• LEAD WITH YOUR HEART

    Everyone dreams of quitting a job they hate. But not everyone returns to a job they hate once they quit. Sometimes, it pays to stay away. Unfortunately, I learned that lesson the hard way.

    This is Part 1 of “Lead with Your Heart,” a week-long series about letting go and moving forward. If you like what you read, please consider sharing this post with others. Your actions might save a life, or at least initiate a decision to pursue a new direction. We can all use a little help as we navigate life’s unpredictable path. Honesty and openness go a long way in providing anonymous answers to seekers of truth. And we are all seekers of truth.

    ~~~

    Vancouver, British Columbia, January 2002

    “You’re looking for a job, right?” asked Andreas.

    “Well, I have a job,” I answered, “but I need another one.”

    “Why do you need two jobs?” he asked.

    “I don’t need two jobs,” I said. “I just need to quit the one I have.”

    “Why do you wanna quit your job?”

    “Because I hate it.”

    “I see,” said Andreas. “That’s a good reason.”

    There was a slight pause before Andreas spoke again.

     “A percussionist friend of mine works for a landscape maintenance company. He told me they’re looking to hire another person. I have the owner’s number. You want it?”

    “Sure,” I replied.

    “My friend says they pay a fair wage and the work is seasonal, nine months a year,” said Andreas. “My friend goes on U.I. for the winter months. It works out good for him.”

    I took the number and got the job. The hiring process was simple. No resume. No application form. Just an informal meeting over coffee. By the time our cups were empty, the job was mine.

    Four years later, I quit.

    During those four years, I was absolutely miserable every day. Sure, the pay was good (I funded two bicycling expeditions with the earnings), but the laborious work was bitterly unrewarding. I resented my boss and everyone I worked with. I felt over-used and under-appreciated. There was no opportunity for creativity. Mental challenges were limited to one: whether to quit on any given day or not. Five days a week, I struggled through a quagmire of mindless grunt-work and emotional desperation. “If this is all the future holds for me,” I posited, “then I’d rather be dead.” And dead I became—lost in a dark sea of suicidal ideation and hopelessness. I drifted rudderless in that sea for four years, and every two weeks, I collected a paycheque. And then, I quit.

    Somehow, I made it through without killing myself. Somehow, I summoned the courage to move on. And somehow, things got worse.

    Utterly despondent, but sporting a false grin, I stumbled from job to job—ten in one year. I lived alone. Ate my meals alone. Endured my pain alone. Faced the future alone. And then, I discovered kayaking.

    I looked into possibly taking a wilderness leadership course at a local college. I remembered that my old friend, Andreas, had taken the same course after quitting his bakery job. I wanted to connect with him and pick his brain. Unfortunately, I’d lost contact with him. But, I knew someone who might have his phone number—my old boss. Trouble was, my old boss was pretty much the last person in the world I wanted to talk to. I hadn’t spoken to him since we parted ways, almost two years prior. Surely, the sound of his voice would trigger feelings of past anger and erase any positive progression I’d made since quitting my landscaping job. Strangely (or perhaps not strangely), my conversation with him didn’t produce a desire to slit his throat. Nor did it net any contact info for Andreas.

    “All I know,” said my old boss, “is that he moved to Vancouver Island and became a kayaking instructor. I haven’t seen him in years.”

    And that was when I should’ve politely thanked him for his time and hung up. But I didn’t.

    “So, what’s new with you?” I asked, nervously dragging out the small talk.

    “Oh, you know,” he said, “same old, same old.”

    And that should’ve been the cue to end the conversation. But it wasn’t.

    “How about you?” he asked. “Are you working?”

    “Yes,” I answered, hesitantly, almost knowing what was coming next. “I work in a bottling factory in Burnaby.”

    “Do you like it?” he asked.

    “No,” I said, grimacing, “not really.”

    “I see,” he said, suddenly sounding interested. “One of my guys quit at the end of last season and I haven’t hired anyone yet. Might you be interested in coming back to work here?”

    And that was when I definitely should’ve hung up the phone. But I didn’t.

    “Maybe…” I said, very hesitantly this time.

    “How much were you making per hour when you worked here?” he asked.

    I told him.

    “Well, I could increase that to $__,” he said. “Is that a figure you might be interested in?”

    He was a shrewd fucker, that’s for sure. His offer was 40% more than what I was currently making at the bottling factory.

    “Whaddya say?” he prodded. “Are ya interested?”

    Suddenly, my hesitancy was gone, replaced entirely with images of dollar signs.

    “Sounds good,” I said. “When do I start?”

    “March 1st,” said my old/new boss. I could almost hear him smiling in his greedy, manipulative way—the way he did when he over-charged customers or guiltlessly fucked over his employees. “See you then.”

    And just like that, I was back to raking leaves and cutting grass five days a week; back to what was familiar, back to what was routine, back to the same mistake.  

    My second tour of duty wasn’t as intense as the first. I smartly distanced myself from the petty personal politics that always hinder employee relations. I used the increased income to pay off debts and undertake a four-month kayaking expedition in Australia. I dropped down to part-time hours when stress levels became difficult to manage, and muscled through the wet autumn grind to re-pad my wallet for the off-season downtime.

    But even with the job’s generous scheduling flexibility, I could not keep depression at bay. Suicidal thoughts crept in again, slowly edging out smiles and social interaction. Paranoia and silent resentment ruled the roost. Isolation became the favoured escapism. Stagnation became the norm. Instinctively, I knew something had to give.

    At the end of four years, I quit—for the second time. This time, however, I had a plan—one that would take me light years away from landscaping. Routine had kept me rooted, but the thirst for adventure would set me free.

    I put my belongings in a storage locker and set off on a quest to paddle the longest river system on each continent from source to sea. It would be an ongoing project, likely taking 15-20 years to complete. I called it the Magnificent Seven Expedition—its name a nod to the number of rivers and continents I’d visit in order to complete the challenge. The name was also an homage to The Clash, an English rock band. The lyrics to their song, “The Magnificent Seven,” contained both a poetically rousing call to arms, and, in my case, an apt encouragement: “Wave bye-bye to the boss, it’s our profit, it’s his loss.”

    And profit I did.

    I went on to become the first North American (and second person ever) to kayak the Missouri-Mississippi river system from source to sea, a total distance of 3800 miles. Along the way, I made dozens of new friends, many of whom helped make the adventure a grand success.

    Following the river trip, I based myself in my hometown of Chatham, Ontario and laid the groundwork for a book manuscript chronicling the kayaking expedition. At the same time, I put the finishing touches on my first book, “Part-Time Superheroes, Full-Time Friends.” The creativity was flowing fast and unhindered. My landscape maintenance job, and all the negativity it entailed, seemed distant and irrelevant now. I had created a new, exciting career—one filled with passion and purpose. I was moving forward, and I was leading with my heart.

    And then, something shifted in my mind. Past resentments resurfaced. A stubborn inability to forgive dominated my inner thoughts and outward actions. Focus waned. Self-confidence plummeted. My old acquaintances, Paranoia and Isolation, returned. They set up shop and refused to leave, no matter my efforts to evict them. The same old despondency took hold. The suicidal thoughts came back with a vengeance. The cruel, calloused hand of Fear gripped me hard and shook me senseless. My only recourse was to escape.

    I sent an email to my old boss in Vancouver and requested his help.

    “I’m moving back to Vancouver at summer’s end, and I need to make sure I have work lined up before heading west. Do you need an extra hand this autumn?”

    His reply was swift.

    “Yes. I’ll have work for you,” he wrote. “Call me when you get here.”

    And just like that, I was back to raking leaves and cutting grass five days a week; back to what was familiar, back to what was routine, back to the same mistake.

    By the afternoon of the first day, with a gas-powered hedge trimmer belching fumes in my face, the suicidal ideation returned. It flooded over me, smothering me. I had 11 weeks to go before the end of the season. “This is gonna suck,” I said to myself. “Every, awful step of it is gonna suck.” And it did.

    For 40 hours a week, I laboured through the drawn-out autumn routine of cutting grass and raking leaves while the cold rain poured down. And for 60 hours of those same weeks, I systematically worked my way through a storage locker crammed with useless articles from an irrelevant past and set upon the task of purging them from my life.

    I created five piles of stuff: one to sell, one to donate to charity, one to leave on the sidewalks of Commercial Drive (my old neighbourhood in East Vancouver), one to be boxed and shipped to Ontario, and one destined for an alley of my choosing. Nothing went in the trash. It was all somehow recycled.

    I earned $575 by selling the worthy bits on Craigslist, but everything else was given away. When I was finished, I’d eliminated 85% of my worldly possessions and had greatly lessened the weight on my shoulders. And then came the final and most meaningful purge: my landscape maintenance job.

    True to my word, I stuck out the full 11 weeks. Almost surprisingly, the experience was worse than I’d imagined it would be. The familiar low-level horror of suicidal ideation was ever-present. And with its re-emergence, I realized for the first time that, prior to this job, I’d never entertained the thought of killing myself. How is it I was spared those desperate thoughts for the first 35 years of my life? Had self-pity somehow replaced my life’s purpose when I made the decision to pick up a rake and clean up someone’s yard? Had I drifted so far from my life’s passion that death seemed a more fitting, self-imposed sentencing than following my heart’s intent? How, then, could I regain traction and move onward unhindered, free from the weighty blanket of worry, second guesses, and mindless, unrewarding toil? The answer was profoundly simple: just fuckin’ do it. Now. Right now.

    I felt the ugly gears of negativity grind to a halt.

    “MOVE!” I shouted to myself, forcefully jarring myself from a self-imposed stupor. “Choose action! Enact change! Sure, risk and fear are ever-present. But so are optimism and opportunity! The choice to move forward needs to be made NOW! The road to simplicity begins right now! Heed the unheeded! Purge the unneeded! Build the biggest bonfire and don’t wait around to watch it burn! Move! Forward! Now!”

    I cordially shook hands with my boss on the final day of work. We wished each other success, and then parted ways. I packed my tools, work clothes, rain gear, boots, and a heap of superfluous bitterness into a large duffle bag. I drove to a grungy alley in an industrial section of East Vancouver and placed the bag beside a dumpster. I removed the lens cap on my camera, pressed the round, silver button with a determined index finger, and heard the familiar sound of a shutter closing. And then, I walked away.

    It was a scene I had fantasized about many times while toiling away in someone’s yard in some lonely corner of a gated community in some non-descript suburb of Vancouver. I held fast to that fantasy, knowing one day I’d act it out, knowing one day I’d possess the courage to follow through, to move on, to lead with my heart.

    “I care not who finds the bag,” I said aloud as I turned the ignition of my Ford Focus and set the car in motion. “I care not what becomes of its contents. I care only that the contents and their negative meanings possess me no longer. I am no longer chained to that identity. I am free to become me—the me who walks boldly into the future brimming with brilliant ideas and creative intent. I choose change. I choose growth. I choose life. I choose me.”

  • SPRING COLOURS

    Spring colours

    Chatham, Ontario

    Photo taken April 26

  • POLAR BLAST

    Meanwhile, in southwestern Ontario...

    Zero gravity wind gusts!

  • EVERYTHING FROZEN

    People have asked what cold weather clothing I used during the Missouri-Mississippi descent. The clothing list (below) is split into two groups: paddling clothes and tent attire (clothes I wore in the tent).

    During the winter months, I typically spent 16 hours a day in the tent. I would paddle from 8am to 4pm. There were several days when I wore every piece of tent clothing listed below, at the same time – even when sleeping inside a down sleeping bag! The clothing I paddled in was often damp from perspiration. It would be relegated to a corner of the tent where it would freeze solid at night. There’s nothing quite like putting on a frozen base layer and sweater in the morning, subsequently thawed by body heat alone. Of course, pulling a frozen neoprene neck gasket (on the dry suit) over dreadlocks is a horror I won’t soon repeat. To help assuage the threat of mental collapse, I regularly sang a self-penned Scottish death metal song called “Everything Frozen,” complete with guttural chanting of the chorus:

    “I cross the Moor of Death and enter Lac Hell with paddles thrashing, My skin is now crystalized, my brain a mass of ice, Everything frozen! Everything frozen! Everything frozen! (repeat)”

    (You’ll be able to read more about my paddling-induced mental instability in my next book, River Angels.)

    Here, then, is the clothing list…

    Paddling clothing:

    MEC Capilano Paddling Hood Base layer hood (optional, depending on temperature)

    Kokatat Gore-Tex Paddling Suit, with attached socks

    Kokatat Powder Dry Liner (one-piece fleece dry suit liner)

    Synthetic t-shirt

    MEC insulated base layer top

    Bare paddling sweater (mid-weight)

    MEC Hot Mitts (5mm neoprene)

    4mm neoprene gloves

    Under Armour insulated tights

    Wigwam liner socks

    Wigwam hiking socks

    Wigwam 40 Below wool socks

    MEC Low Tide boots (below-knee 5mm neoprene)

    Tent attire:

    Fleece hood hat

    Base layer hood

    Two nylon toques

    MEC down jacket (800 fill)

    MEC synthetic fill jacket

    MEC fleece sweater

    MEC base layer shirt

    Cotton t-shirt

    MEC down pants

    MEC fleece pants

    Louis Garneau polypro tights

    Under Armour base layer tights

    Wigwam base layer socks

    Wigwam hiking socks

    Wigwam 40 Below wool socks

    Wind River fleece gloves

    Down mitts

    Old man shoes (cheap and white)

  • FROMME HERE TO THERE

    Meet Sean Fromme, a young Torontonian currently riding his bicycle (a Surly “Long Haul Trucker”) from Fairbanks, Alaska to St. John’s, Newfoundland – a distance of about 6000 miles/9700km!

    I met Sean on Hwy 17 just east of Kenora, Ontario. Despite being on the road for 33 days (and having endured numerous storms and brutal heat), he was still smiling. :) Our wonderful roadside chat was a positive confirmation that the path we are on in this precious moment of our lives is exactly where we want to be. Thousands of progressive (and sometimes challenging) decisions have led us to this moment, and from those decisions we reap the harvest of passions pursued.

    “Buying this bicycle and making this trip are the two best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” said Sean, grinning wide. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

    Congrats on your huge accomplishment so far, Sean! Onward to the ocean, my bicycling brother!

  • THE MISSING LINK

    Other than driving a car from Ontario to Vancouver, BC (which can sometimes be an adventure in itself), one of the key aspects of this road trip is to partake in a few side adventures along the way. Paddling along the rugged shoreline of the Bruce Peninsula was one such adventure that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Another is to connect three long distance, self-propelled expeditions that I’ve completed in North America over the past decade and a half.

    In 1997, I bicycled 5300 miles/8600km across Canada from Vancouver, BC to St. John’s, Newfoundland. In 2005, I bicycled 3000 miles/4800km from Vancouver to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska at Prudhoe Bay. (The community at Prudhoe Bay is also known as Deadhorse.) And in 2012-2013, as some of you may know, I paddled 3800 miles/6100km down the Missouri-Mississippi river system from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico.

    These three expeditions are highlighted on the accompanying map – bicycle journeys in yellow, the river journey in blue. Connecting the three is a short little green journey that I plan to begin this weekend. The plan is to pedal from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Great Falls, Montana. The Trans-Canada Highway (which formed most of my cycling route in 1997) passes through Medicine Hat, and Medicine Hat, as it turns out, is one of the closest Canadian cities to the Missouri River. So, Medicine Hat seemed like the best place to connect the longest highway in North America with the longest river system in North America.

    Compared to those other journeys, this upcoming jaunt will be a much shorter challenge, about 250 miles/400km in total. It will take me about 4-5 days to ride at a leisurely pace, averaging 50-60 miles/80-100km per day.

    It’s been about five years since I did a multi-day bike trip, so it should be interesting to see how my body adapts. I’m actually a bit nervous going into this, but I’m also completely confident that the old legs will power through another journey, just as they have in the past.

    Fears are weird things. They stop (or hinder) us from accomplishing amazing things. And when we do accomplish something huge, we realize that achieving it was really not that hard at all. Most of those huge self-propelled accomplishments were based on simple actions that were repeated thousands of times. When you break it down, that means one pedal stroke, one paddle stroke, or one footstep. Simple actions repeated many times. When you factor in discipline, determination, and a solid mental focus, the stifling fears that once held us back from accomplishing a myriad of tasks simply fade away, replaced by renewed optimism and a buoyed sense of self-worth. We are capable of achieving so much more than we believe. We are well aware that fear has its place in our everyday lives. It serves a distinct purpose and sometimes keeps us alive. But fear need not rule our daily actions. Fear is nothing more than simple illusion. It gets greatly exaggerated in our busy heads and becomes something far beyond its initial conception.

    Go ahead, take a risk. Learn from it. Grow from it. Evolve. That’s why we’re here: not to become perfect, but to become better, one step at a time.

    On Friday morning, I take one step forward to connecting three long journeys across one large continent bordered by three large oceans. Doing so will help put my past accomplishments into perspective. And that new perspective will help influence many future accomplishments.

    Go do something today that stretches your perceived limits. Risk little, live little. Life is too short to live trapped in illusionary fear.

  • FLOATAGE

    Aboard the Chi-Cheemaun ferry between Tobermory, Ontario and Manitoulin Island.

  • GIVING ADULTHOOD A REST

    County Road 1 from Owen Sound to Wiarton, Ontario is a highly recommended scenic drive on the lower Bruce Peninsula. The winding road hugs the rugged Georgian Bay shoreline and passes through numerous small rural villages, one of which is Big Bay, the apparent Stone Skipping Capital of Canada.

    The beach at Big Bay is thick with thousands of smooth, flat, palm-sized rocks, perfect for upping your personal best stone skip. I reached nine during one inspired toss, and felt about the same age doing so. There’s nothing like a good stone skip to shave off a sizable chunk of adult hardness and bring back the playful innocence of childhood. It was smile-inducing, for sure. :)