I started laughing because I couldn’t even believe it," said Ashley Spencer when police phoned her to tell her the purse had been found. (Stu Mills/CBC)

In all likelihood, the sunken treasure would have stayed there if it weren't for the extraordinary efforts of two complete strangers.

Yet, more than two years after her purse had settled to the murky bottom of Charleston Lake near Brockville, Ont., Spencer got a call from provincial police telling her it had been found.

"I was floored," said Spencer this week. "I started laughing because I couldn't even believe it. Like— there's no possible way."

A stroke of serendipity and a global pandemic made the unlikely happy ending possible.

Ashley Spencer lost the purse while canoeing in Charleston Lake Provincial Park near Brockville, ON in 2018. (Stu Mills/CBC)

At about the same time as Spencer's purse was settling to the bottom of Charleston Lake in 2018, an Ottawa boy named Stephen Svarckopf was perfecting his snorkeling technique at a Key West, Florida hotel pool.

"My dad would throw pennies in, then I would dive down grab the pennies and come up," explained Svarckopf, now 11.

But the COVID-19 pandemic grounded the Svarckopf family's normal vacation plans in 2020, so Stephen and his father, Todd, spent the summer snorkeling the waterways of eastern Ontario.

During their dives, they have pulled hundreds of pounds of rusted bicycles, snowmobiles, tires, fishing lures and other trash from the bottom of lakes and rivers.

The pair cleaned up a modern kayak seat they recovered from the bottom of the Rideau River and sold it on Kijiji donating the proceeds to help with the cancer care of a local hockey coach.

A photo of Todd Svarckopf and the zebra-mussel-encrusted purse shortly after they discovered it at the bottom of Charleston Lake in July 2020. (Submitted)

It was in July, while staying at Charleston Lake Provincial Park, that the father and son brought up their most mysterious find yet — a small brown handbag containing more than $200 and belonging to a woman named Ashley Spencer.

Todd Svarckopf and his girlfriend Allison Gougeon searched for months online. Gougeon reached out to women named Ashley Spencer as far away as Texas,

"And just couldn't, couldn't come up with anything," said Svarckopf, who used a pressure washer to strip two years worth of zebra mussel from the small bag.

They also took it upon themselves to dry out the cash, and a water-logged piece of paper bearing a colourful drawing by Spencer's young daughter, which they then carefully pressed and framed.

The Svarckopfs handed over the purse, along with the cash it contained and a preserved drawing that had been folded up inside. (Stu Mills/CBC)

This week, after CBC's Ottawa Morning put out a call for feel-good stories, Svarckopf contacted CBC to say that he'd found a purse, but couldn't find the owner. With some help from CBC News and the Ontario Provincial Police,  the purse was finally handed over to the right Ashley Spencer, a 29-year-old bar manager from Brockville. 

Before its long sleep at the bottom of Charleston Lake, the purse accompanied Spencer on trips across Canada and to El Salvador.

Never expecting to get the bag back, Spencer says she's paying the Svarckopf's good deed forward, donating the long-lost $200 to a Christmas charity in Brockville.

"There are really good people out there and I'm really happy they came and found me."