Everyone was telling me that the pandemic lockdowns were the time to write the book you’ve been holding back for years. It was a moment in history that I could stay sane by spending the days scribbling past memories, best adventures, worst adventures, deep feelings and wilderness philosophy. And I tried. I really tried. But I had major writer’s block.

When things started to loosen a little, and we were allowed to escape into some kind of “norm,” things started to change. I was able to go out into the wilds for more solid moments. My anxiety lessened and I started to write again.

In two months, I splurged out a memoir. It started off as a series of wilderness essays, fresh ideas and polished-up blogs and magazine columns from the past, but it turned into what looks more like a memoir of me growing up with high anxiety, going into nature to heal myself and choosing a career that keeps me going out and promoting others to do the same.

dfgsKevin Callan

Why the title Another Bend In The River? To me, life is like paddling down a wild river; sometimes it sweeps you gently along, and sometimes the fast current comes out of nowhere. Whatever the case, there has always been something waiting for me around the next bend.

Writing this book (number 19 so far) was a saving grace for me. I just handed it over to the editor and designer, and I’m hoping to have it out in late spring. Here’s a sample…

 

Hometown River Float

My first river journey was a boyhood day float down the local stream that flushed through my small hometown of Milton, Ontario. It’s the upper stretch of the Sixteen Mile Creek, a waterway that eventually widens its banks into a proper river before it empties out into Lake Ontario.

My buddy, Tony, joined me. We used inflatable truck inner tubes rather than a canoe. The adventure had a Huck Fin flavour to it. We were dressed in cut off shorts, canvas sneakers and rock-band t-shirts; Tony wore Led Zeppelin and I wore Kiss. The trip represented our goodbye to childhood. It was during the summer before we went into grade eight, the grade that all kids fear because you’re forced to grow up to survive high school’s grade nine.

dsfgdfKevin Callan

My dad helped with the shuttle, the first of dozens of river shuttles I’d organize in my lifetime. He dropped our bicycles off at a country road bridge east of town, and then dropped us, and our inner tubes, off where the creek flows past the old cement factory west of town.

The first section of the creek was somewhat wild. It was narrow and twisting, its banks clogged with red-osier dogwood and willow bushes. Numerous songbirds flew through the trees and minnows and crayfish swam under us as we propelled forward using our cupped-in hands, acting like a double blade paddle.

A bit of Milton’s suburbia soon appeared. In the distance we could see our school—Holy Rosary. Sister Francis, one of my teachers in grade seven, was the first nun in our school to wear the short skirt uniform. All the other nuns, especially the principal Sister Alexander, thought she was a bohemian rebel. I thought she was an amazing person.

We also drifted past the mansion owned by the local pedophile. He ran the church’s youth program and his sins towards young boys were just rumour at the time. Not long after, three kids came forward, then more, and he went to prison.

The current quickened as we approached the Mill Pond, a manmade freshwater reservoir in the downtown core. The town grew up around the pond, which powered a grist mill owned by the founder of Milton, Jasper Martin in 1820-1822. In 1837 it had a population of 100 people and became fully incorporated in 1857. Milton was named after the English Poet John Milton. In 1963—the year I was born—the population was approximately 5,800. It now houses over 112,000.

I grew up fishing the pond and creek for its stocked speckle trout and Tony and I took some time to cast for a few after we passed the railway bridge and before the town’s baseball diamond.

Beyond the Mill Pond the creek squeezed its banks again and took us straight under the main street. We could smell the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant up on the right bank as we floated by some teenage anglers trying to snag the white suckers feeding at the base of a small swift.

The creek soon took us past the high school I’d eventually go to, Milton District, and near the town hall that many years later (2013) I was honoured by having a plaque with my name on it placed in the entrance to the town hall. The initiative is titled “The Walk of Fame.” I was deeply touched by it; not only because some shy kid that used the town’s natural areas to escape to ended up using those moments to mold a career as an outdoor writer and educator, but because there’s so many other locals that shared those memories as well. Imagine, the plaques to the left and right of mine are astronaut Chris Hadfield and Ernest Coombs (aka Mr. Dressup).

The water quality changed once we drifted out of town and into farm country. It was silty and smelled like cow manure. We stopped along the way to check out some cow bones sticking out from the muddy bank. We claimed them to be dinosaur bones and kept some to bring back and show everyone our great archaeological find.

The river was alive with birds. A kingfisher was seen around almost every bend, Canada geese crowded the shoreline, and scads of bobolinks and goldfinches fluttered across the farm fields. We even spotted a groundhog sitting in the crook of an elm tree. Who knew groundhogs could climb trees?

A couple of hours before dusk, we reached the country road bridge and our bicycles. We shouldered our inner tubes, lashed some cow/dinosaur bones to our bikes, and peddled back to town.

It was nearly dark and the streetlights had just turned on. Tony’s dad was angrily waiting for him on the porch. He was an abusive father and, staggering drunk, he beat his son in front of me for coming home late. I went home to a dad who was ecstatic about my river journey, and a mom who was just a little concerned that that I forgot to put on sunscreen for the day. I was a lucky kid.

hgfhKevin Callan

Near the end of grade eight, Tony had little to do with me, or anyone. He became moody, missed class a lot, and got into fights. He even punched me to the ground for no reason while I exited the local cinema after watching the new Godzilla movie. Something sinister was going on in his life.

Sister Francis searched Tony’s desk one day and found drugs. Sister Alexander had him removed from the school. No one seemed to know what happened to him. Rumour was that he became a high school dropout the first week of high school, and later in life he went to prison for drug dealing and assault with a deadly weapon.

I really didn’t know what happened to Tony, though, until I returned to my hometown to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday party. It was held at the old downtown Charles Hotel. The place hadn’t changed much. The bartender even recognized me, and we joked how my dad taught me to drink there. It sure beat going to one of the many newer chain restaurants where the staff would have put a silly hat on my mom and bellow out the happy birthday tune. At the Charles, everyone gathered with a pint and sang a compilation of Irish and Scottish folk songs.

When I went to get another round of drinks, I took a glance at the guy sitting by himself at the end of the bar. It was Tony. He was hard to recognize at first. We were older, obviously, but time was more harsh on him than I.

I bought Tony a coffee. He was off the booze. And he filled me in about his life after grade eight, confirming dropping out of high school, dealing drugs, and eventually going to prison. He had lived such a sad life for the most part, and when I reminisced with him about our float down the local creek, the same piece of water that was just outside the backdoor of the tavern, I saw a smile on him. It was a peaceful feeling I doubt he has had for a very long time.

Our brief meeting reminded me how much kids need a small town, surrounded by creeks and nature. I feel sorry for what most have now. Milton has grown into a mini city and its notoriety is being the fastest growing community that neighbours the City of Toronto—part of what’s titled the “Golden Horseshoe.” Population has tripled in size since I was a kid. The upper portion of the creek is now lined with cement, acting as a large drainage ditch. The farm fields of the lower portion are now taken over by a housing development. Needless to say, it’s not the same place I grew up in.

   

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