Hap Wilson is one of those names you pick up in the breeze, while you're out in the wild or cruising down a river. We've all heard it somewhere, somehow, but very few of us know the true essence of this legendary canoeist and conservationist. Whether we realize it or not, every single tripper who’s picked up a paddle and ventured into the wilderness in the past few decades has been inspired or influenced by Hap's works and accomplishments—directly or indirectly.
I first came across Hap's name in the early 1990s when I was a canoe trip guide for a kid’s camp in Ontario. He was spearheading the fight to protect the remains of Temagami's old growth white pine forest from rampant logging. His actions showed he was as tenacious and relentless a defender of wilderness as any Canadian. He opened my eyes to the fact that you can never take wild areas for granted. If you want something you love to be protected, you can't wait for someone else to step up—you must do it yourself.
I was guiding a trip through the area of contention at the time. Inspired by Hap, I had the kids put in some honest labour by adding a few hundred pounds of rocks to one of the blockades on the controversial road leading into Temagami. Not that it was Hap's blockade, but he inspired the multi-pronged direct and indirect defense of this canoeing paradise.
Perhaps overlooked in his good work as an environmentalist is Hap's incredible legacy as an explorer. Hap doesn't talk the talk; he walks the walk. He is pure substance with not a shred of hype. Having paddled over 60,000 kilometres by canoe, I consider him the OG, the tripper master, against whom all are measured. Anyone who's anyone in the world of paddling merely follows in his wake.
Rounding out this renaissance man is his role as a prolific artist and writer of books. Seminal guidebooks like Temagami: A Wilderness Paradise, nonfiction narratives like Grey Owl and Me and recent works River of Fire and Lake Superior to Manitoba by Canoe are a few of his contributions.
As refreshingly unfiltered, funny and incisive a person as I've ever encountered, Hap chatted with me recently about his life and work.
What first inspired you to be a wilderness traveller?
In the 1950s my father produced survival films for the Department of Lands & Forests, working with local Anishnaabe from Curve Lake Reserve. Off set, near our cottage in the Kawarthas, my brother and I had the opportunity to spend time learning skills from one of the master bushmen—orienteering by natural sign, boiling water in a birchbark bowl, tracking and paddling a canoe. To me it was magic; for a six-year old, truly motivating, edging outside the normal parameters set at the time to conform to mainstream colonial kid ideology. I began questioning authority.
Years later, after having embarked on several canoe trips as a young teenager, I knew that whatever I did in life from then on had to incorporate three things: canoeing, art and, most of all, personal freedom. After high school, I passed up a lucrative job as an illustrator for Simpsons Toronto because it would impede on my freedom to go paddling. I had dysfunctional parents and I would run away from home often and take solace in the woods, in a canvas tipi with a stockade built all around to keep people out. The world was a f*-up place in the 1960s, not unlike today, and there was a global tension and paranoia about nuclear war. I didn’t want to be drawn into a world tearing itself apart. There was a great sensibility about being outdoors, in the canoe, away from all the madness.
You’re a brilliant artist as displayed in your guidebooks and other published work. When did you first discover that you had an incredible talent for illustration?
I began drawing at age five, winning several art contests by age eight and by the time I finished high school, had several steady clients including Austin Marshal Card Company, Canadian Wildlife Service, Black Creek Pioneer Village and big-name clients like E.G. Burton and Michael Sifton. The Canadian media delegation to Red China selected my work to hang in the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. My first art show was at the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto with famous figure skater (and painter) Toller Cranston. One of my mentors was a retired printer who had a press set up in his basement in Toronto. I would supply him with ready drawings for printing into cards, notices, bar mitzvah invitations. I left all this behind to explore the north by canoe, winter camp, be free from any entanglements. I lived in a renovated chicken shed in Laskay, north of Toronto, in the winter, living off money earned selling house and horse portraits, saving enough to grubstake six-months’ worth of supplies for summer canoe ventures. Passed up an opportunity to attend OCA (Ontario College of Art), fully paid for by local art patrons of mine. I was very much a loner and already established as far as I wanted to go in the world of art.
What’s your favourite art form: writing, photography or illustration? Why?
I am an artist before anything else. I have scads of field drawings (some were stolen) and travel journals I’ve kept since I was a teenager. I never went to camp, preferring to travel alone or with a select few friends (who weren’t into drugs—something I never got into). I took my sketchbook everywhere, either while canoeing or backcountry touring on my motorcycle. When I started guiding, I often didn’t have the time to sketch so began taking pictures that I could use back in the winter studio to turn into drawings. Photography has a certain disconnect to it, so I’ve never taken that skill to its potential. My first feature article took me three months to write, at least four edits and numerous phone calls from the editor. I was in my early twenties. Writing seemed a natural adjunct to getting a message across and a platform for my art and/or photography. As a predominantly black-and-white pen artist, the challenge to create a believable and realistic rendering is paramount. I thrive on challenge. Unlike black-and-white photography (an accepted art form that rises above colour imagery), my drawings evoke little interest by most; but then, Canadians are generally art illiterate. Many of the Group of Seven artists began their careers as illustrators. I can do a colour painting in one day and sell it for a thousand dollars the next and I feel like I cheated the buyer; one of my detailed pen and ink drawings that may have taken three months to complete will hang in my studio for years. People will ask, “how much do you want for that illustration?” My answer: “I want what you make in three months working as a lawyer (or whatever).” Silence. Shock. Disbelief. Withdrawal.
As a master trail builder, you’ve crafted a labyrinth of wilderness trails throughout Canada. The process seems very artistic, creating these subtle and magical lines in the wilderness, as unique and intricate as a painting. How does your artistic mind influence the way you create these routes?
Most people think trails just happen. There is an art to building a sustainable trail, not to mention the more than two-dozen cross-pollinated sciences to keep in mind. I built my first sustainable trail in 1980, as a park/canoe ranger in Temagami. Logging companies wanted to log Temagami Island old-growth, so I began thwarting timbering plans by building trails (sanctioned by my closet-environmentalist supervisor in parks). Mapping out Temagami “nastawgan” or aboriginal trails in 1977 opened my eyes to the importance of water trails and the Canadian canoe culture. I’ve worked hard to have our original trails recognized nationally and more specifically for environmental and cultural reasons. It was an honour to map out 25 per cent of Ontario’s Trans Canada Trail and believe it's about time aboriginal trails were/are recognized as part of the Canadian trail culture. My wife and I love the challenge of surgically placing backcountry trails in difficult landscapes. Andrea and I have been to many different countries studying trail-building techniques and design. I was lucky to have had the opportunity to work as a guest Canadian warden in New Zealand’s Aspiring National Park, overseeing the popular Routeburn Track. We’ve studied trails in Arizona, Maine, Virginia, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland and the UK, allowing us to merge thought, design and technique into artful trails. I’m currently working on the design for a 130-kilometre Superior coastal trail from Wawa to join the existing Pukaskwa Trail. Canada ranks low in acknowledging the benefits of trails when compared with other countries globally.
To successfully design and build a good trail it helps to know the various sciences involved, from soil type, drainage, ecological considerations and even social dynamics; once the key elements are built in (avoiding sensitive vegetation, nesting sites, etc.) the design artfully molds itself to the environment. Some landscape companies who call themselves trail builders do the opposite—change the landscape to accommodate the trail. Some communities have unrealistic guidelines for trail construction and they often resemble roads and not walking paths or single-track trails (we call these ‘troads’).
What’s the closest call you’ve personally had in your wilderness travels? How did you survive it?
Close calls? I’m just about down to my last of nine lives. This past summer my wife pulled me out of the rapids below a waterfall that I was checking out for “wild” swimming. I got caught in an undertow and was deader than a drowned rat. No PFD and heavy cargo shorts and shoes. I went under. If I were alone, I wouldn’t be writing this today. My wife fought the heavy current, pulled me out and revived me, then gave me shit. It was stupid of me, especially when I’ve spent my life studying moving water. I’ve been chased by muskoxen, literally hand-wrestled a bull moose in rut, sailed across Hudson Bay in two canoes at night, been attacked and bitten by wild dogs, cornered by a polar bear, surrounded by wolves while winter camping, lost part of two toes to frostbite, almost perished in a blizzard, been struck by lightning (my hearing has never been the same), had my appendix burst just before a three-month winter camping trek, had to swim out in freezing water to rescue my canoe that slipped off-shore, dumped in a rapid in March, got lung-shock and barely made it to shore before I lost all feeling in my limbs (that was a long time ago—I’m smarter now). That said, I’ve never been lost; turned around yes, a few times, and I’ve managed to escape from death each time, mostly by sheer tenacity, adrenaline and I hopefully a modicum of sense. My mother was struck by lightning as she stepped over a streetcar track in Toronto while eight months pregnant with me. At 10-months of age, someone shooting crows put a bullet inches from my pram (baby carriage) on our back porch…I knew then that life was going to be interesting.
You’ve guided people safely through the wilderness for years. You don’t have to name names, but who is your most memorably difficult client and how did you deal with them?
People really need to read my book, Trails & Tribulations and the chapter Confessions of a Wilderness Guide. Thankfully, of the hundreds of people that I’ve guided, most are very likeable and interesting. Guiding isn’t that carefree, stress-less occupation as one might assume; a guide must be skillful at a lot of things, including psychotherapy. Before the advent of the sat-phone and GPS, any problematic client was either shot and left to die beside the trail or, in most cases—trimmed to fit into a group dynamic (luckily, this was always the case). Today you can just make the call and have them flown out. Some people join wilderness trips for the wrong reasons and just by reading applications it’s hard for me to differentiate the normal from the sociopathic…until they are 300 kilometres from the nearest community and under duress (hard work, bugs, isolation…). It doesn’t happen often but it happens (read River of Fire for the worst client/person ever).
I think of you as the founder of modern canoe tripping in Temagami. You opened up and protected this vast wilderness area through re-establishment of traditional routes and by writing the seminal guidebook for the region. What first drew you to Temagami and what inspired you to share its wonders with the world?
I first went to Temagami in 1970. [I was] drawn to its remote and vast nature and having tired of canoeing in Algonquin Park. After several years exploring the region I noticed logging of the wilderness ramped up as timbering methods changed and clear-cut forestry was the rule of the day. Temagami owned the world’s largest, still-intact aboriginal trail system, wholly unprotected from logging or mining. I was compelled to do something about it, as one might try to protect their family or home.
People get the wrong idea about my guidebooks, that they were initiated to make life easier for the paddler. In a way they were, certainly, because I’m obsessed with detail and accuracy. Some critics of guidebook authors have made claims that these publications only serve to exploit an area for personal gain. All my books have had a focus on environmental protection, first and foremost. A lot was happening in Temagami (industrial pillaging, interior road building, forest mismanagement) and nobody was doing anything to bring industry or the government to task, to make them accountable. Back in the mid-70s, the Lady Evelyn River was the only park, unprotected as it were and heavily trafficked. People automatically gravitate towards parks and the river was suffering from overuse. The guidebook effectively spread-out canoe traffic and afforded a working inventory for protection. Greenpeace was born on the west coast at the same time the Temagami green movement took root. I was glad to be a part of it.
Your efforts in protecting Temagami, then and now, requires a tenacious and dogged effort in the face of what some would say are insurmountable odds. Lots of environmentalists suffer burnout and disillusionment in the course of a seemingly constant uphill battle. How do you stay so focused and motivated in your conservation work? Any advice for the next wave of wilderness protectors?
It is hard to sum up with any precision the effects the green movement has had on myself or my friends and family. True, passions run deep and the greens made many mistakes at the onset, focusing on the philosophical and emotional plea to save wilderness.
One of the hardest transitions was to put a dollar value to wilderness protection. Hence eco or adventure tourism became the new norm. But new tourisms were profoundly misunderstood. After half a century of fighting, the battle still rages.
What’s your assessment of the current state of wilderness protection in Canada? What is your hope for its future?
Are we smarter today? For sure. But many environment groups have no money to afford the same caliber lawyers. Monkey Wrenching (thanks Edward Abbey…my favourite protagonist, anarchist) has worked to save more wilderness than boardroom giveaways and soft-headed deals. Industry and officialdom can’t admit this fact. But we can no longer afford to keep tossing rocks at the corporate bad guys; instead, relying on goodwill, sustainability paradigms and accountability. Sadly, that only works on paper. I remain hopeful, but hope isn’t quite as convincing a stand as one who may have faith in a system bent on destruction; still, I feel compelled to do what I can to change things, even if in the end, it appeases my inner soul.
The green movement to protect wild spaces, namely canoe routes, has been championed by very few people or conservation groups; this is sad and strange when you realize that Canada is one of four global countries left with any appreciable wilderness left…and, the very best place for paddle sports, bar none. The politics of wilderness is a nasty affair, summarized by the tired adage “jobs vs. environment” complicated even more by the media who always like a good fight (trouble is, most of the major newspapers are owned by corporate giants and logging companies). We have our own Fox News, as liberal as the conservatives that own them. Roads are being built; wilderness is shrinking.
Who are your top three all-time favourite tripping partners and why?
I do have three top paddling partners: my wife Andrea, my daughter Alexa (19) and my son Chris (21). Andrea and I have been paddling together since 1989 when I hired her as a canoe guide. She is gifted. One who is gifted allows personal consciousness and physical movements to meld with the craft. Whether paddling solo or with me, Andrea’s movements are silky smooth; in whitewater, when she is in the bow of the canoe, I watch her every move silently and trust her judgement calls. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship—her, me, canoe, river. She can also carry an 85-pound Royalex canoe with a good size pack. Best of all, she can open a tin can with a hunting knife. Our kids grew up in the canoe, so paddling is a big thing in their lives, and they do it well. So many people rely on expensive gear these days instead of learning proper, even basic skills. I’ve had clients arrive, primed at whitewater clinics but can’t paddle in a straight line or effect the proper J-stroke, yet they class themselves as “experienced” or even “expert” paddlers. Andrea and I joined a well-known UK paddle sport touring company on their “Best of Scotland” river trip last April 2019. The company boasted of every conceivable accreditation as “instructors” yet, they were delinquent in teaching many of the required skills we teach here in Canada or provide the necessary safety equipment. The guide was more interested in getting “the camera shot” for promotions, forcing untrained people to ride large centre-channel haystacks in frigid water. Andrea and I were chastised for finessing rapids, applying proper braces and ferries and failing to round out the video. That is not our headspace.
Outside of your family, who do you most admire and why?
I don’t have any heroes. I do have people that I have admired in the past. I organized at least ten expeditions for the late Bob Hunter (co-founder of Greenpeace and CITY TV’s ecologist specialist) and the camera team at City TV out of Toronto. Bob was not such a dedicated ‘tripper’ and had to be taught very basic whitewater strokes each and every time we struck off, but he was a raconteur extraordinaire and adept at making an environmental story work. I could write a book just about these adventures with Bob. Another individual and personal mentor of mine was Kirk Wipper (founder of the Peterborough Canoe Museum). We spent a lot of time together up at our Cabin Falls lodge or on trip. I don’t know any other human being that could recite poetry or stories like Kirk could. He was also extremely humble in an adventure world today that lacks humility or pith. I met Bill Mason only once after exchanging correspondence about doing a trip together in Temagami. He wanted to join the fight to save Temagami wilderness but had never been there. The following year he was diagnosed with cancer. Andrea and I are friends with Becky Mason and her husband Reed, and can honestly attest to their devotion to the Canadian canoe culture and the dignified and humble way they project themselves.
You’ve travelled over 60,000 kilometres of wilderness routes in your lifetime. Outside of Temagami, what is your most cherished wilderness zone? While we’re at it, what’s your favourite area within Temagami?
I’m currently writing a book on favourite places. There are numerous haunts of mine that I go back to visit. I’m not a “collector”—that new-age adventure addict who carves a notch in their paddle for rivers conquered. To really know a river, you have to travel it several times; maybe even upstream. Everything looks different. I’ve done the Dumoine River in Quebec at least twenty times, each time a wonder, each time such a pleasure, either low or high-water conditions. Thunderhouse Falls on the Missinaibi is a hauntingly magical place one has to stay several days to absorb its nuances.
What makes you most happy in your life right now?
Happiness has many contours and it all has to do with balance. I’m a Libra—so, balance is important to me as it is with Andrea (she is a Capricorn). We both work very hard at what we do, and we always want to do it well, not just to please ourselves but to satisfy our clients. We also like to share our space at Cabin Falls Ecolodge and use it to introduce people to the importance of conservation or help them re-connect to the natural world. To see people transition to a healthier physical and mental state is rewarding for us. Andrea and I have managed to balance work and play, at the same time leaving less of a footprint on this earth. We aren’t perfect and we enjoy the finer things in life, but we look at this occasional opulence as a reward for putting something of ourselves back into this world.
You’re approaching seventy years of age and still going strong. What advice would you give to others looking to be active adventurers through all phases of their life?
The outdoor lifestyle is tough on the physical body. Yes, I’ve paddled more than 60,000 kilometres and I’ve tracked all the miles I’ve traveled by the injuries received. One-third of that distance can be applied to portaging heavy gear; building hiking trails and carrying materials into our ecolodge has exacted a toll on my joints. I’m two knee replacements in, two fused big toes with no cartilage, one hernia operation, burst appendix, frostbite, axe in foot, hearing loss from a lightning strike, bone spurs in both shoulders (osteoarthritis), numerous lacerations, contusions, foot rot… My sports doctor and physiotherapist both tell me that the best advice is to “keep moving” so that’s what I do. My problem is that I still think I am in my twenties because I can still keep up with the twenty-year-olds (at least in my head—my body complains about it). There is no reason to stop because there are just too many adventures waiting out there. I would never do anything different and I would never complain about my aches and pains because there are people out there far worse off than me.