Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Littlest Rascal Bids Adieu


He had breath that could light a candle. It smelled like the back of a refrigerator once the milk’s gone bad and the onions have grown sprouts — as if his pipes had rearranged themselves, and his head and his tail had switched ends.

It wasn’t always that way, but as his teeth fell out over the years, it became his calling card: instead of turning heads as he walked into a room, he turned noses.

He was a stubborn son of a gun. He didn’t walk so much as he sniffed his surroundings for food: whatever scraps of chicken bone, pizza crust, or rabbit droppings he could find on the boulevards lining the sidewalk when garbage day came around. In winter, he’d plant his feet on the pavement and spread-eagle until you caved and turned around for home.

He wasn’t much of a listener. He could sit and lie down on command for a year or two, maybe, but he was never going to win the Westminster Dog Show. In grade school, he bit a hole in my friend’s ear who thought he wanted to play rough. He couldn’t have been more than 15 pounds at the time.

He was the runt of the litter. By the time we got him, he was the only one left — the bichon frisé whose sandy blonde curls stood out from the milky white of his brothers and sisters. He was so small, he hopped through the grass like a rabbit. We fell for him instantly.

He was a handsome fellow. On his third birthday, we threw him a party with a few of the neighbourhood dogs, and they ended up stacked three-high, humping one another. He was neutered by then, but it didn’t matter; his smile was as wide as can be.

He was infinitely huggable. No matter how many years passed, kids would still call from across the street, wanting to say hello to the puppy. On the couch, he would nestle himself into the folds of the blanket, resting his head on your legs and melting your heart into butter.

He was our watchful guardian. I would scoop him up under an arm and carry him around the house, giving him the bird’s eye view he always craved. In his younger days, he would scamper to the highest perch on the sunroom couch and look out the window as the neighbourhood kids walked by and squirrels performed high-wire acts on the bird feeder, angling for a free meal. He was Simba on Pride Rock, looking out at his kingdom.

Charlie would have turned 16 next Saturday — an old dog, even by old dog’s standards. His hearing wasn’t much anymore, and his eyes were cloudy with cataracts. He passed away this morning after a round of tearful goodbyes.

In truth, I had been mulling over the words of his obituary for months already — once the signs of old age became more pronounced and more frequent. Still, writing them today, the words don’t come any easier. Things fall apart. What begins must come to an end. Every now and then, a reminder comes along that life is made beautiful by its impermanence — even if it still hurts when they’re gone.

I loved him. And he loved me. And in the end, that was all that mattered.



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Story Untold: “The Crazy Ideas Are Always the Best Ones”

Story Untold with Amy Tunstall

A lot can change in a year. Amy Tunstall is living proof. In February of 2017, she had sought help for depression and anxiety. In the past twelve months alone, the Niagara-raised Tunstall has hiked the Bruce Trail, raising over $3,000 for her home branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association; fought one of the busiest forest fire seasons in British Columbia; backpacked throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua; and hiked the entirety of the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain.

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All it took was a car crash for a change of perspective.

It happened in Montana–part of the 3,000-kilometre annual trip to begin the fire season. Tunstall was hit with a snowstorm in April on a remote stretch of mountain road — “we got about 30 centimetres of snow in a two-hour period,” she says — and she spun out on black ice, crashing into a berm.

“I was just stuck there, shaking,” says Tunstall. “In that moment, my life could have been over … If I was 200 metres down, I would have hit the curb and completely went off [the cliff].”

She was lucky. Not long after, a truck driver with a tow rope happened to pass by, helping her get back on the road and wait until police arrived.

“If I had gone any further down the mountain pass, I wouldn’t have had any cell reception to call the police,” she says. “I had been driving down this road for two hours, and I had not seen a single person on this road.”

Before the crash, says Tunstall, she had been wrestling with questions about her purpose and life’s direction. Entering her mid-twenties, she had already cycled across Canada, completed another cycle trip across New Zealand, and finished yet another cycle trip from Brazil to Peru. Still, the doubts entered her mind.

What am I doing with my life?” she says. ”I’ve been focusing a lot on travel, and a lot on adventures, and that’s not necessarily society’s way of wanting you to be.”

With a realization of how close she might have come to the end, she started thinking about what would become her next step: something that would benefit others and show them her love for the outdoors, too. When fire season ended, she left to hike the Bruce Trail and fundraise for the CMHA, calling it “A Million Steps for Mental Health.”

“A lot of the trails, I had hiked when I was younger, and that was really my introduction to the outdoors — just playing around,” says Tunstall.

Over the course of a month, she walked over 900 kilometres from Tobermory to Queenston Heights. For Tunstall, who lost her father to suicide and knows the experience of mental illness quite intimately, it was also a chance to get people actively engaged in their mental health.

“It’s been quite a process, but in the last year, I feel a lot more grounded, more balanced, and more aware of what’s going on. I’m not in this repetitive thought process […] I’ve started to move forward and really work on goals that I want.” – Amy Tunstall

“It was amazing,” she says. “The final twenty kilometres, my family met up with me, and by the time I made it into Queenston Heights, I had about fifty people walking with me […] It was just an unbelievable experience.”

Not long after, Tunstall left for Central America, intent on buying a motorcycle and teaching herself to ride. After surviving a crash and an infection scare that left her in the hospital — “anything and everything that could go wrong, probably did go wrong,” says Tunstall — she returned to Canada for a short stay before packing up once again and heading to Europe to hike the famed Camino de Santiago… never mind that it was winter.

“We’d get up to the top of the mountain pass, and it would be a full-blown snowstorm,” she says.

Some might have called the idea of hiking the Camino in winter crazy.

To that, Tunstall has one reply: “The crazy ideas are always the best ones.”

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Story Untold: “No Healthy Person is Seeking the Affirmation of Strangers Night After Night”

Story Untold with Matt Falk

Photo from Photo credit: Kaeleb Visram/Sea of Glass.

Matt Falk was born to do comedy. A stand-up coming from Niverville, Manitoba, Falk has been performing on stages ever since the first high school talent shows where he was handed a microphone.

“I was that kid in school who was constantly trying to get attention. I was the class clown, but the annoying class clown,” he says.

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“I think a lot of people who grow up in small towns have a chip on their shoulder about small towns, understandably so. It can be difficult. There’s no anonymity in a small town […] But for me, that really helped,” adds Falk. “You had everyone in your business, but when you’re trying to self-promote, you kinda want everyone in your business.”

Starting as a 15-year-old magician who would perform for kids at corporate parties — “I’m wearing a bright-red women’s blazer from the thrift store. It was like the brightest thing I could find, so in my mind, that was a good magician suit jacket,” says Falk — the Niverville native grew up idolizing Ellen DeGeneres and Robin Williams, memorizing their performances and adding their bits to his own sets.

“My early couple years, I stole a lot of material from other [comics],” Falk laughs. “People were like, ‘you’re really good.’ And I’m like, ‘no, they’re really good.’”

Originally, he thought he’d become a pastor, but got a feeling that he was meant for comedy instead. So it was that Falk began writing his own material, talking about growing up as a Mennonite in small-town Manitoba.

“I had this blind optimism. I never thought that there was something to overcome, or that I was somehow at a disadvantage. I was like 17 when I was getting into comedy clubs and really busting onto the comedy scene, and people were just amazed that I was so young and putting together full sentences that were funny.” – Matt Falk

“Everytime I would mention Mennonite at all onstage, it would get a huge laugh. And I didn’t even really understand why at that age. You just kind of know it’s working,” he says.

Every now and then, Falk’s background would raise an eyebrow or two.

“That’s a big question I get: how do you do comedy as a Mennonite? I never understand that question,” he laughs. “I just do.”

At 21 years old, Falk got his first big break, finishing second at the World Series of Comedy in Las Vegas.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Just being in the competition was like, huge.”

Fresh off his success, Falk moved out to British Columbia and then Ontario, leaving the small town of 4,000 he’d called home for all of his life. At the same time, he was starting to hit his first growing pains in the industry, a challenge Falk would have to confront time and again over the coming years.

“It was only in my early twenties that I really started facing this huge crisis, because I was no longer young enough to be, like, a prodigy. I now had to be funny enough just as an adult, and that was when I really started to struggle,” he says. “The only reason you get into comedy in the first place is there’s some sort of insecurity. No healthy person is seeking the affirmation of strangers night after night. So when you go onstage and it doesn’t work, all that insecurity — the stuff that makes you a comedian, your superpower — comes back, and it turns out to be your downfall.”

“I don’t know why we have fears. I know that fear is a liar.” – Matt Falk

Now back in Niverville, Falk is able to reflect. His latest comedy album, 2017’s Generational Gaps, reached #1 on the iTunes Comedy charts, his second offering to reach the top after 2013’s Apple Pie & Scars. The self-doubt hasn’t totally left — and perhaps it never really does for any of us — but with time, he’s gained new perspective.

“Our feelings are excellent followers, but they’re horrible leaders. So often, we put them in charge of things, and they shouldn’t be in charge of things,” says Falk. “The only way to get yourself out of these things is to know your true identity. I know who I am, and who I am is not Matt Falk, the comedian. You need to know who you are, and it needs to be based off something bigger than you.”

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Story Untold: “If You’ve Never Experienced Fear and Faced It, You’re Not Living”

Story Untold with Hilaree Nelson O'Neill

Dubbed one of the most adventurous women in the world of sports by Outside magazine and “the matriarch of mountaineering” by the Seattle Times, Hilaree Nelson O’Neill has seen her fair share of expeditions. Born in the Pacific Northwest, Nelson O’Neill has piled up a list of accomplishments over a 20-year career that would put her in the conversation with the most seasoned of adventurers.

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In 2017, she reached the summit of India’s Mt. Papsura, a 6,451-metre peak known in local lore as the “Peak of Evil” — a mountain that, next to its twin of Dharamsura (the “Peak of Good”), changes in height according to how much good or evil exists in the world at any given moment, so the story goes. Making matters more difficult, she and her climbing partners descended by skis once they reached the top.

“It’s a solid 55-degree pitch, and you’ve got maybe a millimetre of this crunchy snow on top of blue ice, and you’re in this whiteout — a total whiteout,” she says. “You can’t even tell the blue ice from the places where there are snow, and you know that there’s this bottomless pit below you that just wants to eat you up and spit you out.”

“You know that there’s this bottomless pit below you that just wants to eat you up and spit you out.” – Hilaree Nelson O’Neill

Nelson O’Neill would be recognized by National Geographic as one of the publication’s 2018 Adventurers of the Year for the feat, hardly the first in her list of accomplishments. In 2012, she became the first woman to climb two 8,000-metre peaks in 24 hours, summiting Mt. Everest and Lhotse while dealing with two torn ligaments in her ankle.

“It was freezing cold. If you took your goggles off, your eyeballs would freeze,” says Nelson O’Neill.

For most people, a trek to the top of Everest would stand as the pinnacle of accomplishment and adventure. For Nelson O’Neill, it’s practically a footnote. Perhaps her greatest story of all is that of her failed trip to Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi, a remote peak believed to be the tallest in Southeast Asia. She went on the expedition in 2014, looking for a “classic adventure” after the commercialized experience on Everest.

“We thought that it would be a really great idea to craft this as an old-fashioned expedition, which meant we went overland all the way from the main city, Yangon — which is way in the south of Myanmar — and we travelled some 1,000 miles before we even got to where we started walking,” says Nelson O’Neill.

“We had one or two pictures of the peak from a Japanese guy that had climbed there in the mid-nineties, but we weren’t even sure that they were photos of the actual mountain. So it was incredibly difficult to plan. All of the logistics were so loose, and we had to be really ready for things to not quite go as we expected.”

“I really just love pushing myself and getting in those situations, and it hasn’t abated as of yet.” – Hilaree Nelson O’Neill

True to form, things did not go as expected. The team encountered setback after setback on the way and were running critically low on food supplies by the time they arrived at base camp. A series of arguments nearly threatened to fracture the fragile bonds of the team, and the group of five became a group of three for the final push to the summit, one which ultimately had to be called off.

“I almost quit my life of expedition athlete after that expedition,” she says.

Now four years later, Nelson O’Neill can look back on the adventure and laugh.

“You have to have a mindset where you go in with the expectation that things are going to go as you planned, but the flexibility and the relaxedness to adapt, and change, and laugh at things,” she says.

O’Neill has also learned to live with the threat of danger that comes with each expedition.“We all have fears,” she says, “and it can be so debilitating, but if you’ve never experienced fear and faced it … you’re not living. I remind myself of that all the time. It is that fear that we should be seeking out, that we should looking for, in order to enrich our lives.”

Photo from Hilaree Nelson O’Neill via Facebook. Subscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

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Story Untold: “Anything Is Possible, Really”

Story Untold with Mario Rigby

For all the planning that went into walking across Africa, Mario Rigby realized the enormity of his task at 30,000 feet in the air, en route from Toronto to Cape Town via Amsterdam. The Turks and Caicos-born personal trainer and amateur explorer was about to embark on a two-year journey from South Africa to Egypt, travelling 12,000 kilometres by foot.

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“I was thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing?’” Rigby laughs. “It became real.”

Inspired by the great explorers of history and aiming to follow the human migrational trail through Africa, Rigby — a former track and field athlete — had packed up his life in Toronto with a plan to travel solo through eight countries, accomplishing a feat last completed in the 19th Century.

“I wanted to experience everything that there is to experience about humanity,” says Rigby.

Having spent his adolescent years in Turks and Caicos and Germany before moving to Canada, Rigby recalls the stories his stepfather would tell from his travels in the military, leaving him and his brother wide-eyed with wonder.

“He would always show me and my brother pictures of him going on these crazy adventures where’s holding down a crocodile or skiing down the sand dunes. You can imagine how cool that must have been for a son looking up to his dad,” he says. “So it was always kind of in my blood to experience that.”

Before setting off to walk across Africa, however, Rigby first had to learn how to pitch a tent and walk for hours on end. At 29, he had never camped in his life.

“I actually started by pitching my tent at [Toronto’s High Park]. You’re not allowed to camp in the park, but I decided what the heck, I’m just going to go there,” he laughs. The rain was moving sideways, and I still decided to go with it, because I figured there were going to be worse conditions [on the expedition].”

“I quickly learned that being fit isn’t the strongest requirement for this sort of [expedition]; it’s more about willpower, survival skills, and people skills.” – Mario Rigby

Rigby planned a walk from Toronto to Hamilton as preparation. Through blistered feet and long days in the sun, he built on his endurance.

“I decided to go at it in one shot. I was wearing completely the wrong kind of shoes; I had the wrong backpack… everything was wrong,” says Rigby. “It took me about 15 hours.”

Still, he was undeterred. He followed his Hamilton trek with a journey from Toronto to Montreal by foot, and by November of 2015, he was ready. Rigby would walk from Cape Town to Cairo, testing his stamina and meeting hundreds of Africans along the way, hearing their stories. On November 24th, he began — striking out from Cape of Good Hope and following the coast of South Africa towards Mozambique, a stretch of the journey that would take a year in itself.

In hindsight, the 6’3” Rigby looks back on the early days of the trek and laughs at his unpreparedness — or rather, his overpreparedness.

“I had a machete and a whole bunch of weird survival stuff with me — unnecessary things. Like, who carries a machete with them? I think I had two pocket knives and a big knife,” he says. “I kept fantasizing what position I would put myself in if a lion attacked me.”

Rigby learned to feed himself off the snails and prawns that would cross his path, snaring crayfish with traps made from onion sacks. The self-described extrovert would often spend hours alone before encountering others on his path.

“I think people get kindness. They understand that ‘okay, this guy is a little bit crazy, but he doesn’t mean harm.’ I think people can read that really well, no matter what culture or tribe you’re from.” – Mario Rigby

“I really learned how to become my best friend, in a sense,” he says.

Rigby’s trek wasn’t without its share of danger. In Mozambique, he found himself in the middle of gunfire between soldiers and rebels while crossing the Save River. He had been picked up by the soldiers to cross the bridge in their truck, told it was too risky to make the crossing by foot.

“You could see cars on either side of you burning, buses burning, trucks burning, villages burning. It was so surreal,” says Rigby. “All of a sudden, we hear three gunshots: boom, boom, boom. The truck stops. You’re like, ‘this can’t be happening.’ Bullets are flying around, and I’m just in the back of the truck, cursing and swearing.”

In Malawi, he decided to cross the country by kayak, traveling the length of Lake Malawi — the world’s ninth largest lake, and one which makes up the country’s eastern border. After repeatedly being declined by the rental shops in Monkey Bay, he managed to convince two South Africans to lend him their kayak after a day of drinking.

“All of a sudden, we hear three gunshots: boom, boom, boom. The truck stops. You’re like, ‘this can’t be happening.’ Bullets are flying around, and I’m just in the back of the truck, cursing and swearing.” – Mario Rigby

“Everyone laughed at me, because I had never kayaked before,” says Rigby. “I remember, I docked my kayak on this island one time […] I put my foot in the water, and when I [looked at it], it was covered completely in leeches. Tiny, little leeches. I actually yelled out loud — as loud as I could.”

In Malawi, he was also handcuffed and thrown in jail, accused of being an illegal immigrant or a foreign spy. Altogether, he would be arrested seven times in three countries — an experience that still couldn’t sully Rigby’s appreciation for the kindness of people he met along the way.

“I think people get kindness,” he says. “They understand that ‘okay, this guy is a little bit crazy, but he doesn’t mean harm.’ I think people can read that really well, no matter what culture or tribe you’re from.”

Rigby finally arrived at his final destination at the pyramids of Giza in January of 2018, 26 months after taking his first step. He plans to write a book about his travels, and the next few months of his calendar are filled with speaking engagements around the world.

“You realize that anything is really possible,” he says. “Anything you touch or think of, you can make it reality.”

His love and appreciation for humanity has broadened, too:

“You realize how similar we all are. We all come from the same fundamental background.”

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