It's been years since I've written a blog, since I've attached my name to my work. This isn't to say that I haven't been writing. In fact, I'm writing more than ever. As a professional and mid-career marketer, deeply entrenched in the burgeoning field of 'brand storytelling' or 'content marketing', I have literally been writing non-stop for 3.5 years. I've written dozens of film scrips, hundreds of articles (yes, hundreds), so many emails and social media posts and advertising slogans and sticker labels and infographics and pages and pages of web copy. I still write all day, every day. And I am a better writer than I've ever been, although I am hiding behind my work. You won't see my name on any of it.
There's a complicated reason for that which I will explore in the future. Today, amidst a global crisis, surrounded and deeply troubled by the state of all that is happening, I'm taking a small step to share my work.
I don't know who he is. I'll never know who he is. Well, maybe one day he'll read this and reach out to me and say "It's me. It was me. I'm me!" Regardless (and I'm not sure it really matters who he is), he was there, that afternoon, when my I understood why I was here.
I was at the back of a group of canoes paddling downstream on the French River. In front of me directly sat a 14-year-old girl in the throws of puberty and a few days into the woods. In front of her, seven other girls just like her in four other canoes. I was in charge of them. And they ranged from supremely capable, independent and forthright to angst-ridden emotional wrecks. It was the summer of 1990. I was 17.
I was a canoe trip guide for a summer camp north of Toronto. Our canoes were the cheapest of the cheap - Grummans with dirty aluminum gunnals that left metallic grey stains on our forearms and our filthy, suntanned legs which were as strong as they were knackered.
I'd been canoe tripping for weeks at this point, leading teenage girls through the woods of Temagami and down rivers like the Magnetewan and this one, the French. We explored the wilderness of Central Canada, of the Canadian Shield, as we explored ourselves. I was deeply tanned, strong and fit, and full of youthful fervour.
As usual, I preferred to pull up the rear. The tail guide. My co-guide was in the lead boat scouting for portage routes. The girls in front of me were chit-chatting or singing Blue Rodeo or just simply relaxing and enjoying the rhythmic beauty of canoeing.
A few days before, we'd been dropped off at the put in closer to Wolseley Bay. The French is a relatively busy wilderness river. It's dotted with cottages, cabins and other trippers. It's a river oozing with history - it could be argued that the creation of Canada is due to its existence. The French served as the key canoe route between the Ottawa River Valley (and all the money and power in Montreal during the 17th and 18th centuries) and the vast fur-rich territory stretching west to the Pacific. Today, it's a Canadian Heritage River that blends lovely scenery and rewarding paddling with historic relevance.
As we approached the only bridge we'd see during six days of paddling - a major bridge that is actually the Trans-Canada Highway south of Sudbury - a small group of canoes came our way, paddling upstream. We were meeting. The girls began to buzz with excitement.
He was at the back of his group. They looked to be 14-year-old boys. Strong, suntanned, youthful, rugged and handsome, all of them. My girls were stunned to see them - suddenly self-conscious. We'd been blissfully away from boys for a few days and the girls had been just beginning to see themselves differently because of that.
Canoe by canoe, they paddled past us smiling. At the end, in the last canoe, he was scruffy. He had a bandana around he head, a pair of cheap sunglasses on. Dirty and unkempt, like me.
Both of us at the back. Both of us with young teens. Both of us too young, really, for all this responsibility, but owning it and thriving.
"It's the great Canadian summer," he said to me across the water.
No one has ever said a more perfect thing to me. In that moment, in that casual comment from a complete stranger, my life took on a new path. I realized how unique my situation one. How fortunate I was to live in a place with so much wilderness, where young people can go out into the woods to discover themselves away from distraction, where I could earn some money being engrossed in something so simple, rhythmic, stimulating and healthy as canoe tripping. I immediately was full of pride to be from this place, to be alive at that moment. I felt connected to all who had come before me.
That single comment helped send me on a life-long search for the magic in those words - the places and moments that are out the heart of this country, of my life and what it means to be alive. Ever since, nearly 30 years later, I've been exploring what that moment meant to me.
I've spent every summer since them - perhaps every day since then - searching for that same magic.