THERE were several opportunities for North Vancouver's Michael Hartley to quit his attempt to paddle 5,200 kilometres across Canada's six largest provinces this summer.
He didn't quit - he landed at Jericho Beach last Saturday - and I've come to ask him what kept him going. I think I know the answer to the question before I even ask it.
We're chatting in the cafeteria of Handsworth secondary. It's one day after Hartley finally made it home - five months and a day after he left - and he's already back at work. He's just marshalled a 10-kilometre road race in a torrential downpour. Around us hundreds of runners, soaked to the bone, are unwinding after completing the sixth annual Strachan Hartley Legacy Run. They've given up their Sunday morning to come and run in the race named after Michael Hartley's son.
A standout scholar and football player, Strachan died of cancer shortly after graduating from medical school in 2007 at the age of 30. Michael started planning his cross-country voyage long before Strachan got sick but it was not until this year - with the added meaning of fundraising for the Strachan Hartley Legacy Foundation, an organization that helps provide sport opportunities for impoverished children - that Michael was ready to complete the trip.
Michael's cross-country odyssey started, and almost ended, just outside of the old fur-trading town of Rocky Mountain House in Alberta.
That's where, on Day 1, he flipped his overloaded kayak into the frigid water. Scrambling to save his boat, his stove, his energy bars . . . he almost lost his life.
"It did cross my mind, 'Is this where it ends?'" he says as he strokes his beard which has been trimmed down from the bushwacker he grew on the trip but is still wild enough to enthrall my toddler son who has come along with me today. I don't make a habit of bringing my son with me when I'm on the job, but my wife is working on this day, leaving me in charge. I don't mind - this is a story I'm glad my boy is hearing, even if all that he's taking in is the beard and the big smile.
Michael's next big obstacle on his journey was the weather of good old Northern Saskatchewan. B.C. boys aren't accustomed to tornados - that might explain why Michael kept on paddling through some vicious storms, not realizing until later that twisters were touching down mere miles away.
Even when the waters were smooth there were other, erm, considerations for a paddler strapped into a kayak for hours on end. On his blog, Michael suggested that the working title for his potential book about the journey should be Don't Pee in the Boat, Eh.
"You've got human needs," he says with a laugh. "Sometimes you have a wetsuit on and you have no capacity to do that so, well, I'll let you fill in the blanks. Use your imagination."
Trying my best to not "fill in the blanks," I ask him what it was like being out there alone. Friends and family joined him for a few legs of the journey but the majority of the time it was just him.
Moving is the easy part, he says. It's when nature keeps you locked to some remote shore that troubling thoughts can emerge.
"Sometimes I was wind-bound for five days and your mind starts playing tricks on itself and you really question what you're doing. That's when you have to use every trick in the book to try to stay positive and keep from going squirrely."
Speaking of squirrely, we're 15 minutes into our conversation and I've got one squirmy toddler in my arms. Michael is the one talking about the Ontario Provincial Police stumbling upon him on some deserted island - "they were bored I guess and they'd come in to see a porcupine and I'd just happened to be marooned on this beach. . . . They did come and interview me, I think they wanted to make sure that I wasn't loopy" - but it's me who is breaking into a sweat as I try to keep my son from nose-diving off of a table.
It's at this point that I ask Michael about Strachan. It's clear that with memories of his son accompanying him on his trip, not even a tornado was going to blow him off course.
"When I'm doing it for my son and for the foundation, quitting is not an option," he says. "It's too important.
It's not about me, I've got to finish this. I had a bigger purpose than just satisfying my own needs. I don't want to be phony about that, but it's true."
As our conversation nears an end I don't ask him the final question that burns in my mind - what it feels like to lose a son. For one thing, I don't want to know. With my boy sitting in my arms, I'm too afraid to even consider the possibility. For another thing, I imagine that for the unfortunate few who have lost a child, it is something that really can't be put into words. I imagine it's something you feel in your entire body, something that shrinks mere language into inconsequential noises.
Instead I ask him what made his kids such high achievers. Strachan Hartley won a Vanier Cup as captain of the UBC football team. Wyatt Hartley played both running back and linebacker in CIS football. AimÃ©e-NoÃ«l Hartley won NCAA titles as a skier and Blythe Hartley, the most famous of the bunch, won Olympic bronze and world championship gold as a diver.
The simple answer, he says, is sport. He tells of the young Hartley kids hitting swim meets in old North Vancouver pools, coming home and setting goals, honing focus, deciding what sacrifices and skills they would need to become great leaders, winners, friends.
"I could see it happening in front of my eyes in a short period of time," he says, his voice finally cracking. "I knew that the job was being done."
During his trip Michael Hartley collected approximately $37,000 for the Strachan Hartley Legacy Foundation. Since its creation the foundation has raised more than $750,000 for sport organizations in Canada and abroad. For more information visit shlf.ca. To read more about Michael Hartley's cross-country adventures visit his blog at makeadifferencepaddle.blogspot.ca.