Photo: Bruce Hodgins

The following is a guest post by James Raffan, Director of External Relations.

This is a second goodbye to my friend and mentor Bruce Hodgins but, sadly, this one is for keeps. I’m having a hard time imagining a world without his passion, his energy, and his indomitable spirit. In June of 1988, Bruce had been struggling to breathe because of blood clots in his lungs, or something to that effect. Word in the paddling community was that it was serious but that the family had found an out-of-province medical procedure that would potentially solve the problem. Like many lifesaving operations, this one was not without dire risk. In fact, when Bruce turned up at the Great Hall at Trent University’s Champlain College to a send-off dinner for the members of the Operation Raleigh Arctic Expedition, he was drawn, wan, and decidedly out of breath. Embarrassing though it was, I remember saying so-long with a hug—thinking that this might be the last time I’d see him—unable to stem the flow the tears.

That was 31 years ago and Bruce, who was a scant 57 years old at the time, was in his prime.  With Carol, his spouse and collaborator in all things, he had raised and fledged three wonderful and contributing kids. He had established himself as an historian and author, locally within the Trent community, as well as nationally, and internationally. He had distinguished himself as a leader in the Ontario camping community through his deep affiliation with Wanapitei. And through largely volunteer interest, involvement, commitment and service, he had earned an elder’s respect in the wilderness canoeing community. It was in that capacity that he turned up at the Great Hall to wish the Operation Raleigh Canadian Arctic Expedition well. Somehow, having Bruce there completed the picture and made things okay.

That project, was part of a four-year around-the-world journey “for science and service,” roughly following Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1588 global circumnavigation involved in its four-month Canadian phase—what else?—a canoe trip down the Kazan River through what is now Nunavut to do a number of scientific projects, including the first systematic archaeological survey of this storied northern river valley. We had 8 leaders from across Canada, led by David Pelly, and 24 young participants from 16 different countries. All we had to do was teach them to paddle, to read and to negotiate white water, to wilderness camp, to get along with total strangers, to survive in Arctic conditions (most of our participants had never done any of these things) oh … and to gather benthic cores and conduct archaeological survey research!

That we were at Trent doing some of the training had a lot to do with Bruce, for he was one of the first and only people who didn’t wince when we told him what we were attempting to do. In fact, supported by John Wadland, Shelagh Grant and other faculty colleagues, Bruce was sure this was: a) possible; b) worth doing; and c) going to be a hell of an adventure.  That it would stretch everyone in ways we probably couldn’t imagine, particularly the expedition staff, was something that just went with the territory. Bruce knew that. He embraced that kind of challenge. He knew the value of wicked hard canoe trips to build wicked compassionate hearts. If he weren’t going off to California or somewhere to get his lungs scraped out, he told us that night in the Great Hall, he’d be right there helping to lead the charge. That was Bruce.

Bruce was not neutral about anything.  If he were running for federal office (as he did in 1968) he would put his rock star political mentor (Tommy Douglas) in his convertible seafoam green Volvo coup and drive him around the back streets and boroughs of Peterborough as a way of getting the unknown candidate’s message out there into public view. If he felt there was an injustice to be rectified (as he did when he felt the Teme-Augama Anishinabi of Bear Island on Lake Temagami were not getting their due in provincial land development plans) he would blockade a road and (with Carol and others) get arrested for his convictions. If he found a passionate collector looking for a place to become the new home for his double-ended portrait of Canada (as Bruce did when he became an enthusiastic supporter of creating the Canadian Canoe Museum) he would work tirelessly with kindred spirits like John Jennings to make that home and help turn it into a national museum.  And if he was calling a square dance for international students (as he often did at Wanapitei) the experience was never complete until someone had reach near terminal velocity in the indelicate centrifuge of a move called the “bucket swing.” Oh my … that was Bruce.

My first encounters with that rough-and-raw passion were not always the best. Sharing meeting tables with Bruce and others as we built policies and teaching progressions for the Ontario Recreational Canoeing Association and Canoe Ontario back in the 1970s, I used to wait until he’d find a seat and then do my level best to distance myself from him, lest I be “Bruced” at point blank range. Yes, that was the verb we used to describe what happened when Bruce would get wound up and deliver a verbal tirade that could peel paint, cower dogs, and make grown people cry. But, make no mistake, Bruce usually had a point and important contributions to make to discussions, whatever the subject might be. And he was often right. He just couldn’t help that his essential nature involved uncommon passion that powered his convictions. I learned to love him for not leaving anyone standing around wondering where he stood. That was Bruce.

Bruce’s essential genius was to bring people together in common cause. Whether a square dance, or a seminar, or a project like Canoeing North into the Unknown he so deftly executed with co-editor Gwyneth Hoyle, he had the complex intelligence, the social sense, and the evangelical chutzpah to know that unlikely folk might fuse. This was expressed fully when he set out with co-editor, Margaret Hobbs, to produce the classic book, Nastawgan: The Canadian North by Canoe and Snowshoe. Here, in the name of making Canada better known to Canadians (and others), in addition to inspired contributions from more predictable choices like Ned Franks, Jean Cole, and John Marsh, Bruce and Margaret smoked out some unlikely contributors from the boreal bushes as well, including: wilderness canoeing maven, George Luste; jackknife historian Craig Macdonald (the Tappan Adney of winter travel technology and techniques); normally reticent (at least in print) John Wadland; and William C. James (whose work he’d found in a theological journal). Bruce catalyzed all of these fusions and, while he always allied himself with a dogged stick-to-it collaborator to handle the messy and often tedious detail, Bruce was the guy who saw always the big picture and reminded us of its value.

Perhaps the zenith of Bruce’s vision for what could be when like-minded souls collaborate in common purpose, is the Canadian Canoe Museum. Although the full and unabridged history of the museum is yet to be written (and may never be parsed in its minutia going back through time because the records of its coming to be are so spotty), as one of the many people who have watched and participated tangentially in this remarkable genesis of a venerable truly Canadian cultural institution, I know that this remarkable collection of canoes very likely would not have come to Peterborough from woods on Lake Kabakwa in Haliburton Country, nor would it have found the oxygen and nourishment it needed to survive and grow at Nogojiwanong without Bruce Hodgins as part of the original team. Bruce and Kirk Wipper knew each other, going way back, through the Ontario Camping Association. As fellow camp directors, they had a history that was enriched and enlivened by their mutual love of canoes, history, wilderness canoeing and the belief that Canada is a nation of rivers (and a river of nations) and that to understand the geographic and cultural amalgam that is this country one needed to understand that Canada is first a nation of canoes. Bruce knew that in his soul.

Knowing this vital spirit has ‘travelled on’ (Kirk Wipper’s phrase but I suspect Bruce would enjoy the characterization) I get a little wistful when I think of all the times he “Bruced” me (I’m wearing that today as something of a badge of courage because I see now that these counterpoints or corrections delivered with gusto meant that he’d actually listened to and taken to heart what you’d said … something of a compliment in itself). But I also think of the times when we would meet on a trail, or trailing to a meeting, and he would greet me with a broad smile, a vigorous handshake, and large hello. Always, he’d ask after the family and follow up with a query about something he’d noticed I’d written, or said, or done since we’d last crossed paths. 

It was never long before he’d be telling me about paddling the Winawashingmachine River… or whatever (and, as Paddling Partners details, the Hodgins’ collective canoeing résumé is singularly impressive). Or he’d be extolling the virtues of a particular campsite or a place by a bend in a river that if I didn’t know, I should, where some key drama in Canadian history had taken place. And had I read this book or that paper, or had I listened to this lecture or that radio program? And did I know that so-and-so was putting together a trip on that river for this reason? “No Bruce, and where the hell do you find the time to gather all that detail?” I’d reply.  Bruce’s mind was like layer upon layer of experience and history etched on a detailed topo of the entire nation that pulsed with the beating of his capacious heart. Being with him, knowing he was somewhere on the planet, being Bruce, was like that most reassuring “you are here” arrow on the map.

Watching the gradual diminishing of that mind and memory was difficult from afar. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Carol and the family … or for Bruce. Sincere condolences in his passing from all of us. Insofar as that process has ended, I’m glad. But this remarkable Canadian character’s legacy lives on in the lives of those of us who knew him in all the ways through which he engaged the world he so richly inhabited.  His legacy lives in the library, archives, and history of Trent University, the Ontario Camping Association, Canoe Ontario, in the life and lore of Camp Wanpitei and, of course, in the ongoing evolution of the Canadian Canoe Museum.

So long, my friend. You went the distance. You put the canoe back on your shoulders and carried on, even after the operation in ‘88. A parting cup to you, until we meet again.


James Raffan

Director of External Relations

James has been a part of the museum since its inception, having held a number of roles including, most recently, the Director of Development and Director Emeritus. He served as the Executive Director from 2008 to 2014, the Curator in 2007, and worked on the first education program in 1999. This work stemmed from his volunteer involvement on the museum’s Education Advisory Committee in the 1990s, which he undertook as a professor at Queen’s University in the Faculty of Education. He held a number of positions with Queen’s from 1982 to 1999 and is also a graduate of the University. James holds a Doctor of Philosophy, Master of Education, Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Science. He is a celebrated author of numerous books including Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the invisible Arctic, and the national bestsellers Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Deep Waters: Courage, Character and the Canoeing Tragedy of Lake Timiskaming. James has been honoured with numerous recognitions and awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada, Honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Guelph, and a number of others related to his considerable work as a writer and outdoorsman. Years spent as a camper and staff member at Camp Kandalore from 1959 to 1973 inspired James’ lifelong interest in the collection.

– Contact James