I’ll never forget the first time I encountered Willard Kinzie. In retrospect I had no inkling of how inspirational this man would be in my life, and for so many others as well.
It wasn’t exactly a dark and stormy night – there have been a few of those in my life too – rather it was a warm and sunny morning – in July 1976 to be exact, and my good friend (and stalwart present-day GDTA work camp manager Lani Smith) had generously given me and my loaded backpack a ride to the Calgary airport. No, I wasn’t flying anywhere – rather I was meeting up with Willard and 35 other Ontarians who’d signed up for his first big backpacking expedition. And I was going to be the guide! You see, Willard had written to the newly-formed GDTA the previous winter requesting information and advice for leading a 10-day trip along the Great Divide Trail from Kananaskis Lakes to Mt. Eisenhower (known now as Castle Mountain). I was tasked with responding, and in the course of planning the itinerary and finding campsite locations capable of accommodating a large crowd, was asked by Willard if I’d mind coming along (at no charge) to show the way. Well that was an offer that was hard to refuse, since backpacking was my favourite activity and the price was right for a kid with no money. Never mind I hadn’t set foot on 99% of the route!
My first impression meeting Willard was that he was old. Now of course when you’re only 22 anyone more than 30 seems over the hill, but this guy, as I found out, was pushing 60 and, being from the flatlands, in all probability would croak before we made the first night’s camp. And some of the others looked at least as old! So, with a growing sense of foreboding, I climbed with the group into a yellow school bus and we set off for Upper Kananaskis Lake. In those days the only trail to the backcountry began at the hydro dam and followed the north shore, eventually crossing the Kananaskis River at a ford just upstream of the lake. Except the river was still swollen from late snowmelt and we ended up picking our way gingerly over a logjam. I can’t begin to imagine doing that today! But Willard, who far from expiring seemed thoroughly energized by the terrain, the scenery, and especially the challenge of getting his group safely across the river, eagerly pitched in and made multiple trips carrying packs and lending a hand to hesitant hikers.
Eventually all 37 of us were safely on the south bank of the river, where our first camp was made on open flats with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. Most of the participants had never been to the Rockies, so this couldn’t have been a better introduction, and Willard made a big deal of thanking me in front of everyone for the mountain backdrop as though I’d had it designed and constructed specifically for them. (This would be repeated at each campsite!) Then we tucked into a satisfying dinner of beef stew with fresh-baked bread prepared by Willard’s wife Ruth back in Barrie, Ontario, packed in Tupperware containers for the flight to Calgary, and then transported via backpack to our campsite and reheated. Trail food indeed! Needless to say I was feeling a bit more positive about that trip with a full stomach, and even more so at the campfire that evening where we were all entertained by Willard’s expert storytelling.
On subsequent days as the group made its way over North Kananaskis Pass, along the Palliser River, and into Banff National Park via Palliser Pass, I had lots of opportunities to speak with other hikers about our enigmatic leader. I’d sensed that Willard was highly respected and liked by everyone, and it soon became apparent why. First, as I found out, he had quite a few accomplishments under his belt. He’d served in the rank of Staff Sergeant with the Canadian Firefighters corps in the Second World War, then later as Mayor of Barrie, Ontario in the 1950s and 60s, and had steered the then-town toward city status to get a better deal for taxpayers.
He’d talked Harland Sanders into signing him up for one of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Canada and became a personal friend of the Colonel.
He’d started a dairy business in the 1940s and grew it into the largest independently-owned dairy in Canada, selling it to Beatrice Foods in the early 70s and retiring when he was only in his mid-fifties. Oh sorry, he didn’t exactly retire – he became busier than ever with directorships and executive roles in a large number of civic, commercial and service organizations. I was told that no one alive had more energy than Willard, and by our second day on the trail this was quickly becoming obvious. On the long, steep ascent from the Kananaskis River to Lawson Lake, he passed everyone at top speed and soon went by again (unloaded) in the opposite direction, passing on the uphill yet again carrying the backpack of a struggling hiker. All before the rest of us reached the top!
Second, Willard had a reputation as a “straight shooter” and a very honourable man whose word was good as gold. He treated everyone he worked with, including his employees, with the utmost respect and fairness, adopting profit-sharing long before it became widely accepted. He often employed developmentally-challenged people and taught them valuable skills, because he believed strongly in the importance of useful work to the human soul and no one deserved to have dignity more than those who were disadvantaged. If someone came to the door of his restaurant looking for a free meal or handout, the staff always referred these folks to Willard who had an open door policy. No one went away hungry or empty-handed but Willard would give them some work to do first, perhaps raking the yard, shoveling snow or pulling weeds along the railway tracks. Gives them self-respect, Willard would tell his staff.
One woman told me that no one was better than Willard at getting a great deal. Why, he’d badgered CP Air into carrying everyone on this trip for half-price, and the whole thing, transport, food and last night’s hotel, amounted to the sum of $375 per person. All this when the cheapest round trip air ticket between Calgary and Toronto cost over $400!
Well, that trip was just the start of a long association with what became Willard’s Adventure Club – for the next three decades, the Canadian Rockies and the Great Divide Trail were a favourite venue for his unique brand of tourism. (Thankfully, though, we never had to host such a large group again!) Other destinations were added over the ensuing years: the Grand Canyon, Appalachian Trail, the Chilkoot Trail, Pacific Crest Trail … and later Peru, Nepal, New Zealand and Tanzania, amongst other countries. And the list of adherents, or “regulars” on Willard’s trips grew ever longer. This despite some ironclad “rules,” such as two people in each tent and only a Sierra cup and spoon for meals.
At some point it dawned on me that a certain type of person was attracted to these trips. Sure, the category of “teacher” was inevitably over-represented, these folks often being single and having the summer off. And doctors and nurses seemed plentiful, which is never a bad thing. But there were definitely a few quirky types too. I had some firsthand experience thanks to Willard’s tent rule. On several trips my tent-mate was an otherwise very nice gentleman who, at bedtime, would talk nonstop about the minutiae of hiking/camping gear. I would often wake up after an hour or so and he’d still be at it. And then there was the tall middle-aged man with the German accent and military bearing who constantly challenged me on my backcountry navigation. For example, he would disagree with what I believed was our location on a topo map, stating with authority that a mountain in the distance was obviously (pointing at the map) that one, because it was obviously two kilometers distant, as opposed to the one I believed it was, more like six miles away. Two hours later as we neared the subject mountain, he wasn’t of a mind to concede he could have been wrong and distances in the Rockies can be deceiving, as I’d previously argued.
On another occasion the group descended a steep, narrow valley and came to a turbulent river that had to be forded. Having done my homework, I knew our trail was somewhere on the opposite side, parallel to the river. My German friend, however, having noticed a decent-looking path leading in the right direction but on our side of the river, declared that we would avoid the hazardous crossing and simply follow this trail instead. He wouldn’t take advice from me, as usual, and he managed by force of will to convince several others to go “his” way. The rest of us easily made the crossing on a downed tree trunk and quickly located the correct trail. An hour or so later we came to an avalanche clearing and saw the mutineer group laboriously clawing their way through a sea of avalanche debris across the river. Needless to say they re-joined the main group without the help of a log to make the crossing. But again, no acknowledgement or apology from the ringleader.
“Man, what’s WITH that guy?” I commented in exasperation to one of my “followers.”
“Oh, you mean Charles?” she laughed. “He’s still thinks he should be the one giving the orders … and he’s NEVER wrong.”
I was a little mystified. “Why’s THAT?”
“You don’t know about him? Oh, he used to be one of Hitler’s SS officers.”
From then on I tried to avoid getting into arguments with Charles.
On an only slightly less “chilling” but no less quirky subject, it was commonplace on Willard’s trips to see many participants stripping down to nothing after the day’s hike to wash up in the creek – so much the better if there was an alpine lake to jump into. But Willard had a no-photos prohibition for these instances, which with the other rules was explained at the start of every trip. On the 1979 Rockies Expedition, we were joined not only by Mary Jane Kreisel (1974 Project GDT member and present-day GDTA board member), who completed the whole 2-week itinerary (as I recall, she prudently declined to join the nude bathers), but also fellow 1974 Project GDT member and long-time volunteer Jenny Feick, who, in her job as a Banff park naturalist, accompanied the group for several days mid-trek to provide interpretation. But she’d missed the orientation, and when Willard good-naturedly reprimanded her for closing in on one of the bathers (a young, very good looking Swiss man) with camera in hand, she protested “I’m just trying to get a shot of Urs’s arse!” Well, that’s how I remember it anyway and apologies to Jenny if I have it wrong!
So how does a person with Willard’s background end up organizing and leading backpack trips that were the very definition of roughing it? I learned he wasn’t much of an outdoors or healthy-living type before embarking on this new “career.” He’d been quite overweight for much of his civic and business life, smoked cigars and never got much exercise. Then, in his fifties when he began to have health problems, his doctor instructed him to walk the mile or so between his house and his office rather than drive. He followed this advice, often hoofing it back to work in the evening after dinner to check that all was well. Uncharacteristically, he signed up for a walk-a-thon and during the 25-mile forced march befriended a man who told him, “If you like walking, you’ll love hiking!” Putting aside the possibility that may have been a warning, Willard soon became a member of the Bruce Trail Association, joining and eventually leading hikes along Canada’s first long-distance trail. He also took up running, and could be found most days at the local “Y” putting in his mandatory 8 miles on the track. Now, Willard might have seemed a bit old when I met him but no question, by then he looked very lean and muscular with not an ounce of extra fat.
No doubt that level of fitness was a big factor in his two successful ascents of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the second of which was noteworthy for him as the oldest Canadian, and possibly the oldest person to have summited, on his 79th birthday.
Over his long “retirement,” Willard organized and led over 500 trips, visiting every continent including Antarctica, climbing hundreds of peaks, and hiking thousands of miles.
The Canadian Rockies was undoubtedly the most-visited destination, but a close second would be the 2200-mile (3500-km) Appalachian Trail, especially the rugged White Mountains section in New Hampshire. Over the years Willard returned to the “Whites” many times while methodically completing the rest of the Trail in sections. In 2006 I was privileged to join a select group for a final 40-mile hike near New York City to help him earn his end-to-end badge. By then his 87th birthday was only two weeks away, yet he didn’t seem much older than on that July day 30 years earlier. And in case you’re wondering, his Appalachian Trail name was “Titanium Man.” When I first heard that, I naturally assumed the moniker referred to how tough the man was. But no, it was an allusion to hi-tech knee and hip replacements (possibly the result of overdoing the running)!
This would be a great spot for a brief segue – those who know me also know I’m a great believer in the health benefits of walking, or more specifically hiking. I don’t intend to follow Willard’s example and do much running in my later years (artificial joints don’t interest me much, I guess!), but when it comes to hiking, I don’t think we can ignore the mountain of evidence. Sure, the fact that Willard was able to remain healthy in mind and body, stay active and never have to live in a care home can only be linked anecdotally to how much hiking he did, but I also know many alumni of Willard’s Adventure Club now in advanced years who give credit to Willard and following his example for their good health and independence. What’s more, there’s now good science to show that walking in a natural setting has significant mental and physical health advantages over doing the same on a treadmill, say, or city sidewalk. So as we continue to develop and promote the Great Divide Trail, we can know we’re all contributing toward a resource that’s very important to the long-term well-being of many of our fellow citizens.
Now back to Willard – he remained active, walking and curling (his two favourite activities) well into his late 90s. Ruth, his wife of 69 years, passed away of Alzheimer’s disease in 2011, having been cared for at home for a great many years until the very end. In November 2016, at the age of 97, Willard was re-married, to his longtime companion and best friend Karen Hunter, an experienced hiker who had been a hardworking and reliable assistant on a large number of his expeditions.
My wife Mary Lou and I stopped in for a visit at Willard’s home in Barrie last September, just a week or so before his 99th birthday. He was in his usual great spirits, if a little miffed with his doctor who was reluctant to refer him for a replacement on his other, non-titanium hip, which would in Willard’s opinion free him from the use of a walker and let him get out on the trails again. But his mind, memory and sense of humour were sharp as ever and we had a great visit.
The following month, while reading to his great-granddaughter Serena, Willard suffered a stroke. After a couple of weeks it became clear that his condition was not going to improve. True to his nature of making big decisions quickly he asked the doctors to allow nature to take its course. He passed away on November 25, 2018.
It’s often said (though sadly not often enough), “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Well Exhibit A proving this adage has got to be Willard Kinzie. He spent his long, productive time on this earth in service to others, according to his three pillars of a well-lived life: Family, God, and Community. He exemplified a “can-do” attitude and approach to challenges. He was a true visionary and mentor who could always see the best in people and encouraged them to better their lives and accomplish great things, much like he did himself by his own example. I can say with certainty that I’m one of the many people whose life has been immeasurably better for knowing the Titanium Man.