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Field of Play: Scott Russell's view from a canoe

Every once in awhile in this business you get a chance to look at things from a different perspective. The result is an epiphany and that’s what happened to me the other day when I signed up for Canoe Heads for Kids.

Raising canoes, money for invaluable camp experiences

Toronto mayor John Tory shows how it's done with a canoe for Scott Russell and 125 participants in Canoe Heads for Kids, raising money to send boys and girls to summer camp. (Teddy Chau Photography )

Every once in awhile in this business you get a chance to look at things from a different perspective. 

The result is an epiphany, an awakening if you will, and more than that a resounding appreciation of the simple things you've allowed yourself to take for granted.

That's what happened to me the other day when I signed up for Canoe Heads for Kids in order to portage and paddle along the waterfront of downtown Toronto with a few of my middle-aged friends.

We were there to support a modest charitable organization known as Amici.  It draws its name from the Italian word for "friends" and its mission for the past 49 years has been to send financially challenged boys and girls to summer camp. It's an expensive proposition in this day and age … more than a thousand dollars per child for two weeks of bunk houses, fiercely biting bugs and back-to-basics living.

At most camps there are no mobile phones, no Ipads and the only accessible screens are the barriers you pray will keep the ravenous black flies and mosquitoes from feasting on every ounce of exposed flesh.

There are few if any showers, rudimentary outhouse facilities called KYBOs, and often a homesickness which can be so desperate that it causes you to silently cry yourself to sleep while loons hauntingly call your name from the vast and simmering lake.    

Then again, I definitely recall camp as the place where I met my lifelong friends, became fascinated with the spectacle of the mini-Olympics and also felt the wonder of sleeping out under the stars when on an out-trip in the wilderness of Northern Ontario. 

Beyond that, I learned to get along with my cabin mates and to take care of my buddies. I looked up to and trusted my counselor, a guy not much older than me, and became ambitious that I, too, could someday be a leader just like him.

I conquered my fears at camp and in retrospect was lucky to have had the opportunity. 

Most kids never get the chance.

As we began our trek, Mike, Billy, Bryan, Brent, Derek and I looked every bit the motley crew. Our team included three boats with two guys per canoe to be manned by a broadcaster, an ENG cameraman, bankers, investment brokers and even a scientist who runs a stroke rehabilitation clinic.

Mayor showed how it was done

The mayor of Toronto, John Tory, himself a former camper, kicked off the race and even flipped a canoe onto his back to remind us how it was done. Then we lurched off to carry, one man at a time, a 16-foot watercraft through the streets of the metropolis for a distance of 7.5 kilometres.

It was quite a procession. 

Fifty-eight boats went waddling by with the CN Tower as the backdrop. Across busy intersections and dodging the streetcars, we guided the beasts while the wind howled and the thwarts dug into our tender shoulders. Pedestrians gawked at us as we ambled like a squadron of toucans over the urban landscape.

A 7.5 kilometre portage and a procession of canoes through downtown Toronto was merely the prelude to a race between the raindrops to raise money for Canoe Heads for Kids. (Teddy Chau Photography)

Our competitive nature got the better of us and even though it hurt, some of us began to run. Storm clouds gathered and the thunder rumbled forcing us to quicken the pace and make for shelter before the deluge started.

Exhausted but elated at the end of the portaging ordeal we ate bags of chips and gobbled down ice cream while waiting out the storm. A police boat chugged back and forth on the other side of the break wall to make sure we stayed off the water while the lightning threatened.

And then there was a break in the weather. The rain subsided and the lake calmed.  We had a window and the flotilla shoved off the beach as we made for the finish line with break neck speed.

Fifty-eight boats took to the Toronto Harbour in support of Canoe Heads for Kids, raising money to send boys and girls to summer camps, thanks to the charitable organization Amici. (Teddy Chau Photography)

I was in the stern of the boat and steered our course while my pal Derek set the stroke and hauled ass in the bow. We were almost home when he revealed he'd never attended a camp, had rarely been in a canoe and certainly had never carried one on his back. 

You could have fooled me. He had all the gusto of a seasoned voyageur and then some.

As we knifed through the quiet, inner, harbour with the skyscrapers gliding by, the aquatic birds which I took to be ducks, or maybe cormorants, acted like our guides. They took off and landed in an almost protective way just off our gunwales.

"It's so beautiful," marvelled Derek, "I've never seen the city from this vantage point.  It's so quiet and peaceful out here."

I smiled to myself and we gave it the extra effort to get the job done.  We were pulling in tandem now as the other two boats on our team drew confidently into our wake.

Once across the line we raised our paddles and spontaneously burst into an old camp chant from those ancient days when we gathered around the bonfire.

"Rip … Ram … Razzle … Scram …Yell … Hoot and Roar!"

On that soggy, spring, day our team raised enough money to send ten children to camp in the summers to come.  In all the 125 participants on 19 teams managed to make it possible for 150 kids who would not otherwise get the chance to enjoy the simple joys of life on a lake.

As for us, we were a group of middle-aged men acting like boys.

Taking in the view from a canoe and wishing every child could be so lucky.

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