Canada 2017·What's Your Story

How I went on a canoe trip with my uncle — 25 years after his death

Erin Ready of Vancouver, B.C. lost her uncle James when she was only a toddler. But this summer, thanks to an old red canoe, she finally got to feel as though she met him.

'This was where his friends scattered his ashes.'

Paddling James’ canoe amidst a late night summer sunset on Boya Lake. (Erin Ready)

As part of CBC's What's Your Story campaign, we're asking Canadians to tell us about the one object they would submit to a collection of national treasures, objects that contain the strongest feelings, personal histories and vivid memories of our diverse population.

For Erin Ready of Vancouver, it's a special canoe that took her on a trip back in time.  

1992: Erin as a toddler, smiling for what would be the last photo she would ever take with her uncle James. (Ready family album)

I would have loved to know my uncle James. 

Like me, he was a runner, he loved the outdoors and he spent summers canoeing on Kashwakamak Lake near Kingston, Ont., where his father had built a little cottage. 

He was calm, kind and had a quiet sense of humour.

Sadly, I never had the chance to get to know him. In 1992, when I was just a toddler, James died in a terrible workplace accident at a northern B.C. mine. He was 32.

This summer, however, I got to share a special experience with my late uncle. 

A ghost town

When I moved to B.C. three years ago, I recalled my family's stories about James, who had made a similar move from Ontario to B.C. around 1980. I went from Toronto to Vancouver. He had gone from Kingston to Cassiar, a mining town in northern B.C.

Like me, he was a runner, he loved the outdoors and he spent summers canoeing.

In B.C., I learned that Cassiar is now a ghost town. After doing a bit of research and finding a Cassiar reunion Facebook group, I asked if anyone remembered James. One response, from an old friend of his, jumped out. 

"I still have his red canoe … do you want it?"

An image entered my mind. I know it well — it's a photo of James displayed at my grandparents' cottage on Kashwakamak Lake. He is sitting on the edge of his red canoe on the shore of aqua-green Boya Lake in northern B.C.

James sits in his red canoe, gazing at Boya Lake, B.C. (Ready family album)

He's looking away, taking in the majestic mountains around him. You can tell he's at home there: this is where he had a cabin and loved to canoe. In fact, he's still there: after his death, this was where his friends scattered his ashes.

An empty seat

My mom doesn't talk a lot about James, but when she does, I cherish the stories she tells about the trouble the two of them got into as kids.

Undated photo of Erin’s mother Linda and Linda’s twin brother James. (Ready family photo)

She speaks of the adventures they had while growing up, the unique characteristics of his personality and the subtle similarities she sometimes says she sees in me.

I think a lot about what my family's life would be like if James were still around. Our small, tight-knit family would have another person sitting around the table at Thanksgiving in October, another person in contention for the Monopoly win on rainy days at the cottage on Kashwakamak and another person to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with every Christmas.

In B.C., I would have a loved one close by: someone to adventure and explore the province with. Maybe we'd go running together, and maybe we'd share stories from our days of running cross-country in high school. Maybe he would introduce me to archery, a hobby of his. Definitely, we would canoe.

A meaningful reunion

This summer, 25 years after James' death, my mother Linda, my sister Emily and I drove north.

From Vancouver, we embarked on a journey into the beauty and majesty of northern B.C. We met and reminisced with James' friend, picked up his canoe and took it north to Boya Lake.

After all this time, James' red canoe floated in Boya Lake once again — but this time, James was with his family, finally having the opportunity to show his sister and her daughters the Canadian wilderness that he embraced and loved.

Erin’s mother Linda sitting in her brother James’ canoe. (Erin Ready)

As my mom observed, what began as a journey of memory and adventure became much more. "It developed into a realization that those that went before us are still travelling with us. With each dip of the paddle in the Canadian north, his memory lives on."

James was with his family, finally having the opportunity to show his sister and her daughters the Canadian wilderness that he embraced and loved.

Paddling James' canoe on Boya Lake one night, I was treated to an incredible late night summer sunset.

As though they were the memory of a loved one lost too soon, the colours came alive and danced across the sky, reflecting onto the glass-like surface of the lake all around me.

It was then that I knew that I had met James.

Erin (right) with her mother Linda of Lindsay, Ont. (left) and sister Emily of Beauval, Sask. (centre) on their northern B.C. trip. (Ready family album)


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