If you canoe, or camp, or portage – or anything in the outdoors – chances are there was someone who introduced you, probably giving you the opportunity, passing on and sharing their love of the outdoors along with the knowledge and means to get out there yourself. Maybe it’s a couple of people. This is a story of one person who was instrumental in introducing me to canoeing and portaging.
A sad thing happened to me today. The rope that ties down my canoe on the car broke. No, we weren’t moving while it happened, and nothing happened to the boat. I was tying down the canoe, the same way I have always done – how I was taught to do – and the old rope I’ve been using for years just snapped. It wasn’t the first time, I replaced the ropes that tie the top of the canoe last year. The rope that ties down the back has been retied twice to keep it alive for just a few more carries. But the rope that broke today was the last rope that was tied to the canoe when I was first lent the boat, the first time I used it to go on a portage trip, and sadly when I inherited the boat.
“My” canoe is a Swift Keewaydin, built in 1992. Steve put good money into his canoe, especially considering it was made of Kevlar, relatively new at the time. It wasn’t to impress anybody, or because someone sold him the latest fancy model, but to share his love of canoeing and camping with his family. He chose the lightest and sturdiest boat around at the time, and at 17 feet long with a wide bottom, he wanted to make sure he could pack everything to make his family as comfortable as possible. His family has great memories of trips to Algonquin, but as it happens – as life happens – kids grow up and eventually move away. Family trips got fewer and further between, and back-country campsites became less preferred to cottages then hotel rooms, and like the good man he was he wanted to make sure his family was comfortable and had a good time, and so wouldn’t have thought twice about not complying. The family would say that they were certain they’d be camping if he had his way. The boat was rarely used by the time I met Steve.
A great man
Dr. Stephen Buttrum started out as a young man living in the poor side of Hamilton, Ontario. A quiet but determined man, he worked his way through high school and university, and spent every opportunity to go outdoors as he could. He once spent a summer stationed alone in a fire tower in northern Ontario, and his family laugh at how much he must of loved that job, perfect for a quiet guy who loved the outdoors. He married, had two children and slowly gained a fantastic reputation as a Psychologist that became legendary, specializing in treating children. Everyone who knew him would talk glowingly about the good he did. And when life started to reward him for his deeds, it didn’t change him a bit. He and his wife were both very successful, and could afford some luxury items and an attitude of superiority, but Steve rarely indulged in the former, and never in the later.
I knew all about his reputation when I met him, and I was surprised to quickly find out that he indeed lived up to it. I had assumed it was a little bit of exaggeration by an adoring daughter. He welcomed me into his home, asked me all about myself, and most of all he made me feel very comfortable. This was in spite of the fact that I was dating his daughter. I think back to all the great talks we had about the outdoors, how he wanted to know everything I was doing, and everything I wanted to do. The problem is, when I really think back to it, I did most of the talking. I should have asked him more about himself. I tried a few times, but Steve was always more interested in hearing you than talking about himself. When he heard about all the backpacking and camping I was doing, he offered to lend me his canoe. I declined of course. There was no way. What if I scratched it? What if I sunk it? His daughter told me that I was being silly, especially knowing Steve wouldn’t have cared. It was just “stuff”. Knowing what I know now, if anything like that had happened, he probably would have been more interested in the fun story of how I ruined the canoe than he would have cared about the boat.
Borrowing a boat and learning a lesson
I did finally borrow his canoe when my friends and I got this crazy idea to go on a portage trip. That trip is another story, but it was that trip, and so Steve’s boat, that got me hooked on portaging. I went over to pick up the canoe, still nervous about something happening to the canoe, without a clue about how to get this thing on the car. He had these ropes cut the perfect length, with the loops already tied at the perfect spots to tie this particular boat to the car. After a few attempts of doing it myself, Steve helped me figure it out. He didn’t stand over me, he didn’t impose himself – that’s not Steve. He let me try and figure it out, suddenly wishing I had gone to Scouts to learn knots. When I was open to suggestion – and only then – he asked me if I’d like to see how he does it. I agreed enthusiastically. Humbly, not a bit patronizing or imposing, he showed me how to tie the canoe down, slowly enough that I could pick it up, not acting like he was teaching at all, then had me try it for myself. That was Steve’s teaching technique. He knew no one learns anything until they are ready, and open to instruction, and made sure you were more than welcome to it.
I’ve since channeled Steve anytime I am the would-be teacher. I don’t see someone struggling to paddle and bark instructions at them. I ask how things are going, and offer suggestions when solicited. Asking questions, sympathizing with their situation, and offering an open door to ask for help, that’s what I learned from Steve when he showed me how to tie those ropes. I’m reminded of this every time I tie down the canoe using these ropes – the last of which broke today.
Sadly, unfairly, Steve was diagnosed with a brain tumour a few years ago. Not only did it debilitate him physically, but the radiation treatment kicked him while he was down, not allowing him out in the sun, keeping him from the outdoors. He fought bravely, worried more about how the situation was affecting his family, not wanting to impose. He kept working as much as he could, worried about the kids he was treating. I guess he was teaching us up until the end.
When I was offered the canoe, telling me that he would have wanted me to have it, I took it without hesitation. It and I have had some adventures with it since. When the gunnels broke on a trip, I didn’t even consider replacing the canoe, even when some suggested it was too old to be worth repairing. I drove the canoe up to the Swift store to have the gunnels replaced, and when I drove it back home, it was tied down with those old ropes – most of them anyway. That’s why today, when that last rope broke I felt a little sad. The last connection to the most significant memory of my friend is gone.
What he left me
I’ve replaced the life-jacket he gave me and I’m going to retire the paddles he left me, both of which are just about at their end of life. I had no problem doing that, as I know he’d have been glad that they were put to such good use to wear down. Of course I still have his canoe. So why do I feel this way about a couple of pieces of rope? It’s silly, really. I wonder if he would have thought so as well. Probably not, knowing that they’ve allowed me the comfort of that connection over the years. He’d have wanted me to have that too.
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