Michael Craig Robinson was born in Scarborough, Ont., on Aug. 25, 1969. When Mike was a boy, the family moved to Cowan’s Bay, a rural community near Lindsay, Ont. His parents, Tom and Noreen, had a deep appreciation for nature and wanted their sons—Mark, Mike and Scott—to grow up in the country. So Tom, who had a job at Pilkington Glass in Toronto, drove the 130 km to work each day.
At I.E. Weldon Secondary School, Mike was often the brightest kid in the class and liked making people laugh. This “smart, athletic, funny, good-looking, humble” guy attracted a classmate named Tammy. Their lockers were side by side, and they started dating by the age of 15.
Mike and Tammy went to Trent University together, where he had earned a scholarship to study physics and math and she majored in history and anthropology. There, he discovered his love of canoeing. “He was the type of guy who always wanted to see what was around the bend,” says Tammy. “With his canoe, he could go further.” His curiosity about the natural world extended to his intellectual pursuits. Mike’s bedside table was usually littered with books on wide-ranging subjects: environmentalism, the fur trade in eastern James Bay, the intrepid surveyor Guy Blanchet. He would go on to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Queen’s University. But he didn’t attend graduation; he spent the day paddling, instead.
Mike and Tammy, who got married in 1993, bought a home in Ottawa, about 500 m from the river. Mike was frequently spotted portaging his canoe through the suburban streets on his way to the water, or driving around with it strapped to the roof of his Toyota Tercel. He worked in fibre-optic communications at JDS Uniphase, but didn’t fit the corporate mould and was laid off in 2001. “Mike wasn’t motivated by the paycheque,” his wife says.
Shortly after losing his job, Mike’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer. While watching Tom slip away, Mike had an epiphany: life is fleeting, and you shouldn’t wait for retirement to enjoy it. “He worried he wouldn’t be around for old age,” says Tammy. Tom died that year at the age of 66. (Mike’s mother died in 2005.)
During the fall of 2001, when Mike was unsure about what to do with his life, he had a chance meeting with a Wakefield, Que., canoe-maker named Hugh Stewart. Fascinated by the process of hand-building cedar and canvas canoes—a more sustainable alternative to fibreglass—the young canoeist was determined to master the craft. He began an informal year-long apprenticeship with Hugh. He also became more adventurous in his paddling. He’d take solo trips, sometimes up to northern Labrador, down the Burnside River in Nunavut, or around the Northwest Territories. And camping was a science for him: he’d journal every detail—routes travelled, food eaten. His family and friends say these trips were his lifeline; they renewed his energy for the rest of the year.
Still, canoeing wasn’t a job, and so Mike headed back to school in 2002, earning his teaching degree at the University of Ottawa. He landed a spot at Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau, Que. “He was the guy with the Ph.D. who taught special-ed students at high school, when he could have taught at a university,” says Dermot Guinnane, a former teacher at Philemon Wright. Mike was known around campus for his impressions of valley girls and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Students from other classes would request to sit in on his lessons, or seek him out for extra help sessions in math, which he ran most nights of the week. He kept a box of supplies on his desk for kids who forgot theirs, and once offered his own cabinet to a student who was left without a locker. He also led school camping trips, and taught lessons in how to build canoes.
Mike took a year off from teaching when his wife gave birth to their first child, Nolan, in 2006. Before he was six months old, Nolan had gone canoeing with Mike. And when his son was two, Mike took a year’s sabbatical to spend time with him, and to focus on establishing a canoe-building business. Mike’s long-term plan was to run Stickdog Canoes after retirement. But on July 24, while headed to northern Quebec for a canoe trip, the float plane he was travelling in crashed in a swamp. Mike was 40.