Fletcher canoeing at Camp Stephens
“There is a sense of eternity in the wild, where there are no clocks and no artificial barriers between a person and the natural world to which we all belong. Science talks about infinity, time, mass, energy. As a naturalist I would add wonder and mystery to this good list.”– Steven Fletcher, from his biography What Do You Do If You Don’t Die? by Linda McIntosh
Before he hit the moose Steven Fletcher danced across the water.
A paddle in his calloused hands, he cut through miles of rushing wilderness white water, getting better and stronger with each stroke.
“It’s kind of like high-level canoe ballet,” Fletcher said, describing his love and ways of the paddle.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s the now- Winnipeg MP was a canoe buff. With his family, friends and the Manitoba Naturalist’s Society, young Steven mastered flat-water and white-water canoeing. He also took to kayaking, becoming the 1988 and 1989 Manitoba kayak champion and competing in the 1989 Canada games in several events.
He also spent a short time, only one week, at Camp Stephens.
He said he had a chance to work at camp as a counsellor, but instead took a job with the naturalists. They paid him $5 an hour, a princely sum for a young man working his way through university.
“That’s a lot of money in the camp counsellor world,” he said.
In late summer of 1995 he ended up at Camp Stephens at the invitation of friend and then-Wilderness Director Zoe (Herbert) Routh.
She enlisted Fletcher to conduct a five-day canoe school for staff under Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association standards.
Students included Routh, Jen (Sulkers) Wetherow, Dave Ross, Scott Feindel and Patsy Barker. Former tripper Stephen Sawchyn was an assistant leader for the course.
“Camp Stephens has always run great a great wilderness program, but Zoe wanted to raise the bar and help trail staff become officially recognized by the CRCA,” Wetherow said. “Steven agreed to help lead this course during the last week of August in 1995.
“The trail staff involved had all just finished a fabulous summer. We were well tanned, muscled and figured we knew just about everything about canoeing so this course would be a breeze. We couldn't have been more wrong.”
That’s because Fletcher had other plans.
“I worked them hard,” Fletcher smiled from his wheelchair. “It was just great. We were up before the bell rang and we canoed all day.
“They were all granola crunchers,” he added, his grin widening. “I didn’t tell them I had a Reform Party membership. It wouldn’t have gone over too well.”
Wetherow said on the first morning Fletcher had them up before dawn.
“Steven came whistling down the path to announce the start of our day. After several nudges (and probably some curse words) we made our way to the dining hall to begin lessons.
“The first thing we learned was how little we actually knew about canoeing. Over the course of that week, Steven helped us all to understand that paddling is a fine art form. With the water as our canvas, we used boats and paddles as our paint and brush.”
“I remember Steven doing handstands in a canoe,” the Australian business consultant said.
“I think canoe tricks was even one of the sign-offs for advanced canoe techniques. And then the video camera came out and Steve started doing this wild Bon Jovi dancing, his inner rock god released at last after a week of being so serious and hard-nosed.”
Fletcher said he still has the videos of the canoe school – 20 hours’ worth.
“It’s tough to watch the tapes,” Fletcher said in a private moment.
Wetherow, a former camper, counsellor, tripper, wilderness co-ordinator and camp director at Stephens, said Fletcher passed on his love of the paddle in those five long days.
“It was nothing short of magical,” she said. “Steven pushed us to our absolute limits of ability and then a little further. He taught us that great art requires great discipline and practise. There were tears of frustration as Steven pushed us to work harder than we had ever worked before. And there were tears of joy when we realized we were capable of meeting those expectations.
“Steven was only at camp for a week but he made a lasting impact on all of us and I am so grateful for having had that marvellous experience.”
Less than six months later Fletcher’s life changed forever.
On Jan. 11, 1996 he was driving by himself to Bissett where the recent University of Manitoba engineering graduate worked as a mining engineer-in-training at the Rea Gold Corporation.
More than halfway through his early morning trip the 23-year-old swerved to miss a calf moose that had stepped in front of his car. In an instant he struck a giant moose coming up behind.
The animal bounced up over the hood of Fletcher’s car and peeled back the roof as it went.
As the car skidded off the road into a ditch, the animal was flung off the car’s trunk back over the crumpled roof, slamming it back down and snapping Fletcher’s neck.
Fletcher now spends his time between Winnipeg and Ottawa. He’s been the MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia since 2004, easily winning re-election in 2006 and 2008. Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Fletcher as Minister of State for Democratic Reform following the 2008 federal election.
“I wonder what would have happened if I took a different path,” Fletcher said as one of his aides tells him he’s expected soon at a political meeting.
“There are a lot of things I miss,” he said, his special wheelchair about to scoot away to the private gathering. “Canoeing is one of the things I miss the most.”