My friend Paddy Sumner’s had a past that was rich in memories, a present that was always adventurous and fun, and a future that was full of challenges.
The first time I met Paddy was 24 years ago at a going away lunch in Good Hope Lake, B.C., for the school principal and I. I taught preschool/kindergarten in a one-room school in that community for a year and a half, and had decided to move to Whitehorse. Paddy was working at the gas station. He would chat with you at the gas station and tell you funny stories from his life in the North. Originally from Ontario, Paddy worked in the North for many years in mining.
Probably no one person has stirred my imagination over the years more than Paddy Sumners. I enjoyed listening to Paddy’s stories. He was a skilful storyteller and saw the humorous side of life. I found him to have the gift of being comfortable and sociable with people he did not know well.
He was living in a log cabin outside of Good Hope Lake with his friend and apprentice of a sort, Blythe Grimmett. Blythe was 30 years old and an Olympic Badminton player, teaching badminton and squash at the recreation centre in Cassiar.
Paddy was teaching Blythe how to build a cabin, how to chop wood with a Swede saw, and how to get water. In return, Blythe cooked some of the most delicious dishes that he learned how to make in India, using a lot of almonds and mangoes and not too spicy.
Their remote cabin beside the Cottonwood River was surrounded by tall trees and the Cassiar Mountains in northern British Columbia. Three years after my move to Whitehorse, I had been laid off from my job in and I was thrilled to have an invitation to visit Paddy and Blythe. I escaped Whitehorse and headed out on the long 12-hour drive.
I stayed with them for three weeks in February of 1992. That’s when I learned what cabin life was all about, and I learned about an amazing man.
Paddy was in his late seventies, slightly balding, with a full white beard and a round belly. He wore glasses, a baseball cap and striped cover-alls. He took a shower once a year in the springtime. The animals that were part of Paddy’s life were two goats, named Raisin and Candy, a cat named Pussy-Kitten, and two dogs named Ginny and Cindy. He had a strong, loving relationship with all the animals. He talked to them as if they were his family.
Paddy was a hero to me because he was a self-taught person. He taught himself to play the harmonica, violin, guitar, as well as sing and draw. In cabin life after dinner, we put our plates on the floor and the dogs licked the plates clean. We sipped on Jack Daniel’s and hot Earl Grey tea with a small teaspoon of sugar while Paddy provided the entertainment by playing the harmonica. The dogs sang in time to the music.
Paddy had a full knowledge of academic subjects and was a writer of poetry. I can still hear his deep voice reading a Robert Service poem to us.
Paddy didn’t have any “old-timers” disease; he kept his brain alive by studying. Throughout deep dark November in the freezing cold weather of the North, he studied Hebrew, history, political science and philosophy. I envied his quest for self-knowledge.
One of the things that made Paddy a hero is his achievement of getting himself off insulin shots. He used visualization and meditation, and he ate wild meat and fresh grown vegetables from their garden.
Paddy was a teacher and had a feminine side to him. He taught me to can raspberry jam and high bush cranberry jelly, to milk goats, and to make yogurt, cottage cheese and a steamed almond. We would feed the goats almonds, and then the next day after milking the goats, we made a steamed almond drink. Paddy sewed and knitted hats and socks. He taught me how to get fresh water from mountain springs. Paddy made his own tiger balm from the black balsam tree.
Paddy was a tough, practical man. He had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression; he fought in the Korean War; and he lived on into the computer age. He had a Grade 6 education, but throughout his careers Paddy was always a manager and always self-employed. He had lived in cities and the rural communities. If there is one lesson to learn, one lesson that I will take with me into my old age, it’s that I have to be flexible and adaptable.
He was essentially religious, but a member of no church. He was a grubby gardener, happy hermit and very vocal. We did not agree about everything, and that led to some interesting debates.
I feel richer for meeting Paddy because he was independent, self-taught, and healthy. His way of life made him strong and firm, yet tender; and rough around the edges, yet respected by prominent business people. People from around the world came to visit with Paddy.
In September of 1997 Paddy had a heart attack in his cabin. Blythe performed CPR, and the Dease Lake RCMP arrived by helicopter, but Paddy passed away.
I lost a friend, but I’m grateful for the time we had together, bonded by Paddy’s memories and by deep mutual respect. From Paddy Sumners I learned that it’s good to be a generalist, and that looking at the big picture helps to keep you flexible. His is a life so well lived.
Jane Jacobs is holistic health coach and educator in Whitehorse.