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Special Online Feature - October 2005
Kayak Bill - A Requiem
Text and photos by Keith Webb

Kayak Bill found his freedom under a regime of strict necessity, first on a wilderness of vertical rock, then in the wilds of a horizontal ocean. His goal was to be as independent of civilization as possible. By reversing civilization, he succeeded. For the last twenty-eight years of his life, Bill returned to a hunter-gatherer way of life. He must have spent more time than anyone in a sea kayak since aboriginal peoples left kayaks, as a way of life, behind.

 

“Perfection consists in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

 

Kayak Bill's camp...The first time I met Bill, it was 1968 and I was fifteen. He was working at the only store in Calgary (Western Canada) that then carried climbing gear. He sold me on buying the best hiking-climbing boots available. Bill's enthusiasm and ready smile that day formed a memory that I've retained for 38 years.

Later, I found out that Bill Davidson was one of the hard-core climbers in the Calgary Mountain Club, part of a mountain climbing world to which I aspired. They were pushing climbing past the edge of the possible into what was only marginally sane. These were the kinds of guys who, had they not encountered mountains, would have excelled as Hell's Angels. Many of them died with their climbing boots on.

The second time I crossed Bill's path was my first day rock climbing. On a long rock face, my two high-school buddies and I picked the easiest route, a diagonal crack system. As we climbed through the crux, my nervousness abated as I realized that this was not that hard. Then we heard a shout. Puzzled, we looked over to a wall of blank limestone the size of a medium office tower. There was a person, although there was no ledge or crack big enough for a toenail. As we clambered nearer, we could see he was standing in two rope slings, leaning back away from the rock, smoking a cigarette. He yelled, “Hey, you guys. My backup bolt drill broke. I'm stuck. When you get down, see if you can get somebody to come up and lower a drill, from the top.” We did as he asked but nobody had anything useful to lower down.

The next morning Bill improvised his own gear repairs and rappelled down his climbing ropes. I had never conceived of the possibility of spending more than an afternoon on one of the steepest rock faces in the Canadian Rocky Mountains—that was Bill—nonchalant about spending a night hanging from his hand-drilled, hand-made bolts, 500 meters above the broad prairie.

Bill wrote an elaborately understated account of a climbing route on Mt. Gibraltar that he named, Nine Nightmarish Nights on Nothing, which never has been, and I expect never will be, repeated. As with many of his routes, he spent weeks going up and coming down until he wore a route up the rock. While solo aid climbing a section he took a 35-meter fall, gashing his head. He hitchhiked back to Calgary covered in blood. With his partner, Bill’s final ascent took nine continuous days on rock mostly beyond vertical. Then I heard a rumor about Bill taking a fifty meter fall on a solo climb—a fall that should have killed him. After that—nothing.
***
A dozen years later my mate Heather and I were paddling our double-seater sea kayak northeast of Vancouver Island toward the village of Echo Bay. The spring rain and sleet had briefly let up after a week of gloom. Through a hole in the clouds the sun was gleaming off the dark water when the biggest kayak that I had ever seen crossed our path. As the paddler approached, I saw that his kayak was a meter longer than our six-meter boat. On it were two large downriggers, one to each side of his front deck, for salmon fishing. We exchanged only a few words, as a wall of dark cloud was advancing, then we paddled off in opposite directions. Although I didn't know it then, I had met Bill Davidson for the third time.

We asked the clerk at the Echo Bay general store about the kayaker, “Oh, that's Kayak Bill. He has a camp at Eden Island, and a bunch of other camps around. He does a few odd jobs sometimes, but mostly he lives off the land. He started off from Vancouver about ten years ago to paddle to Alaska, but after wintering at Eden Island, he said he didn't need to go any farther.”

Several years later, while camped on a tiny island near the Ivory Island lighthouse, we found a camp tucked away in the woods. The fireplace was unlike any other, three pieces of split wood of chest height had been driven into the ground forming a triangular column; two platforms of hand-split wooden slats were lashed together at navel and chest height. At the base several flat stones contained a bed of coarse sand and ashes. The fireplace was built for cooking at the bottom and for smoking food on the slats above.

The hollow of a cedar tree held two milk crates. The crates contained the tidiest firewood I'd ever seen; each piece was cut to precisely the same length and split to the exactly same diameter. The camp was situated so it would take minutes to string up ropes and throw up a tarp. Usually places where people make camps and fires are a mess—this was immaculate. Thumb-tacked to the fireplace was an empty package of Zig-Zag cigarette papers, the signature of Kayak Bill.
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