By Conor Mihell
In many ways, Kevin Callan is hardly a model canoe camper. His long list of wilderness misadventures include poisoning his tripmates with a tin of toxic smoked oysters, breaking a paddle on a rock in a panicked attempt to scare off a bear, being charged by a moose he was attempting to photograph in a roadside ditch, and busting his ankle while skinny-dipping. "My life can seem like a blooper reel at times," Callan admits in a story entitled "I'm an Idiot,” the second chapter in his new book, Dazed But Not Confused (Dundurn Press, $24.99)
And yet, warts and all, Callan is one of the most popular canoeists on the planet. It could be for the 13 canoeing guidebooks he's penned, describing destinations all across his home province of Ontario, or maybe for his funny, high-energy performances at trade shows like Madison, Wisc.'s Canoecopia, or perhaps for his caffeine-fueled, scatterbrained interviews on Canada's national radio and television broadcasters. For his quirky personality, Callan's been called canoeing's Barney Fife or Ed Wynn. But according to James Raffan, the executive director of the Canadian Canoe Museum, the popularity all comes down to Callan's everyman appeal.
"There's a little bit of Kevin Callan in all of us," writes Raffan in the foreword to Callan's first collection of stories. "More and more, I've been drawn to his writing for the stories, knowing that his goofy joie de vivre and his effervescent enthusiasm for swamp muck and the road less traveled always bring with them a smile and a reminder that the natural world is something we should cherish from the campsite rather than the couch."
Raffan describes Callan's work as that of a master "campfire raconteur"—an apt description for the 41 stories in Dazed But Not Confused. Most of the stories are funny in a self-deprecating sort of way, others are edgy, and a few are reflective. In one piece, Callan responds to the criticism that as a guidebook author he's simply a "wilderness pornographer," responsible for once secret routes being overrun by hordes of canoeists. In another story, he reflects on his work as an outdoor educator, arguing that the old-school approach of lecturing ignores the needs and interests of Generation Y. A few pieces bridge the gap between route description and narrative, sharing his adventures in areas like Quetico, Killarney, Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi provincial parks.
Dazed But Not Confused will never pass as great literature in the vein of classics such as Sigurd Olson's The Singing Wilderness, John McPhee's The Survival of the Bark Canoe or Raffan's Fire in the Bones. Callan's prose oftentimes reflects a harried train of thought, and is prone to repetition and awkward sentence structure. Yet, true to Callan's character, the unpolished, word-of-mouth tone is powerfully relatable. It puts the reader in the action and makes the book inspirational.
"There are messages here," writes Raffan, "about the values of wilderness and the importance of advocacy, but they are nicely swirled into the narrative of his misadventures that a reader hardly knows that mixed with good dollops of entertainment is a serious call to action. Do try this at home. Pack your pack. Load your canoe. And get out there."