Kenneth John Shane was born on Feb. 5, 1959, in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., to Lorraine Théberge, a homemaker, and Norbert Shane, an engineer at the local copper smelter. Even among the five Shane children, known for their strong wills, Kenny stuck out: he was stubborn, determined and focused on whatever was at hand—hockey, school, the bicycle his father bought him, complete with wooden blocks on the pedals.
He attended Séminaire St-Michel and left for Brazil shortly after graduation on a year-long exchange, an experience his siblings believe changed the course of his life. Upon his return he took a three-year biochemistry course at the Northern College of Applied Arts and Technology and in 1980 went to work at the smelter, alongside his father. He lasted eight months before buying a one-way ticket from New York City to Brussels for $169. The resulting voyage would last 28 years and take him well over 120,000 km across all seven continents.
He hitchhiked across Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal, then on to Morocco and, soon enough, the Canary Islands via sailboat with a father-and-son team. They eventually sailed back and, after three days in jail—the father and son hadn’t been entirely honest about the boat’s ownership—Kenny hitchhiked to Gambia, where he wandered into an attempted coup. It took him 10 days to convince his jailers he wasn’t a journalist, and he hightailed it out of the country and bought a bicycle in neighbouring Senegal. Kenny would hardly set foot in a car again for the rest of his life.
He choked several passports with his trips through Africa alone. Mali, Upper Volta, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Zaire, Malawi, Mozambique. Newspapers along the way would track the progress of this bearded white man who never seemed to stay still. In November 1983 he met his parents in Cape Town, where Kenny’s aunt lived. He stayed put for a bit, working in a lab, and became a commercial diver. He met a girl named Sheila (no one remembers her last name) and together they travelled the entire coast of South Africa on horseback.
Kenny and Sheila bought a boat, and made plans to sail across the Atlantic. They broke up, though, and Kenny went on alone to Saint Helena, the tiny island in the South Atlantic where Napoleon Bonaparte died. Kenny carried on, landing in Salvador, Brazil, and finally St. Maarten in 1988. His brother Danny visited. “The face changes, but the T-shirts don’t,” Danny would say later. Kenny made fun of himself and his roach-infested boat and, true to his roots, devoured the box of Vachon cakes Danny brought as a gift.
Kenny would venture back to Rouyn-Noranda every four years or so. In 1989 he sold the boat and went home, only to set out again in November 1990. He bought a bicycle at a police auction and biked through the United States and down through Central and South America. He taught English in Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of Argentina, where he got wind of a Russian expedition to Antarctica. He spent two weeks on the frozen continent.
He landed in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1997, took a cargo ship to Australia the following year and, on Feb. 22, 1998, landed in East Timor. Kenny had now visited every continent. He travelled throughout Asia, teaching English and, for the first time in his life, making a lasting relationship: he brought Sophia Hsu, a laid-back Taiwanese woman, back home for Christmas in 2002. “Don’t wait for me, because I have to finish what I started,” he told Sophia over their holiday. It was a vexing, heartbreaking thing to hear: what else was there for him to see? Suffice to say, Sophia didn’t wait.
Kenny left again shortly thereafter, back to Asia, only to return a year later when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. In 2005, he met up with his sister Carol and together they biked through Bali and India; the next year, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and then he and Danny rode through Georgia and Turkey. He did a two-month stint through Tanzania and Malawi with Carol and Shelly, another sister, in 2008.
This August, while riding through Cameroon, Kenny wrote in his journal that he would stop his voyage for good in Morocco—six months away, at most. The next few entries catalogued his headaches, chills, and pains in his spine. He stopped at a Christian mission in the town of Doumé, where he was found to have advanced malaria. On the night of Aug. 30, he put his passport under his bed and closed his blue eyes. During the early hours of Sept. 1, Kenny slipped into a coma and didn’t wake up. He was 50. “He is now on the only continent he never visited,” says his brother Danny.