first appeared in December ’06 Canoe & Kayak
C&K: It’s been about three weeks since you stopped paddling. Are you still sore?
JM: No, not at all. My hands are a bit messed up, but no shoulder or back problems at all, a bit surprising really. I’m just starting to run again. Shuffling is more like it. It’s amazing how fitness is specific to the parts of the body you’re using, or not using.
C&K: Most people pick up a remote control or a 7-iron when they retire. Why did you pick up a paddle and attempt a trans-Canada canoe trip?
JM: Well, because it’s been there in my mind for a long, long time. I’ve been thinking about following the path of the early explorers since Canadian History class in fifth grade. I’ve been working the last 32 years, so this was my first opportunity to do that. And I can play a lot of golf when I’m old.
C&K: Why is it important to call attention to northern forests?
JM: I don’t think most people know how fast the boreal forest is being cut and developed. They think it’s a remote, untouched, and unlimited wilderness. They’re wrong. This forest plays a critical role in maintaining the quality of the air and water and in moderating the effects of global warming. Canada has a large part of the world’s remaining boreal forest, and therefore, we have a global responsibility to make certain that the forest continues to support the health of the planet. There is nothing in place now to ensure this happens, so we have a lot of work to do. I’m really happy with the media response to the trip. I’ve done over 50 interviews since March.
C&K: What made you decide to call it quits?
JM: I’m calling it a pause. I’m at the halfway point in terms of effort and time, and I realized that I could be doing it in a more enjoyable way next year. Enjoying the trip and promoting the conservation message was more important to me than setting a record for crossing the country in one season. When I meet people along the way, I want to be able to tell them more than “I paddled all day and I’m really tired.”
C&K: You quoted Napoleon—“An army travels on its stomach”—in your online posting (www.cpaws.org/canoe/journal). Was it hard to keep eating dried food?
JM: Yeah, I did find that the healthy food I had just wasn’t tasty enough to keep eating enough to fuel an effort like this. That was a mistake I should not have made, given my endurance-sport background. When I wanted a burger and fries and chocolate milk, I wanted it now. And I got real annoyed when I couldn’t have it. I was on edge.
C&K: Yeah, when you’re exhausted, health food just ain’t going to cut it.
JM: Right. You need the fat. Food that’s calorically dense.
C&K: I know some expedition whitewater kayakers who take peanut butter-honey-Nutella sandwiches with them.
JM: Oh, yeah! I usually had some Nutella and PB and it was just fine, thank you very much. I took it one step further. Add cream cheese, wrap it all in a soft tortilla. Now you’re talking serious calories that go down smooth.
C&K: So did you meet any strange people along the way?
JM: Oh boy, you’re going to get me into trouble. I made a point of not saying anything negative about anyone in my journal. OK, maybe I met one or two “manly men” that gave off a little attitude; you know, the guys that like the outdoor image but wouldn’t dream of doing anything that actually required some effort, motorized outdoor-recreation types. I think they may have been envious of my fitness and maybe that I was tougher than they were, being cool out there alone without 100 horsepower to zip me home to mummy. But just about everyone I met, even the motorboaters, was very friendly and interested in the trip. And they were so much more helpful and supportive than I expected, often sharing food and a place to stay. I think it was a way for them to be part of something they would like to do if they had the time, the strength, and the skills. Or maybe they just felt sorry for me! I thought the trip was going to be about the paddling, the water, rocks, trees, and the animals, but it really turned out to be more about the people. It’s interesting. You reach a certain age, and you think you know yourself.
C&K: Tell me about the boat you used. You made it yourself, right?
JM: Yes, it’s named Daki Menan, which is Ojibway for “Our Land,” land shared by all creatures. It has wood-burned designs of animals on it. It is 16 feet 6 inches long and 28 inches wide. It’s made of three-mil mahogany marine plywood cut into strips with fiberglass and epoxy. I put graphite powder in the epoxy on the bottom, which came in handy because my portage yoke wasn’t working too well on the first 1.5 miles of the Grand Portage, which is 8.7 miles. So I dragged it the rest of the way, and it held up fine. I whacked a lot of rocks, too. River rocks, lake rocks, ocean rocks. No problem a little duct tape couldn’t handle until I got some epoxy on it.
C&K: So you’ve got some boat-making skills.
JM: I guess so. This is my fourth wood boat, all of them very light, and it was certainly tough enough, even at just 36 pounds. And I think it paddled well for a trip with every imaginable type of paddling situation. It is based on Verlen Kruger’s concept of a hybrid canoe-kayak with my own waterline shape. I have always been a single-blader, but I did use a double-bladed Werner carbon-fiber paddle exclusively on this part of the trip. I’m not too old or proud to try new techniques. I use what works, and I tell you what, that paddle works with that boat. Over a million paddle strokes and no shoulder problems.
C&K: What are your plans for next year’s boat?
JM: Well, it’s top secret, so I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you after!
C&K: No, don’t do that!
JM: Well, it’ll be a wood-fiberglass composite boat over 18 feet, and I expect it to weigh under 40 pounds. I’m experimenting with new ways to put wood and fiberglass together, but the truth is that I haven’t quite figured out the construction process. I’m making a “Wee Lassie” type boat for my sister to test first. She’s a good swimmer. (Laughs)
C&K: Are you pretty fired up about resuming next year?
JM: I am. I am more eager to go than I thought I would be so soon after stopping for the season. In fact, the other day, I got back from running and I said to my wife, Kelly, “If someone flew me out to Lake Winnipeg, I’d paddle that sucker right now!”
C&K: You are ready, then.
JM: Absolutely. On the drive back from Winnipeg, I noticed that I had lost none of my curiosity to follow mysterious-looking rivers into the bush. And I haven’t finished what I started out to do. When it comes to protecting the environment, you have to do something. It’s not good enough to just have ideas.
C&K: You had a lot of time to think out there. What was your most profound thought?
JM: Well . . . When anyone asks me a question of that nature, I want to give a thoughtful answer because I feel that I did acquire some wisdom out there, sometimes at the cost of a little pain. I’ll give you this right now. My most profound thought wasn’t really that profound; it was the truth of the clich that life is about the journey, not the destination. I learned that I needed to be more open to allowing possibilities. To try to let the unexpected happen to me instead of controlling the situation. I’m talking about experiences with people, not paddling Class IV rapids! I know that I seem to be pretty extroverted, but I haven’t always been a person who embraced meeting new people. I realized that there are so many interesting people out there, and it is easy to make a connection with them if you take the time and make the first move. And here is a bonus thought: people are a lot more alike than politicians would lead you to believe. There’s far too much of dividing people for political gain. I think that’s true everywhere.