Monthly Archives: September 2017

A Song of Ice and Fjords, Part 1


When you’ve become used to being on the road for months at a time, two weeks doesn’t seem like much. Funny, then, how a 14-day trip to Iceland and Norway can fill enough memories for a year. What follows is just one of those memories.


“Your tent sucks.”

My girlfriend looked at me out of the corner of her eye, a wry smile forming at her lips.

We sat, huddled in the front seats of our rental car, sleeping bags tugged unwieldily around us, as an interminable rain poured down just beyond the increasingly foggy car windows. We were in Ólafsvík, a small fishing town on the western tip of Iceland, tourists held prisoner by the weather. It had been raining since the previous night, and my girlfriend was right: my tent did suck. I’d brought it because, well, I already had it — and as in most cases, I preferred the free option over buying a new one. If it meant waking up in a puddle, well, that was a risk I was willing to take — only this time, it appeared it would mean waking up in the doghouse, too.

The day started promisingly enough. We had camped the night before in Blönduós, another seaside town dotted with white-walled, red-roofed homes that straddle the Blanda River in the northwest of Iceland. We’d gone to sleep with visions of hiking up Kirkjufell, Iceland’s most iconic mountain, the following day. We’d even done our part in ensuring good karma by giving a ride to a pair of French hitchhikers in the morning — in the pouring rain, no less. Mother Nature, it seemed, wasn’t into the whole karma thing. Instead, she was more the Old Testament type: fire and brimstone, turned rain.

We drove west and into the belly of the beast: a wet, thickening haze that strained the upper limits of our windshield wipers. It was the kind of rain you tried to squint through, knowing full well it wasn’t making a damn of a difference.

Hello, Iceland.

We had left the main highway for gravel roads — and our car, once bright red, was now a muddy brown. We were on the way to Grundarfjörður, home to Kirkjufell — that of Game of Thrones and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty fame: a mountain that, when viewed from the southern end, rises to a near-perfect point. Our initial plan was to spend the night there at a campsite within view of the mountain and ocean beyond. One look at the campsite and those dreams dissipated quickly: the field was soaked through, puddles forming in the blades of grass. The mountain trail would be a mess, too — not least because it was less of an established and easy-to-follow trail, and more of a vertical climb through occasionally precariously steep terrain.

Weather be damned, we were only going to visit this place once. Might as well make the most of it. We scrapped the mountain-climbing plans and resolved to explore the nearby Kirkjufellsfoss, a two-tiered waterfall that cascades into a shallow, blue-gray stream leading out to the ocean. The rain clouds hung thick and low over the mountain beyond, lending a striking backdrop to the scene. It was one of those moments when you laughed to yourself, remembering the sheer beauty of your surroundings.

Martin Bauman - A Song of Ice and Fjords

Onward we went to Ólafsvík, along coastal roads blanketed in mist. Evening was fast approaching — a time we would usually spend cooking on our small, propane-fuelled camp stove outdoors — but with the rain showing no signs of slowing, we made an exception.

“Let’s go out to dinner,” my girlfriend suggested. “My treat.”

We popped into a cafe where the server — in perfect English, honed through hours of herding lost tourists — apologized for not having any food on the menu, instead pointing us down the road to one of the other two restaurants in town. It suited us just fine: the place was warm, and the atmosphere inviting. Soft, yellow incandescent bulbs hung from the wooden-beamed interior. Candles flickered at the table. It felt as though we’d arrived in a grand, communal cabin — at last, some shelter from the rain.

We set about ordering our meals, relishing in the chance to shed our now-soaked jackets. Browsing through the menu, we both settled on a modest meal of hamburgers and fries. My girlfriend ordered a beer, too. (If you’ve spent a króna before, you’ll know where this is going.) We scarfed down our burgers and basked in the building’s warmth before the bill came. Final tally? $75 CAD.

Hello, Iceland.

Back on the road, the rain relented enough for us to spot the squat, blue tent sign pointing towards the town’s campsite. After pulling into the wide, open field banked by hills, with a small wooden building housing a kitchen, toilets, and showers, we drove to the farthest corner and claimed the driest, flattest spot we could find — which, it should be said, wasn’t saying much at this point. The rain had mostly turned to drizzle, leaving a brief window to set up our tent in relative comfort. Out came the tarp, spread wide over the soggy blades of grass, then the tent, fly, and pegs. As with much of Iceland, the pegs proved a bit of a challenge: just beneath the grassy surface was pure rock and pebble. You could try to move the peg around and find a better hole, but the odds were even greater that you’d only find a worse one.

In the end — after a few curses from bent pegs and sore hands — the job was done. We headed to the campsite’s picnic tables to relax and enjoy the remnants of the evening, playing cards and chatting with fellow travellers. By nightfall, we trundled back through the rain to our tent, where one look beyond the zippered fly confirmed the worst: it was waterlogged.

Out came the soggy air mattresses, stuffed into the trunk of the car, and we piled into the front seats — our only sanctuary left from the rain. I’d spent my fair share of nights in the car the year before in New Zealand, and half of me was feeling nostalgic about the prospect of doing it again. Then I tried to get comfortable in the reclined passenger seat and remembered why we didn’t do it more often: it’s friggin’ hard to find a good sleeping position when your legs dangle off the edge of the seat by a good foot. I’d settle for twenty minutes and realize my legs had fallen asleep before I could. Only the eventual sun’s rise put an end to the night’s discomfort — and I was all too glad to get out of the car and greet the morning.

Something magical did happen, though, when I wrestled myself out of the dank confines of my sleeping bag and into the crisp, morning air. The night’s rain —
by then, nearly a two-day rain — had cleared, and in its place, a vibrant rainbow spread across the sky. The fog — thick as a curtain just hours before — had finally dissipated, revealing a backdrop of lush, green mountains stretching into the horizon. Just beyond the campsite fence, a team of Icelandic horses grazed in the morning dew.

A smile breaking out across my face, I mustered the only two words I could:

Hello, Iceland.

Other things we saw:

Vík í Mýrdal, Iceland. #iceland #icelandtravel #traveliceland #hikingfun

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Húsavík, Iceland. #husavik #iceland #icelandtravel #traveliceland #farnorth

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Story Untold: “We’re Nowhere Near Perfect, But We’re Finding a Recipe That’s Working”

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My Son The Hurricane is used to standing out onstage — after all, not too many bands come with 14 members these days. But after their latest scene-stealing cross-Canada tour, the Niagara/Toronto brasshop funk collective is standing out in a whole new way.

“It’s a dream come true,” says frontman Jacob Bergsma, the always-energetic emcee.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do, so the idea of waking up in some hotel room in one city, and then ending the day in a completely different city in a completely different hotel room… it’s an absolute dream come true for me.”

“We would crash into bed [on tour], and then [our vocalist] Sylvie would look over from her bed and say, ‘Oh my God, we’re in Edmonton right now.’ And we would both start laughing, because of course, it’s insane. Just the mere scope of everything is insane,” adds Danno O’Shea, Hurricane’s drummer and bandleader.

For the group that first formed nearly a decade ago after O’Shea put together a wishlist of band members, the momentum is starting to build. Performances at Hillside, Riverfest, Evolve, and the Beaches International Jazz Festival have cemented the group’s live show bonafides, and recognition from the likes of CBC Radio One and Much More Music have followed.

“It’s crazy to think about, because when Danno and I first started working together and hanging out, he ran a bong shop and I worked at a book warehouse, you know what mean?” Bergsma laughs.

“I do these music seminars now where we talk about making the biz, and how we do licensing music, and all this stuff — and I’ll say, ‘Don’t think it was always going great for me,’” adds O’Shea.

The band’s latest release, 2016’s Is This What You Want?!, has led 99.7 HTZ-FM to highlight Hurricane as a “Band on the Verge.” Their genre-defying sound has also put them on concert bills along performers of all stripes — from bluegrass, to folk, to hip-hop.

“Usually, if you’re a metal band, you play metal shows. And if you’re a rapper, you play with rappers. With us, we’ve had the opportunity to play with a gigantic and dynamic group of musicians, and it introduces us to all different kinds of sounds. And we’ve ended up making our strongest relationships with people that are so polar opposite to us,” Bergsma laughs.

As for what’s to come?

“We’re nowhere near perfect,” says Bergsma, “but we’re finding a recipe that’s working.”

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Story Untold: “I Would Never Want to Lose the Addict Part of Me, Because It’s All the Best Parts of Me”

Charlie Engle

Charlie Engle is not like most people. For one thing, he’s run across the Sahara Desert — a feat that turned into a documentary narrated by none other than Matt Damon. He’s “summited ice-covered volcanoes, swam with crocodiles, and served a stint in federal prison.” Making the North Carolina-based writer and ultramarathon runner’s story even more improbable is that he’s accomplished everything after overcoming a life-threatening drug and alcohol addiction.

Engle had always been an athlete. After running a five-minute mile in Grade 8, he went on to star in six sports throughout high school. It was only after starting university at North Carolina that he discovered another, more destructive talent.

“I figured out very quickly that I was an absolute brilliant, All-American drinker,” says Engle. “And that became — unfortunately for me — my hobby to begin with, and then my vocation later, and then it became the thing that sort of sustained me.”

What started with alcohol turned to cocaine — which, in the United States of the 1980s, came to define an era of drug use.

“I did a couple of lines, and it was like some super light switched on in my head, and it didn’t really switch off again for ten years,” says Engle. “I had lots of friends in college that could do a little bit, and party and have some fun, and actually go to bed and get up and go to class the next day. I was not that guy.”

“It seemed like there was nothing I couldn’t do. And then of course, twenty minutes later, you need more of it, and then it starts all over again.” – Charlie Engle

No longer attending class, Engle eventually left the University of North Carolina in his junior year and moved in with his father in California. He describes the next ten years as “chasing that first experience and trying to match that initial [high].”

“Addicts are suckers for their inner addict,” says Engle. “That’s the voice that gets listened to, and it’s a very hard voice to resist.”

The tipping point, he says, came in July of 1992 after the birth of his firstborn son. Vowing to get clean, he nonetheless ended up on a lengthy crack cocaine binge in Wichita, Kansas, during which his car ended up littered with bullet holes that were intended for him.

“Nobody else could save me,” says Engle. “I thought my son could actually be my saviour. I thought he could stop me from being a drug addict. And the final dose of reality [was] understanding that there was no one but me that could actually make that happen.”

Newly sober, Engle turned to the one thing that made him feel alive: running. He started entering marathons, and then ultramarathons — running through jungles, over mountains, and in races around the world. One day, a friend — Canadian Ray Zahab — floated the idea of running across the Sahara.

“You know, the why was as simple as no one had ever done it before,” says Engle, “and there are very few firsts in the endurance world that are left anymore. It gave us this incredible opportunity to see if we could do something that had never been done.”

“Seeing the world through the soles of my feet is so much more satisfying and meaningful than seeing it from the passenger seat of a tour bus. That’s what running has done for me. It’s given me a relatable way to see the world.” – Charlie Engle

Joined by Kevin Lin, another ultramarathon runner from Taiwan, the two embarked on the challenge in November of 2006, running through six countries and nearly 7,000 kilometres from Senegal to Egypt. Engle partnered with narrator Damon to create H20 Africa — an initiative which has since become — with the goal of bringing clean water to communities along the Sahara route.

Now 25 years sober and a motivational speaker, Engle has turned his life’s story into the memoir Running Man. The story captures Engle’s peaks and valleys, from the depths of addiction, to the vastness of the Sahara, to his time behind prison bars.

“I would never want to lose the addict part of me, because it’s all the best parts of me,” says Engle.

“If I’m not drinking and using, it’s the thing that’s made me successful in some things; it’s the thing that’s made me good at some things. And it’s given me drive and determination, and quirkiness and humour. You know, you can only throw up on your shoes so many frickin’ times and not laugh about it.”

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Story Untold: “I Had Every Strike Against Me”

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Very few voices can cut through a room like Wali Shah’s. The Mississauga-raised spoken word artist’s signature baritone has led him to appearing on MTV with Selena Gomez, presenting as a TEDx speaker, performing at the Air Canada Centre, and even freestyling with Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Pakistan, Shah touches on social issues and his South Asian and Muslim background, and blends it with comedy and personal experience in his spoken word art. In 2014, he was selected as one of Youth in Motion’s Top 20 Under 20 — a Canada-wide honour — and this year, he was announced as Mississauga’s Poet Laureate.

“It’s a dream come true. All of this,” says Shah. It wasn’t too long ago, he notes, “I had every strike against me.”

Shah was 15 years old when he was arrested for assault charges and spent the night in jail.

“For a long time, I felt like I didn’t know where my place was,” he says. “When I was younger, I had a lot of friends that weren’t the best examples or influences in my life. I ended up making some wrong friends.”

Being taken away from his home in a police car — while his mother looked on in tears — affected Shah deeply.

“I remember thinking, ‘I let my parents down. My parents came from Pakistan to Canada to give their kid an education and a future, and I let [them] down,’” he says.

Vowing to turn his situation into a positive, Shah began volunteering in earnest and looking for ways to make a difference in his community.

“The positive I took from that situation was that I want to use this experience to fuel my future work in terms of advocating for kids that are at risk, or advocating for men that have the wrong perception of what masculinity is, which [leads] them [to] make decisions that can be life-altering,” he says.

“You can make a difference through your art.”

Shah’s high school teacher handed him a book, Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete. He began finding his calling as a spoken word artist and motivational speaker, gaining strength from telling his story.

He started working with UNITY Charity, then United Way — the latter of which he has raised over $1-million for to date.

“I’ve always been able to take a positive from every situation,” says Shah.

“If I didn’t have the struggles, I also wouldn’t be able to appreciate all the blessings.”

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Story Untold: “It’s Amazing What You Can Overcome [With] the Right People Around You”

If there’s a blueprint to recovery after a traumatic brain injury, Ben Fanelli is prototype.

Eight years after suffering a fractured skull as a 16-year-old rookie in the Ontario Hockey League — an incident that left him hospitalized and at risk of needing brain surgery — the former Kitchener Ranger is happy, healthy, and showing no signs of slowing down.

These days, Fanelli sits on the board of directors of the EMPWR Foundation, a charitable movement driven towards concussion recovery that he spearheaded in the two years after his 2009 injury. He’s an assistant coach with the University of Waterloo men’s hockey team, and in his spare time, he runs his own fitness company.

Remarkable, considering his odds of recovery all those years ago. After being checked into the boards behind his own net, the Rangers rookie’s helmet came off and his head hit the metal stanchion holding the panes of glass together. He went unconscious.

The hit sent shockwaves through the hockey community. Well-wishes came all the way from Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada. Fanelli was airlifted to the hospital and has no recollection of the 24-hours surrounding the injury.

“[The doctor] said that sports were completely out of the question for the rest of my life,” says Fanelli. “He said that if I did go to school, I would need two years off and would need a teaching assistant in all my classes. And the scariest thing he had for me was that I may not be the same person I was the first 16 years of my life.”

“When I came to in the hospital, I remember the doctor was standing to my right and my mom was sitting to my left, and as I started to come to, my mom asked, ‘Ben, do you know why you’re here?’ And instantly, I started to tear up, because I had no concept or idea why I was in that hospital bed.” – Ben Fanelli

So began a two-year recovery process during which Fanelli — undeterred — prepared himself for a shot at returning.

“What I came to realize was that if and ever I was able to play the game of hockey again, it would have to be step-by-step and [by] slowly chip[ping] away,” he says. “The concept I came to understand and that gave me hope was that each day’s an opportunity to bring yourself that much closer to whatever that goal is. So say my odds were very low to start with, each day you can add half a percent, and then the next day, another half percent.”

Newly motivated and energized, Fanelli eventually moved back to Kitchener to continue his recovery. In 2011, he launched Head Strong: Fanelli for Brain Injury Awareness (now EMPWR) and trained to compete in a triathlon.

“I walked into [head coach Steve Spott’s] office, and he said, ‘Ben, you’re a part of this team for the next five years if you want to be. We’re going to leave your stall there; that’s your spot. Your role’s going to be up to you.’ And that was just the beginning of an incredible two years of support.” – Ben Fanelli

“There were times I would go into [a coffee shop],” says Fanelli, “and people would stop and say, ‘Hey, I hope to see you playing again, but if not, I wish you the best with whatever you do with your life.’”

On September 23rd, 2011, that day finally came.

Fanelli made his return to the Rangers lineup to a standing ovation. The following year, he was named the OHL’s Humanitarian of the Year — the first Kitchener Ranger ever to win the award. Two years later, he was voted team captain.

As for the years to come, only time will tell.

“It’s amazing what you can overcome when you have the right people around you,” says Fanelli.

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