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From working in a large Toronto cemetery to rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in 2011, Charles Wilkins’ thirst for a journey surely will bring out the inner adventurist in any reader of his work. Now in his mid-60s, many of his expeditions are channeled into the 15 books he’s written throughout his long and successful career.


Wilkins is a regular contributor to Outdoor Canada, and recently, he wrote, “The Last Hunt,” for the magazine’s winter 2015 edition. The article recounts the final days and lives of eight hunters before their plane crashed into Lake Erie, Ontario on Jan. 17, 2004. Wilkins shares what it was like to cover the tragic incident. As well, he talks about his life as an adventure writer and magazine journalist.


Colton Hordichuk: There’s an incredible amount of detail in “The Last Hunt.” How did you gather all of this information?

Charles Wilkins: In reading about news reports from immediately after the accident, I knew a few of those details. I also know the island and the distances involved and so on. I did have the advantage of talking to two people who were very knowledgeable. The one chap was Ford Crawford and he knew everything about it. He never really talked to any news outlets about it or writers about it because at the time, he was just too stupefied by it all to do that, but he remembered it all in meticulous detail. Also, he took me to the place immediately - the part of his home where these guys had stayed, and where they had done their partying, and all of that. So, I had a feel for the context of it and I looked at the airport, and went to the pheasant farm, and hung around the fields where they had actually done their hunting.


CH: What did you think when you went back to the scene of where these hunters spent the night, and where they took off, and where they hunted, and so forth?

CW: It’s hard to say whether you’re actually thinking these things as in intellectualizing them or whether you’re feeling them. I’ve always believed very much that to understand the context and of the landscape and of the surroundings of the story, it gives you an enormous advantage over trying to do it from the desk. In this instance, Pelee Island is such an extraordinary place. It’s so kind of rural and 19th century almost, and the people out there are sincere. This accident had a significant impact on them and their island. So, I was not only absorbing the physical surroundings, but sort of the psycho-emotional memory of this happening and how hard they took it.


CH: What was it like talking to Bill Sadowski and having him remember his late brother, Wally?

CW: I went and visited him in Windsor, and I didn’t know what to expect or what someone’s going to deliver to you. But he took me into this sort of garage, man cave kind of place, and sat me down and talked to me about his boyhood growing up with his brother in Windsor and their fishing exploits and all of this. That was sort of a gift to have someone talk to you in an intimate way about these people. Also, at the end I remember he mentioned how he liked to go over there once a year, and what he did when he got there, and how he went on his bicycle because he didn’t want to bother taking a vehicle. It gave me quite a strong feel of the depth of the bond that occurs not just between brothers but among people who like the outdoors and have these outings in which they get really close. I think that’s what we were trying to achieve in the story was to present a sense of the closeness of these guys and how it had been founded on and also perpetually kind of cemented and re-cemented by the continuing passion for the outdoors.


CH: What impact did this story leave on you?

CW: I fell for these people. When I talked to them I thought, we have no way of relating to getting the news that our partners or sons or daughters or parents have been killed in a plane crash. So, it’s rather difficult to deal with that. I think years of journalistic writing makes as much as a skeptic of us as it makes a believer. I don’t know what the impact is 10 years after. It just seems, as a writer, you feel it deeply but I think the physical images have had an impact on me. The thought of people going down in airplanes and knowing your plane’s going down. Since, I didn’t know any of these people personally, it had perhaps, less emotional impact on me than if I had known even one of them.


CH: The Last Hunt is really one of many outdoor themed writings you’ve done throughout your career. What inspires you to write about the world beyond our front door?

CW: When I was a teenager I read Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, and my dad wrote. So, I’ve always had a great - something pretty close to reverence - for stories well-told and for the poetics for those stories. Part of my ambition always with the story is to try and find the poetry at the heart of it and go with that. I thought as a kid, boy, a story well-told is a powerful thing. It seemed to me that from that point, I was in my mid-teens, I had a kind of a low-key ambition to have adventures of my own and come back and tell the story. This seemed to me to be a worthy goal and a life that did not hold out a lot of worthy goals.


CH: How do you find a balance between being in the moment of an adventure and documenting your experiences?

CW: I once walked from Thunder Bay to New York City, which was an interesting thing. I would just keep some paper in my pocket and pull it out. Even when I was walking along the roadside, I’d just jot down some little insight or momentary revelation. It didn’t destroy my sense of being in the adventure. It seemed to be the two worked fine together. You take these notes, but you come home, you read them, and you sort of despair because they’re not very thorough and maybe the thought when you’re out on the road is like being stoned or something.  You think you’re having these wonderful thoughts, and you get home, you look at them, and they’re pretty ordinary. What I do when I finish the adventure is I come home and I read the notes. I think about it, I then discard the notes. I don’t literally throw them away, but I push them aside. I start re-imagining what happened. I don’t mean I make it up, but I think back on the elements that really juiced me while they were going on.


CH: You’ve talked about a lot of the adventures you’ve gone on. What’s been the most memorable for you?

CW: Rowing the Atlantic, for sure. Partly because I was older, so it was much more intense for me. It required more of my imagination to even think the preposterous notion that anybody could even do this at any age was sort of an outrage to me. To actually commit to it and go out there and get it done, seems to be in retrospect to be a huge validation of the fact that we can do what we want, or need to do, at any point in our lives if we commit to it.


CH: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue adventure journalism?

CW: I think the adventure is almost secondary to writer’s capability as a storyteller. The best advice for any writer, I think, is to read really good stuff and think how is this writer doing this? I still read The New Yorker every week because that’s where the best writing occurs. I think good writing lies in humour and good image making. When I teach writing, I talk about good writing and the kids go off and say, well, what do you mean about good writing? Irrespective of the craft, what I mean is good writing to me is writing that at some point, in some way, takes the reader beneath the surface narrative into an area where one is up against the imponderables at the core of what it is to be a human being. Whether those imponderables be longing, or love, or loss, or fear, or whatever. You’ve got to eventually get down there to get into those imponderables and deal with them a bit - or suggest them. A good opening is great, too, because it sets a foundation for both the reader and the writer. To get the beginning right, I’ll sometimes spend a whole day just fussing with the first six or eight sentences of a piece. If that is in place, it just means you’ve set a good tone and you’ve also built a good narrative foundation.


CH: At 66 years old, where does your next adventure take place?

CW: [Laughs] That’s a good question. I don’t know. I really don’t have the same kind of ambition to go on death defying adventures or anything that I even had 10 years ago. I do occasionally, in my worst moments, start to get these rather radical notions that I might go out there and do another long walk, or go out there and explore the desert or something.


This interview was edited and condensed.