Monthly Archives: February 2018

Story Untold: “It’s Pretty Hard to Pry Yourself Away from [a Forest Fire]”

Story Untold with Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams remembers the first forest fire that left him awestruck. The author of Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir, Williams has spent ten seasons fighting blazes across the vast forests of Western Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Idaho — a run that puts him well beyond most firefighters who spend two or three seasons in the profession before moving on.

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It’s a job that attracts many looking to prove their strength and inner fortitude, but towards the end of his first season, long ago on a deployment in Idaho, Williams got an appreciation of the scale of the task. His crew had been helicoptered in to fight a blaze along a ridge, and the fire burned well within view of their campsite for the night.

“At the end of the day, we’re getting into our tents and feeling like we’re pretty cool and hardcore, and then this hotshot crew marches up this ridge single-file — it’s just getting dark, there’s trees candling not far away […] and they stop, roll out their sleeping bags, and just lay down and fall asleep on the ground with their boots on,” Williams laughs.

He was hooked.

“You can hear the fire chewing its way through the forest,” says Williams. “It’s pretty hard to pry yourself away from that; it’s just such an incredibly powerful thing that’s happening.”

Over the course of the next decade, Williams — a native of Prince Rupert, British Columbia — kept returning for season after season of forest firefighting, unable to find a match for the adrenaline rush and close bonds formed on a crew. These seasons form the plot for Chasing Smoke, Williams’ debut novel after graduating from the Creative Nonfiction MFA program at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

“I always thought it’d be neat to write a book about a season of firefighting […] I always felt there was a pretty big misconception about what the job is and what it entails,” he says. “I find the human side quite interesting, especially the bonds that you form with the people you do the job with.”

As for whether he’d return for an eleventh season, Williams breaks into a smile — already a veteran of the job for far longer than most last:

“My buddy always says it’s the most educated blue-collar workforce in the country, and I absolutely think that’s true.”

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Story Untold: “Loneliness is Human and That’s Okay”

Story Untold with Marissa Korda

Marissa Korda has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be lonely. The creator of The Loneliness Project — billed as “a digital space to cultivate compassion” — Korda has received over a thousand stories from around the world about the experience of loneliness.

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It all started as a passion project at her day job as a Toronto-based graphic designer, sparked by an interest in empathy-building.

“Empathy and compassion are things that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year-and-a-half, two years, as I feel like I’ve been seeing news and a state of affairs in the world that I think does not promote empathy, compassion, [or] kindness — and I think those are values as a society that we don’t really promote as much as we should,” says Korda.

After thinking about how she could make a difference, she came up with An Imperfect Archive of Us — a project focused on telling stories about the less-glorified elements of the human experience — and started with loneliness.

“Loneliness is something that everybody at some point in their lives has experienced,” she says. “Everybody has context for it; they know what it feels like and how terrible it can be at times. Because loneliness is a very common experience, it’s a way to […] connect people in a really effective way through stories.”

“To me, loneliness is universal […] I’ve read over a thousand stories from different people, and so I’m trying to think of an answer that represents all of those people’s stories. And because they’re so diverse, I can’t — but at the same time, they are very, very similar.” – Marissa Korda

Korda began by soliciting stories from her family and friends, branching out into her online network in search of willing participants.

“I was like, ‘Hello, I’m either your Facebook friend or a random lady with a Google Form. I would love for you to tell me some really personal things about your life. Go!’” she laughs. “And people did, which is the most amazing thing. I was shocked that I got almost 100 stories before the site even existed.”

Through her website and social media, she has created an online community of sorts, catching the interest of Buzzfeed, CBC News, The Walrus, and the Toronto Star. Stories have come in from 60 countries around the world and counting. Through the process — which began in May of 2017 — Korda has gained a unique insight into how loneliness is experienced by young and old alike.

“It just made me realize how universal the stories are. They’re not different. The stories that I get from China are the same as the stories from Canada,” she says. “They’re very, very similar, the things that people feel they’re missing in their lives.”

Where once she might have felt resentment for the feeling, Korda has gained an acceptance for loneliness, too:

“It’s not anything abnormal; it’s just part of what it means to be human. It’s okay.”

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Story Untold: “If You Fail Enough Times, It Starts to Look Like Success”

Story Untold with Ryan Robinson

Photo of Ryan Robinson from Instagram (@handsomerobinson). Photo credit: Garrison Rowland.

The first time Ryan Robinson set foot on a slackline, he swore he’d never do it again. An Ironman competitor and rock climber who grew up near Sacramento, California, he ventured onto a line at his local climbing gym, waiting until everyone had left.

“I didn’t want anyone to see me do it and fail,” he says. “I got on it once, and I fell off and [cut] my leg. I just figured, ‘this is the stupidest sport.’”

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Fast forward to 2018, and Robinson is one of the highlining’s most recognizable faces — a sport in which participants aim to cross slacklines suspended hundreds of feet in the air, often hundreds of feet long. He has starred in campaigns with Red Bull, GoPro, and National Geographic, and appearing on American Ninja Warrior. He has “travelled the world walking one-inch bridges across the sky,” and has his sights set on walking 1,000 metres blindfolded.

All it took was a change in circumstances. After a period of intense transition — marked by the ends of a relationship, job, and college degree — he came across a clip from the Flight of the Frenchies documentary, following two of the sport’s pioneers. He was enthralled.

“I was just always searching for more […] I really wanted to see how far I could push myself until I broke.” – Ryan Robinson

“I found this and just stuck to it so hard that I think most of my family and friends thought I was going absolutely crazy,” Robinson laughs. “All of a sudden, I’m selling everything I own and buying a bunch of ropes so that I can learn how to balance on them.”

A chance meeting with Jerry Miszewski — a man Robinson describes as “the Michael Jordan” of highlining — came after Robinson started researching the sport in earnest, trying to find the right gear to buy. He had emailed Balance Community, eager to learn more about highlining. It just so happened that Miszewski was the man behind Balance Community. Miszewski invited him out to the gym to slackline together.

“Of all the places in the world, he’s in Davis, 45 minutes away from me,” says Robinson.

A determined student, Robinson began training on longer and higher lines, eventually earning his place as a professional. Still working a day job at this point, he was faced with a tough decision.

“I had just landed a really great marketing job I went to school for,” he says. “I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. I was talking to my brother and he said, ‘Look, man. You can always find a marketing job, but you can never go back to being a professional highliner.’ The next day, I walked right to my boss’s desk, interrupted a meeting, and told him I had to quit.”

These days, it looks like Robinson’s gamble paid off. No longer a rookie, the California native has become a leader in the sport — amassing an ever-growing following online. Still, the humility persists.

“I am a huge failure. It’s the only reason I’ve been able to do this,” says Robinson. “If you fail enough times, it starts to look like success.”

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