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This Man Is An Island: Part One
By Dave Burke

When I take my seat in my canoe on the western edge of Algonquin Park, I realise there's a good chance I'll be staring at a butt crack for the next four days.

This particular dark, cavernous slice of human real estate belongs to Mike Brintnell, a friend I've known so long I can't remember not knowing him. There's an old picture of us on a petting zoo donkey: I'm a giggly toddler, he's a couple years older, wearing thick glasses and a Spider-Man shirt, a slop of green goo running nose to cheek. This, my parents tell me, is the first time we met. Twenty-five years later, Mike is still wearing a Spider-Man shirt and is old enough to get the running nose, but not the butt crack, under control.

I hadn't seen him in a while, so I called him up.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" I asked.


"The day after that?"


"How 'bout the day after that?"

"I might have a job interview."

"Jobs are for suckers," I said. "Let's go canoeing."

Which brings us to the first strokes of a four-day journey on the Upper Petawawa River. Mike's Spider-Man shirt rides up with each paddle stroke - his bathing suit is more than a little tight - but it's a beautiful day, the sun is bright over the hills, and I find other things to look at.

Mike and gravity have a close relationship. Wisps of hair are tucked under a burgeoning belly that bulges under Spider-Man's flying feet. He was once fit and a good swimmer, his big shoulders churning between the lanes, and was in even better shape the summer he rode his bike to work at Ontario Place in Toronto. When his bike got stolen, he ran. It took him an hour each way.

"Sometimes I took the subway back," he tells me. "By the end of the week I got tired."

His heaviness now is a bit overbearing, and his weight in front sends us charging in whichever direction he is leaning - which isn't very often the way we need to go. He sits awkwardly in the seat, shifting to get comfortable and shaking the canoe, giving me a brief shudder of the dunk willies. I struggle to correct us, my muscles tense.

We have good conversations about canoes, books, wildlife and politics. I ask Mike why he's wearing a Spider-Man shirt instead of one littered with political slogans like he usually wears, with George Bush in the sights of a gun, with George Bush hanging from a noose - you get the point - but Mike reassures me. "It's okay," he says, "Spider-Man is an anarchist."

I change the subject to save my sanity - he's probably read 16 books on comic book political affiliations and is way out of my league. Mike's been hanging around anarchists for a while, which is good - at least he's hanging around somebody. He tells me every anarchist he's met is a nice person and seems to forget the nasty associations most people have of molotov cocktails and mohawk punks who are pissed off just for the sake of it.

You have to push through a sheet spray-painted with a red anarchist symbol to get into Mike's basement bedroom. It's muggy down there, someone inevitably having just finished running their clothes through the dryer, and it's dark. A bare bulb is the only light, string hanging down to a futon bed tucked under the stairs, sheets wrinkled and covered in cookie crumbs. Milk crates serve as shelves, but are toppled over a mountainous heap of clothes, and scattered on a ratty shag carpet are various books, comic books, magazines and newspapers: everything from X-Men and Sci-Fi Monthly to The Anarchist Cookbook and the latest issue of The Onion.

Mike welcomes me into his lair, though he thinks it's a palace. He's the only 29-year-old I know who is perfectly content to sleep under the stairs in a dingy basement. When I stay over, it's dark, the only light a tiny green LED from the smoke detector. It's easy to sleep until noon, which is why we sleep until one, which is why we're rushing across the first portage.

Except I am the only one rushing. Mike is wearing flip-flops, tres gauche for a canoe trip, and it is with some awkwardness that I finally wiggle the food pack over his shoulders and send him on his way. Minutes later I pass him a short way up the rolling hills of the 1 km trail, sweating and puffing. I burst past with the canoe on my head, then drop the canoe into the sand of the trickling Petawawa, run back to find Mike flip-flopping along, managing, despite evidence to the contrary, to wear a smile on his sweaty face. "This is fun!" he says.

The night before we left, I cruised into Mike's neighbourhood - one of Toronto's worst, or so they tell me, Jane and Finch in the north West End. "It's not that bad," he says. When we head to the nearest mall to get a Roti, a Jamaican pita-type thing Mike's been telling me about, we are the only two white people in the place. I don't think Mike even notices, something I wish all of us could manage, but it's a sign of Mike's bewilderment. He's walked through life this way.

Mike's brother Andy entered high school to see his older brother traipsing through the halls with the same oblivious innocence. Andy told me stories about students doing awful things to his brother, and he got angrier the more he thought about it. "He didn't have one friend," he said, his cheeks beginning to steam. "There were 2000 people in that school and he didn't have one single friend." It was the first time in Andy's life that he discovered his older brother had faults and weaknesses. Generally, in families, the chain of worry goes down, not up.

We're well short of our game plan, but Mike and I pull into a shadowy campsite and unpack. Mike gathers firewood while I set up the tent, get dinner going, and organize his gear and sleeping bag. He struggles with the fire, has placed thick sticks in a drunken teepee and is trying to torch it, but it's not working. In between spaghetti stirs, I manage to get it started with twigs and pine needles, but keep a close watch as Mike reassumes the fireman role.

It's almost dusk. I have a glass of wine but Mike refrains. He sits beside the fire reading excerpts from Deep Thoughts, a collection of moronic philosophy from Jack Handey of Saturday Night Live fame. I laugh uncontrollably, rolling off the back of my log seat into the dirt, as much with the stupidity of the deep thoughts as with Mike's wheezing and giggling delivery.

It becomes clear, when we crawl out of our tent close to noon the next day that our route plan is not going to work. We move far too slow, and sleep in far too late, to make decent headway. We push on, however, lugging over portages, sweating across steamy afternoon lakes. By the time we stop for cream cheese and cucumber pitas, a dark sky slides over top of us.

We're on Misty Lake for a handful of paddle strokes when it comes in hard torrents, and even wearing rain gear I'm soaked. All Mike has is a garbage bag, but he sits in the front, paddling contentedly like he doesn't notice it's raining, his hair sloppy wet on his forehead. We paddle across the lake and land at a campsite on a rocky point.

We have snacks huddled under a tarp, our butts wet on the slick rock, and when the rain keeps coming I realise we'll likely be staying for the night. It's still pouring when I commandeer Mike to help with the tent. It's his job to put the poles together, and he does it slowly, like's he's got all the time in the world. I've seen him eating cereal before, fisting Frosted Flakes to his mouth, the bowl cradled to his chin as he slurps it in. I call him awkward; teachers have always called him learning disabled. And when I watch the inside of our tent become soaked with rain I burst out, "C'mon! Hurry up!" and immediately regret it.

"Okay, Geez," he says, resuming his standard pace.

Once inside, there isn't much to do. I launch into Moby Dick while Mike sleeps beside me, a book called Amerika Psycho on his chest and a snore lodged deep in his throat. Moby Dick is exciting in the beginning, you get the sense you're reading a big one, but disappoints me shortly thereafter. I thought I was reading a novel, not an essay on whales. I shuffle against the tent walls at page 71. Mike's eyes pop open.

"Good morning!" he says. I check my watch. It's 6 pm.

"You were snoring," I grumble.

"Not snoring," he says, "just breathing heavily."

By the time I reach page 72 Mike's snoring again. Every time I shift to get comfortable, Mike wakes wide-eyed, looking to see if I've got any plans. If I did, Mike would enthusiastically jump out of the tent at my first suggestion. I realise the danger in this. If I told him we should go running butt-naked through the bushes or bury our heads in a hole, he'd be raring to go.

There's no fire, no Deep Thoughts, and no heaps of in-the-dirt-rolling laughter. Night creeps on while we catch up on reading and sleeping. We chat every once in a while, play a lame game of tag, and then an unsuccessful round of hide and seek. All of this inside a rank tent just big enough for the two of us. It's late when the rain breaks. Mosquitoes tap on the nylon, try to find a weak spot to break though, as ants leave shadows by my reading lamp, and then a firefly, a bursting buttocks of light, holds there, lighting my page. Loons splash in the water off our rocky point, the night's long calling.

Dave Burke knows how to perform a J-stroke.





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