Today would have been Mark’s birthday. He passed away in December of 2015. Here is the tribute I wrote for him at that time. I know I am not the only one that misses him
Mark and his newest boat.
Good bye Mark Hamill. You are the first of my friends to die. I have had aunts and uncles and cousins die. And once, long ago, a person who I thought was destined to be good friend, die too young.
But you, you are the first of my chosen circle to go.
I lost track of time, but when I count back the years, I realize you were my friend for over half the time I have been alive.
I remember the first time I didn’t meet Mark. Now if you knew him, you know that sentence actually makes sense.
In British Columbia, I had been an interpreter with the provincial park system. After moving to Alberta I decided to get back into it. By now I was married and had a couple of more kids. So after setting up the interview at Fish Creek Provincial Park near Calgary, and finding babysitting for my three young children, and making sure I had the family’s only set of wheels (a 1971 Volkswagen bus), I got into my business clothes and drove across the city to my official meeting with the head of the department.
When I got there, Mark hadn’t arrived. He had called in sick. Although there was administration staff, they didn’t have access to his daytimer so no-one had been able to call me to cancel.
Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed.
When he called to reschedule a day or two later, I said I could come, but that I wouldn’t have sitting for all three children and that I would be bringing one of them with me.
We had a walking meeting through the Bankside area with my six month old baby, also named Mark, in a snuggly strapped to my chest. We took turns carrying him as we worked our way over the paths and along the river.
At the end of our walk, Mark asked if I could lead the nature walk through that area in a few days’ time as the person scheduled to do it was no longer available.
I wasn’t on payroll and didn’t have a uniform yet, but we found an official jacket that sort of fit me-and thus began my three years with the Alberta park service.
Given my upside down beginning, the fact that I had been a solo interpreter for a couple of seasons elsewhere and had been running my own wilderness leadership company for a few years already-it should not have been a surprise that I had a rather independent outlook regarding my job. So, while I was a good worker, I was probably not always the best employee. Mark and I butted heads on more than one occasion.
We were always able to sort it out though and to leave work at work, so went on to become good friends.
He was always someone I could play with. Whether it was testing the marketing claims of the Pyrex kitchenware company by skipping a casserole dish across the kitchen floor over and over, or lighting Sambuca shots from a bbq when no-one at the party had a lighter, or trying to outdo each other with outrageous stories, we spent a lot of time laughing. And better yet, he spent a lot of time making other people laugh. Mark could get a giggle out of anybody, or more commonly, a belly laugh. Even if you were mad at him, he could make you laugh!
In the early 90’s, the Alberta government starting slashing jobs and it was obvious that I would no longer be employed at Fish Creek, or anywhere else in the parks division for that matter, as interpreters were considered expendable. My dreams of becoming a “lifer” were dashed and it was time to rebuild my career path.
I moved on by buying my own campground (don’t tell me I can’t do something!), which co-incidentally was 20 minutes from Mark’s home in the small town of Carseland. In country terms, that made us just about neighbours. He had bought the original store, complete with false front. It was right next to the infamous Blue Saloon. Eventually he finished converting it into a home. Or at least his style of home, complete with an eight person hot tub in the living room instead of furniture.
His parties there were epic. They often started in the house then would spill over into the catamaran he was rebuilding. The boat was in the driveway making it easy to access. From the living room to the kitchen, through the side door, up a ladder, and into a hull or if the deck wasn’t littered with the components of the next stage of the project, hang out there. It was more comfortable than it sounds as the whole thing was surrounded by a giant (often flapping) tarp.
While the catamaran stayed with Mark in Carseland, a couple of his smaller boats made their way up to my campground for storage. The green freighter canoe lived here for many years. It almost made it out of dry dock when he was asked to lead a trip with it on Great Slave Lake. He asked me to co-lead with him. It would be us, a couple of boats and a handful of guests. Planning began in earnest but before we got to do our recon trip, the plug was pulled by the company who was contracting it.
Our friendship continued over the years, with visits back and forth. It wasn’t always lightness and laughter though. When my marriage ended, it was Mark’s shoulder that I leaned on. I showed up one night distraught. He did the perfect thing. Nothing. He simply held me. In silence. For hours. He created a safe place for me to let go of the past and get ready to regroup.
Finally his catamaran was seaworthy, he sold up and moved to Steveston on the British Columbian coast to live in and sail his beloved boat.
In the days before widespread use of the internet it was harder to stay in touch, and for a while we didn’t communicate. It wasn’t long though before our paths crossed again, this time via my best friend. She ran the Richmond Nature Park. Mark volunteered there for a while and donated a lot of his books to the nature house. Kris picked out the ones that were relevant for the park’s use, then when she noticed some were on prairie ecology she saved them for me. When I received them, I cracked them open to have a look, then I had to laugh, across from the frontispiece, “Property of Mark Hamill”. We caught up with each other through her, then on one of my frequent trips out to see my family in Vancouver, got together for a yabber. We each had a few free days, so off we went to the Gulf Islands on a sailing trip.
Mark had a newfangled navigational tool-a GPS-so off we went-confident in our ability to get where we were going. It wasn’t long though before we realized that the person he had previously lent it to had returned it in a non-functioning condition.
By now it was foggy and we
didn’t know where we were. It was a bit of a mad scramble, but with the aid of navigational charts and some foghorns and more than a bit of luck, we stayed out of the main shipping channel and found some good weather a few miles out.
Oh we laughed on that trip. We were just a couple of big, goofy kids playing on a boat. One night we laid on the deck, taking turns pulling up the crab trap. Pull it up, drop it down. Pull it up, drop it down. Up, down-watching the phosphorescence dance on the edge of the trap and the chain as it moved through the water.
Another day we crashed through some rough water with me standing on the bowsprit, holding on for dear life while laughing like a maniac when the water actually washed over my boots, coming up to my knees.
We moored in quiet coves and hiked through abandoned homesteads; laid under trees and waited for ghosts.
One thing that was funny after the fact was when we pulled up to a dock and he jumped off to secure the boat. Once he was on the wharf he had me throw him the rope. As he stood there, with the rope, both ends loose and the catamaran drifting away, we realized the rope wasn’t actually tied to anything! He took a running jump, landed on the deck, tied off the rope and we maneuvered back in for another try. It took us less than a beer to find the humour in that.
After that trip life got busy and we spent less time talking. I was building a business that was growing in leaps and bounds, as well as raising a houseful of teenagers. He was settling into his new life on the coast, working as a bus driver and then eventually moving up to Courtenay on Vancouver Island with his wife Pauline and his boats.
Our hellos became less frequent but we stayed abreast of things on Facebook, sharing some funnies and the occasional bit of news.
The last time I saw Mark was a few years ago when my friend Kris and I went for an unscripted holiday on the island. We tooled about, slept in pods, chased waves in Tofino, hugged giant cedars, ate lunch with my cousin in Courtenay, then met up with Mark and his dogs. As always his daughters were important to him, and we had to wait for a bit while he skyped with one. His new sailboat was already put away for the winter, so we had a walking visit.
Time flies when you are a grown-up. Responsibility and duty, difficulty and dark days, settle over us. The list is longer than the day and we spend less time with our friends than we would like. We forget how important it is to just hangout and laugh and talk and play with our friends. I was thinking of doing another island trip in the fall of 2016. In the back of my mind, there was more time. There was going to be more walks and more tea. Maybe I could convince him that sailing to Haida Gwaii was a good idea.
My last walk with Mark was six years ago, that sailing trip was almost 20 years ago. Our time working at Fish Creek was more than 25 years ago. My baby, that six month old Mark in the snuggly, he is 6’2” now. He lives in Japan and is 27 years old. He is older now than I was on that first walk.
It was a lifetime ago and just yesterday those memories were made. Friendship is truly everlasting but we are not.
Two days ago, I got an email from Mark’s daughter. He had passed away. I didn’t even know he was sick. This teddy bear man that was my friend, but that I hadn’t paid much attention to lately, that I thought I would see “next time”, is gone. I don’t know, I guess, I guess I just thought he would always be there.
So Mark, wherever you are sailing now, when a wisp of a cloud brushes against your cheek, or a sunbeam breaks through and lights up your deck, that’s me. Dancing and laughing and saying thank you for being my friend all those years. I loved you.
Please note that none of these photos were taken by me.