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Life lessons from a brush with death

For nearly 30 years, the great rivers, lakes and forests in my beautiful home province of New Brunswick have been telling me stories. They tell tales of patient grandfathers, with their grandsons, baiting hooks and cleaning fresh trout, that teach about love and family. They also tell despicable stories about polluters and the ugly things poachers do with spotlights and axes and .410 rifles.

If you listen close enough, the Canadian landscape will reveal to you the truth of your own humanity. For nearly 30 years, I did not listen. In fact, it wasn’t until May 18, 2008, that I was forced to sit up straight and pay attention.

As I was coming about to help my best friend, Jay, who had capsized when a quartering wave caught him trying to fasten his stern hatch, I too flipped over and plunged into the six-degree water of the Kennebecasis River in Rothesay, N.B. where we stayed, clinging to the hulls of our kayaks, for nearly 45 minutes.

When their efforts to help us climb back into our boats failed, my wife, Carrie, and Jay’s wife, Danielle, through their tears, paddled hard into the wind and made for shore in their tandem. By the time the rescue boat reached me, my muscles had begun to seize up and my speech was impaired. The ambulance attendant told me another 20 minutes in the water could have been fatal.

Though it’s almost impossible to glean all that nature has to teach when you’re wrapped up in the present moment of a life or death situation, time can reveal many life-lessons to you about the role our human potential can play within the environment.

For instance, time has provided me with the opportunity to hear Jay’s story of how when the rescue boat stopped to pick him up, he waved them on, telling them to get me first. It has allowed me to watch carrie bravely relive those desperate minutes as she told her story of their stoical, two-kilometre race to shore and the helpless feeling of leaving Jay and I clinging to our kayaks in the middle of that churning river. Furthermore, in the two years since it has happened, I have learned to be more present with the people in my life, particularly with my wife. I’ve discovered that our bond has strengthened because we’ve shared an experience that was so rife with raw human emotion. I don’t remember a time before when either of us had ever been so disarmed and so present with one another. The only other time that has happened since was when our son, Hunter, was born almost a year later.

Henry David Thoreau wrote that “we are enabled to apprehend...what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.”

I believe that our environment provides opportunities for us to explore the nuances of our own humanity, to discover truthful narratives about ourselves as we evolve within the landscape and, hopefully, by listening to the stories, we might all discover those qualities of beauty and nobility. 

Richard T. Sparkes is a writer, teacher and avid outdoorsman who lives in rural Prince Edward Island with his wife, Carrie, and their son, Hunter. 

Screen_Shot_2015-07-27_at_12.46.47_PM.pngThis article first appeared in the Early Summer 2010 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak's print and digital editions here.

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