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Reef Smart Guides Barbados

Reef Smart Guides Barbados

Scuba Dive. Snorkel. Surf. (Best Diving Spots in the Caribbean's Barbados)
edition:Paperback
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Reef Smart Guides Bonaire

Reef Smart Guides Bonaire

Scuba Dive. Snorkel. Surf. (Best Diving Spots in The Netherlands' Bonaire)
edition:Paperback
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The 4 Year Olympian

The 4 Year Olympian

From First Stroke to Olympic Medallist
edition:eBook
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Excerpt

Growing up.

My little sister, Julia, cried whenever I swore. My older sister, Jenny, dug her nails into my forearms when I bothered her one too many times. I’d look at the purple indents under the smooth skin where the top layer had been raked away and enjoy the burning sensation. The marks and the pain were like a badge of honour.

Sibling skirmishes made up our childhood most days, and perhaps three times in my life led to an ear slap from our German mother, who just couldn’t take any more. She’d yell “Ohrfeige!” as she jerked her shoulders up and whipped that straightened arm around to connect her palm with the side of my head. It was the same motion as a tennis forehand blasted down the line, and each one landed with brilliant accuracy. Unless severely provoked, my mom, a French immersion teacher, was and always has been a loving mother of three: sweet, kind, and patient. But there was a switch inside her that my troublesome nature always had weight on, like a finger applying slow pressure until I finally flipped off the lights inside my mom’s brain.

I inherited the same volatility as my mom, but with a much shorter fuse. Playing board games with me was like walking through a minefield. If I won, everyone would survive. If I was losing, I might explode before the game even ended.

The game Memory was a family favourite. My mom would sit across from me, glancing over wearily while Julia gleefully stacked pair upon pair as if she’d lived every scene on the cards. The German shepherd in the tall grass may as well have been her first pet; the card with a straight country road lined with poplar trees — as knowable as our own cedar-lined driveway; one of the three pairs of slightly different bouquets of flowers — like she’d just cut and arranged them herself.

Mom knew I was churning inside. Julia’s eyes shone brightly above her round cheeks, effortlessly mapping out pairs in anticipation of her next turn. Her memory was too good for me, and it killed me.

Jenny’s self-control was equally infuriating. She’d hold her head high and exhibit patience and excessive good sportsmanship until I could not stop myself from flicking her in the ear. Then her upper lip would recede, bearing vampire-like eye teeth, and she’d crush her eyebrows down and together so hard I thought they’d fuse. The sequence was as predictable as a cobra flaring its hood. When she finally struck back, I was ready.

My mom would intervene, sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stress made her revert to the German accent that revealed her upbringing by post–World War II parents in East Germany. As the melee grew, my dad would put down his Globe and Mail newspaper or whatever book on philosophy he was reading at the time — Being and Time by Heidegger, perhaps — and, jarringly pulled back into the reality of a wife and three kids, bark, “What’s going on in there?”

Usually a threat of grounding followed, or, if I was being completely unreasonable, the sound of my dad taking off his leather belt, securing it in a loop, and yanking it in and out to make a threatening crack that my sisters and I could hear no matter which nook or cranny of our old house we may have been hiding in. This demonstration was intended to foreshadow the sound of the belt whipping my bare ass in the spanking that came next. When he finally caught me in his vice grip, I’d buck so hard that my dad could barely keep me belly-down over his knees to deliver a clean strike.

My dad romanticized the great thinkers of the past, letting his lips drop open into a small o as he looked through you to a space just behind your head and searched for the perfect quote from antiquity to enlighten you. At dinner, he would sit back in his throne, a wooden chair with decoratively lathed legs and back supports, and ponder aloud to three kids who couldn’t understand and a wife who had come to know not to engage in an argument that would become accusatory and end unresolved anyway. I tried to wrap my young mind around my dad’s philosophical dinnertime questions: What is truth? What is a good life? What is the soul?

As much as I tried to understand his inner life, my dad was largely a mystery to me growing up. He didn’t talk about his past. He had finished a master’s degree in political science at the University of Toronto and had ambitions to pursue a PhD, but then three kids and the necessity to provide for his family stymied his academic pursuits. The PhD was a goal that would have stretched him even if he’d had all the time and resources in the world. It was his life challenge, the pursuit that got away. Regret.

When my dad was in grade four, he struggled with reading and writing. On the last day of school that year, he’d walked home and announced to my grandparents that he would be repeating grade four of his own accord. It was one of the few stories from his youth he proudly shared with us. Another came cackling out of my uncle Tim, one of my dad’s five brothers, while we were sitting on the screened veranda of the Brown family cottage in Muskoka. I was twelve. He said that when my dad was in his late teens he had been watching his older brother David trying to windsurf with shiny new gear: new wetsuit, new board, and new sail. After several attempts, David gave up, saying the conditions weren’t right; there was too much wind (though any windsurfer knows there’s no such thing). My dad had been watching David while plastering the boathouse cedar siding with black stain, and my uncle Tim had been re-roofing the red shingles above. When David neared the dock, my dad set down the stain and wiped his hands on his dirty overalls. Then he jumped into the water, mounted the windsurfer, and went cutting across the lake with his rear end skimming the water like a pro. My uncle Tim broke up in laughter recalling the sight of my dad upstaging my uncle David in tar-stained overalls.

This story has been etched into my brain ever since. For better or worse, I think it put it into my head that there is no prerequisite for attempting something in earnest and being successful.

My dad would never be caught telling a flattering story about himself. Self-accolades were vulgar. I had to piece together an understanding of his youth from my mom, uncles and grandparents.

Over the years, I learned that he’d ridden a bull, hitchhiked across Canada, ridden his bike from Ancaster to Muskoka more than once, and worked in a railyard where he saw a fellow brakeman get crushed between two cars. I concluded that my dad was an interesting man with many talents who’d mostly packed them away and retreated into his own head to consider the Big Questions. This created an urge in me to compete for his attention with all those philosophical concepts taking up room in his head. He’d respond tepidly to my constant attention-seeking antics. Most good news and achievement was greeted with a gently toned “Mmm hmm” or a light “Is that right?” Perhaps because of his own disappointments in life, perhaps because of a recent reading of Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity, he seemed to mute genuine enthusiasm as naturally as wetting his lips.

There is so much I respect about my dad — unfailing honesty and integrity being foremost — but during my teenage years, often catching myself morphing into him, I became determined to avoid the same sense of dissatisfaction. He’d had kids too soon, and three of them were too many.

“Dad, why did you have us?” I once asked, to which he blankly stared back at me, blinking, unable to come up with an answer. He should have finished his PhD and become a university professor. Then he would be happy, I thought. Instead, he met my beautiful mom, fell in love, and couldn’t recover in time to resume focus on his academic ambitions. My sisters and I came shortly after — three deep spikes in the coffin holding his ambition — and he settled for teaching history to adults who hadn’t completed high school.

Marriage is a black hole. I’ll never get married, I told myself. Kids are baggage. I would do something different, whatever that meant, with my life.

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Lost in Mongolia

Lost in Mongolia

Rafting the World's Last Unchallenged River
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

Prologue

The water roiled and bucked in large waves as the river was squeezed between the sheer walls. The air was a haze of cool mist, and a persistent roar filled my ears. I saw the raft teeter on a huge standing wave just inside the canyon as Ben struggled, pulling madly on the oars.
My kayak was incredibly maneuverable, but I had to be careful about some of the bigger rocks. I slid off a two-yard wave and down into a great recirculating hole. The gaping mouth of the vortex boiled and sucked at my tiny vessel, and I dug frantically to escape its grasp. My heart pounded from exertion. Where were Ben and the raft? I had lost him somewhere in the white fog of spray.
My lungs burned as the merciless river pushed me hard toward the canyon wall, threatening to pin the kayak to the jagged rocks. I struggled to get turned back downriver. A large hole appeared that was impossible to avoid -- its swirling, circular current swallowed nearly the entire river. I dug hard with my paddle, hoping to generate enough speed to propel the kayak across the boil.
Dig! Dig! Dig! I screamed at myself. Pull! PULL!
I had barely made it to the middle of the hole when the rotating maelstrom pulled me backward and then under.
Everything went black.
I held my breath as the current battered and pulled at me, as if some malevolent force wanted to rip me from the kayak's cockpit and consume me. It pummeled my chest like a boxer. My lungs ached for oxygen as I spun around upside down. I was helpless, a plaything of the river god. The kayak did numerous cartwheels and then, as quickly as I had been pulled under, I was spat out downstream. I was wet, cold, out of breath, and chastened.
But I was alive.

TWO YEARS EARLIER . . .
August 22, 1999
"The Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and then the Mississippi."

"So what's number five then?" I asked.

Ben looked up from the National Geographic Atlas. "The Yenisey River."

I'd never heard of the Yenisey, yet it was listed as the fifth-longest river in the world. According to the map, the Yenisey's headwaters were in the heart of central Asia and its mouth was 3,450 miles to the north, on the Arctic Ocean. Had anyone ever traveled its full length? Through what kind of landscape did it flow? My imagination conjured up scenes of a thunderous whitewater torrent on its way to the sea, dashing down the flanks of the Hangayn Mountains, roaring through steep-sided canyons, and cutting across expanses of frozen tundra peopled with nomads who lived in tepees.

"It looks like Camana, on the coast of Peru, would be the best place to start," Ben said.

We were in the Banff Public Library researching our upcoming expedition down the Amazon River. We were due to leave in two weeks, and it was no time to be daydreaming about other rivers.

Ben's face was tanned from the weeks we'd spent honing our whitewater rafting skills in the Rocky Mountains. Underneath the healthy glow, though, a world-weary tiredness had set in. His curly hair was slightly greasy and hung listlessly across his forehead and over his ears. Large, dark bags hung below his bloodshot eyes -- the result of too much worry. I knew my own face looked about the same.

We were about to run one of the world's greatest rivers, and we were counting pennies and budgeting beyond belief.

I filed the Yenisey River in the back of my mind and devoted my attention to the maps of South America in front of me. Still, a seed had been planted.

February 28, 2001
More than a year later, after we'd run the Amazon, Terry Spence, the radio host at CFAX in Victoria, B.C., leaned closer to his microphone and said, "Tell me now, Colin, why is it that you want to travel a river -- which nobody has ever heard of -- that flows through remotest Mongolia and Siberia? Wasn't the Amazon enough for you? I mean, you guys were almost killed in South America. Haven't you heard of gardening or cricket?"

I laughed. What could I say?

It was true. We had successfully completed our voyage down the Amazon, facing death on numerous occasions. Many people believed that it was blind luck that had carried us across South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe, but we accomplished what we had set out to do: We had traveled the length of one of the most famous rivers in the world. We had voyaged every inch of it, from its source in the remote mountains of Peru to the northeastern shoulder of Brazil, where it finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

In spite of the pain, the rot, the smell, the arguments, the gunshots, and the altitude sickness, I had never felt so alive or engaged. You cannot capture that feeling in a photograph or on videotape, or adequately convey it in words -- much less experience it on one of those tourist bus excursion trips. It wasn't just the dramatic scenery and the fascinating people that had left their mark on me. It was the unique way in which, the more I shared time with the river -- five months in total -- the more I came to feel and respect its spirit and energy. That is what was tattooed on my soul.

For me the Amazon offered a view of the world that could never be re-created by a textbook or a documentary. The river ran past both the squalid and the sublime with indifference, offering to each a constant but ever-changing face. Old man river truly rolled along -- a mile wide sometimes, swollen with the runoff of a continent. It was both creator and destroyer, depending on its mood. Its banks were testament to its generosity and its rage. It carried us through folded, rugged countryside, its currents sweeping us along like riders on the back of some giant, serpentine beast.

A river is the lifeblood of the land it flows through. Few parts of the earth are untouched by the sculpting force of water. Every organism is part of an intricately woven network of life that is nurtured by a watershed. The sap that rises in the trunk of a eucalyptus tree and the blood that pumps in the heart of an iguana are essentially the same fluid that permeates and flows across the landscape, that saturates the atmosphere and falls from the sky.

Rivers have always been key to the development of complex societies and the rise of civilizations. Irrigation, transportation, hydroelectric power, and food are a few of the gifts a river offers. That is why they fascinate me. Whether they are mythical rivers such as the Styx, historic rivers such as the Rubicon, or the mighty rivers of my homeland, such as the Fraser, I am compelled to learn all I can about them and experience them as fully as possible. From the moment it occurred to me that nothing was holding me back, I had to live and breathe the Amazon River, not just learn about it from books.

When I read Steinbeck's Cannery Row as a boy, I envied the idle lives of the indigent characters. Sitting on a dock, feet dangling in the water, tippling on a jug of wine -- to my young mind it seemed the perfect lifestyle. That was before I felt the pull to explore and achieve. Whether this drive is conditioned or genetic, I have come to believe that in life you must strive to achieve -- or your spirit will fade.

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The Cedar Surf

The Cedar Surf

An Informal History of Surfing in British Columbia
edition:Paperback
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Victorias Shore Dives

Victorias Shore Dives

Ocean Shore Diving in British Columbia, Canada
edition:Paperback
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