My great friend and paddling buddy Martin Carney has died nearly a year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Martin was a good man and a good friend to me. I miss him enormously. My heart goes out to his wife Tanya and his sons Jack and Misha. They’re asking for donations to Ottawa Riverkeeper or Indspire in lieu of flowers. There’s a service, Saturday, December 2, 2pm at Glebe St. James Church.
Martin and I met through our partners who encountered each other in prenatal yoga some time in 2005. We started hanging out when we were on parental leave — taking our toddlers to parks wherein we would try to hold conversations while they jetted off in opposite directions.
We talked mostly about kids and how to raise them. Martin was always very focused on his kids. What to feed them, how much sleep they were getting, were they thriving. We compared notes about teeth, toilet training, sleep, weaning, appropriate lullabies for Gen-X men with certain musical penchants and limited vocal ranges. The whole nine yards.
Though at a certain point the desire to be an autonomous adult could no longer be suppressed. And we decided to get a “hall pass” and go for a beer. This became a monthly event. Some might see a need for more out-of-house time than that, but both of us started families later in life and had less energy for mornings-after than we might have had in our 20s.
We’d go mostly to Irene’s, except when blues night drove us to quieter surroundings. And we mostly talked about the kids. How they were doing, what they were doing. In great detail. It was all either of us wanted to talk about. We would on occasion venture into music, politics TV and film.
On the surface it may have seemed an unlikely friendship. I was up to my eyeballs in digital communications while Martin didn’t have a mobile phone or Facebook and barely did email. He was a lifelong die-hard Liverpool fan and I had only a vague and dated understanding of the game which I would keep referring to as ‘soccer’.
But that was one of Martin’s attributes that made him so well loved. He met people where they were and was interested in them whether or not they did like he did and thought like he thought.
Eventually I went back to work, but Martin decided to quit his job and work full time parenting the kids, supporting the family and keeping the home.
In September 2007, when my daughter Mallory was about 19 months old, I took a weekend off to go paddling — something I’ve done off and on since I was eleven. It was a three day, 45km canoe trip in Algonquin Park, with 15 portages. I explained this to Martin, much like he might have explained the offside trap or a 5-3-2-1 formation to me. And where I might have seemed genuinely lost when he compared David Villa to Michael Owen, he seemed engaged and interested.
And he said “That sounds like fun, I haven’t done much paddling but do you think I might come along on the next one?” That seemed like an excellent idea to me.
Over a measured but significant number of pints in the ensuing months we picked a route, a date and made a plan to do our first trip. We went to Algonquin and paddled for four days through the park’s north end. For three nights, nestled around one of Martin’s fires — one of his many contributions to the trip effort — we told stories, got to know each other and drank tetrapak wine. The days were spent battling wind, rain and squirrels to tour the wilderness of Ontario’s near north.
It was glorious.
So much so that we decided we wanted to do it again next year. And the year after that.
We kept it up for a decade. Different routes, different parks, same canoe, same tent, a lot of the same food. We saw a root fire, otters, a rattlesnake, many loons, a total lunar eclipse. We climbed peaks, waded through swamps, did the odd accidental rapid. Forgot some things, lost some things, pushed through wind, September bugs, cold, rain, heat and sun.
Martin was an amazing canoe trip partner. Despite being new to it, nothing phased him. Not the sleeping on dirt, the awkward, heavy ill-fitting packs borne endlessly through the woods, white-capped waves, rudimentary gruel — nothing. Once he pointed out that I hadn’t boiled quite enough water for two bowls of oatmeal and as a result it was a bit crunchy.
He would always say he appreciated the portages because they broke up the paddling and vice-versa.
He made me laugh. Dry one-liners, great stories.
He never complained — despite plenty of cause. And when he did, it was with humour or as a gentle suggestion. Kind to a fault because sometimes I can ignore feedback that’s delivered too gently, like the time he told me 2000 metres was about his limit for portages. Then next year I put us on Dickson-Bonfield — at 5300 metres, the longest portage in Algonquin Park.
I would have thought he’d be grumpy, but he just got a bit serious and said “We’ll get through it. As we always do.”
Then there was the time I accidentally deleted a 1.1 km portage off the route cheat sheet I usually made to track our progress. As we approached the take out, I announced cheerily “This one’s short — like 400m.” Except that one was next. This one “just went on and on,” he said later. As did the teasing about the missing portage.
As a tripper he was very frugal and practical. Some people gird for the adventure, emptying the shelves at MEC to have the latest gear. I’m a bit like that. But on one of our first year planning beer sessions, I’d just said “nothing cotton, nothing you care about, things you can layer and something you can always keep dry.” And that’s how he rolled. Nothing fancy, just practical, warm enough and already on-hand.
He didn’t have a ton of experience with canoe tripping but it was really important to him that he do everything he could. Whether that was on-trip, preparing or getting there, he never shirked.
And he never stopped paddling.
I fear, though, that he may have been putting a brave face over real discomfort for some of our time together. There’s a certain type of man who will do that. I write this because in 2019 he told me with some sadness that his knees weren’t going to let him do the trip that year. Too many football injuries as a young lad. He’d always been pretty careful of his knees — especially in the canoe — but he’d always managed.
This time, though, his meniscus was just plain gone, he’d said.
Instead I went with my daughter, aged three when this all started, by then thirteen and an avid canoe tripper from spending part of her summers at Camp Northway.
So there were no more Chris-Martin trips. At the time I thought that one day there would be, though maybe we’d go with the kids as well, somehow.
But then came COVID. Then cancer.
I am so grateful for the time we had. Those trips will always stay with me. And I am grateful to Tanya for loaning me her husband for all those times.
Celebration of Life for Martin Carney
I wasn’t able to attend in person — I’m still COVID contagious — but St. James United livestreamed Martin’s Celebration of Life Ceremony so I was able to be present. It was a great service. I’m so glad this is how we commemorate peoples’ lives now.