Colin of the wild: Wit, wisdom, lessons learned paddling my own canoe | Ken Hill

By Ken Hill

Law360 Canada (February 6, 2023, 10:55 AM EST) --
Ken Hill
It all started in 1980 when Colin, my mature articling student (mature, that is in the chronological sense but to this day — steadfastly — steadfastly immature in his sense of humour) suggested we go on a canoe trip one weekend in October. This was in 1981, and little did we know that there would be an unbroken series of such trips, at least one a year, right up to the present day.

This is all the more remarkable given the circumstances of that first trip. The two of us and my brother got off to a late start for the drive north on the Friday afternoon so, by the time we met Colin’s brother at the put-in point, a dense flurry of fluffy snowflakes was falling in the inky darkness.

“We’re keen” said Colin to his skeptical brother, and we set out across the lake, using flashlights to find a place to camp. I’d say the first night was a success because we found a level spot, got a fire going and polished off some pork chops and quite a few bottles of Molson Extra Old Stock. The rising sun disclosed the proximity of a cottage across a narrow stretch of water, so we hurriedly cleaned up and moved on across a portage. We enjoyed the rest of the weekend and optimism became the watchword of what came to be a group of adventurers, some of whom have been with us for over 40 years.

Colin was a good recruiter at the courthouse, so over the years we have had numerous lawyers along on our trips and the group has always had a majority of barristers and solicitors — although having an arborist along for many years has been a godsend when it comes to finding firewood and stringing tarps. Dozens of recruits have given our three-day spring and fall trips a try and for many of them, once was more than enough, but it seems that, as they say about Alexander Keith’s famous brew, those that like it, like it a lot! 

As I look back, I note that most of the lawyers who have shared our adventures have been litigation types. Which is interesting, considering that canoe tripping is not a competitive enterprise, often involving challenging routes with rugged portages and occasionally dangerous rapids. You’re all in it together, so a co-operative, rather than an adversarial attitude is essential. As I have advised my kids over the years, when one is choosing a life partner, it is wise to ask oneself whether that person is someone you would want to be stuck with on a canoe trip in bad weather. Those who keep coming on our trips definitely fit that profile. 

The ability to laugh when things go wrong is a prerequisite, in part because we set out in early spring and mid-fall in order to avoid the dreaded biting bugs that can make life miserable in the part of the year with the kinder temperatures. Consequently, we have experienced such delightful fiascos as the collapse of a large tarp onto the breakfast campfire, due to the weight of a heavy snowfall. 

What makes it all worthwhile, apart from the enjoyment of the glorious natural environment, is the laughter. My wife points out that despite our gray or balding heads, we recapture on these trips the feeling we had of playing outside with our friends when we were kids.

What I have come to enjoy the most is the wit of my fellow paddlers.

One example that has stuck with me for years occurred on the Madawaska River. That was a tricky route because the water level fluctuates substantially depending on how much water is being released by an upstream dam. If the water level is higher than usual, you might glide right over a rapid without noticing it.  So, it can be hard to know exactly where you are on the river.

On that trip, Jeff, who had the map and route guide, called out the instructions to proceed into the supposedly runnable rapids we were approaching. We must have gone over some upstream rapids without noticing, and didn’t know we were out of sync with the map/guide. Fortunately, we were able to get over to the shore, to discover that the thunderous roar we heard around the bend came from a cataract that would have had catastrophic consequences if we had been swept into it.

Our exasperated docent shook the map and said: “This river guide is nooo good! I could have sent 10 men to their deaths … and that would have stayed with me for weeks!” 

We have had so many laughs, even in the emails we send in preparation for the trips, and the stories and “ribbing” around the campfires have come to be among the main attractions.

Quick thinking and the clever use of words is an important asset for litigation lawyers. In my experience that makes them excellent companions on outdoor adventures. I count these excursions among the highlights of my life and getting to know these lawyers has been one of the real perks of a career in the law. In fact, I can say without a trace of irony: Some of my best friends are lawyers!   

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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