A Day With Dyke Williams
If only one word could describe Dyke Williams, it would be passion – passion for his grandkids, passion for the trees on his family’s island, passion for his work, and passion for the future of Lake of the Woods and its surrounding communities.
A Day With Dyke Williams
It’s early August. A breezy day has the lake churned up, but Gerry Wilson seems unfazed.
Calmly navigating the white Whaler through reef-riddled waters, she enthusiastically fills me in on the history of all the islands we pass on our way to meet one of the the area’s greatest fans.
Who’s that on the dock?
As we approach our destination, Mr. Williams coolly strolls out of a renovated boathouse and waits on the dock to greet us. The property resembles a summer camp more than a cabin retreat, and my first thought upon seeing the man is that he somehow reminds me of a wise village elder.
As it turns out, the similarity between the serene figure standing before me and an authentic sage would prove to go much deeper than the outward appearance.
Our visit begins with a leisurely tour of the island and its buildings. We initially spend a few moments admiring the view of the lake from the inside of the converted boathouse, which now exists as the stage for grand family gatherings and sing-alongs. Our host’s eyes light up as he gives an account of the last big family event, and it is obvious he deeply cherishes these moments.
While the old building now serves a new purpose, its conversion was evidently not undertaken as a result of a lack of vessels.
Two enormous racks, one located right on the shore and a second placed adjacent to the boathouse, display a variety of kayaks and canoes. Further along the waterfront, a second dock harbours at least three sailboats and an assortment of other watercraft.
Williams and his family spend some serious time on the water, and as our visit continues, it becomes clear his love for the lake and its surroundings plays a key role in all aspects of his life.
Fostering Growth in Forest and Family
Turning up a modest path leading into the heart of the island we begin a conversation that flips from the water to the woods, and as the next two hours pass, our guide’s gentle expression frequently switches from one of inspirational vivacity to an impassioned yet pensive gaze.
Right from the start we notice dozens of yellow and red flags marking the locations of young seedlings and patches of poison ivy.
All the favourite trees are represented – red pine, white pine, spruce and white cedar. When asked how many there are, Williams guesses that over 3000 have been planted on the island over the past 15 years.
“Northern white cedar and white pine are my two favourite trees”, he says as we stop to inspect some damage done to a young cedar by a hungry deer.
Williams indicates where parts of the tree have been stripped clean. “The deer just grab a branch and hoover right on up.”
Some of the trees make it, others fall victim to the weather, disease or deer, but the care and devotion Williams gives to each and every one of them is just as fervent as that which he channels towards his grandkids, whether he’s teaching them to sail across the lake or construct a side table for the family cabin.
The entire forest on the two-acre island is constantly being attended by Williams, his wife, his daughter, her husband and their two boys.
Dead branches are regularly “limbed up” up to mitigate the risk of a fire. Williams apologetically refers to it as “gardening the forest” and advises using a pole saw to reach branches that are out of reach.
He explains that balsam firs are bad news, and should be removed within 30 feet of the building as they pose a serious fire risk. In fact, Williams points out that these trees are considered by many to be the equivalent of blowtorches.
Stopping at the island’s original cabin, our attention is directed to a new deck that is quite popular with the family, especially for evening meals.
“We have trained dragonflies that come and eat the mosquitoes above our heads every night,” he proclaims with a resolute air.
I am almost inclined to believe him.
Buoys, Banjos and Birch Trees
We make our way along another path which brings us to an old buoy perched beside a sign indicating the way to Williams’ cabin.
“The trail signs (there are more) were a construction and art project some years ago for the grandkids,” he later explains.
The ornamental buoy triggers a discussion between Dyke and Gerry about the threats posed by a number of unmarked reefs found in the waters near the island and throughout the lake. The peculiarities of this part of the lake are foreign to me, and as I listen keenly to their conversation I find myself amazed at the depth of knowledge harboured by both Gerry and our host.
The trail splits at this point so we amble along the section leading towards Dyke’s cottage and soon find ourselves approaching the shore at the back of the island.
A modest fire pit sits ready for the family’s next open-air sing-a-long. Williams mentions that he likes to bring out his banjo for such events. Later, while admiring the infamous instrument as it hangs on the cabin wall, I ask if he is proficient.
He smiles softly and replies, “I am one of the most amateur dilettantes you ever met.”
Throughout our tour, it is evident the study habits Williams gained years ago as a law student continue to serve him well; like a walking encyclopaedia, he continually rattles off information about the different trees and plants, the cycle of post-fire regeneration, and the reasons why some trees thrive in a certain environment and others don’t.
At one spot he points out a cluster of jack pines and mentions that “jack pines take care of each other” when they are allowed to grow in a group.
Closer to his cabin Williams lays out a process for getting the short-lived birch trees to produce suckers and thus ensure several generations of continued growth. One specific example he shows us exhibits four generations of the original tree.
The importance of family on this island obviously goes way beyond the people.
A Life Spent Embracing Challenge and Seeking Adventure
Not all of the trees he cares for survive, but that doesn’t discourage Williams. As with all challenges, he just redoubles his determination; and it soon becomes evident that he has been this way his entire life.
As a young man Williams spent his summers searching out adventure while canoeing and kayaking in the Canadian wilderness.
“I believe it’s the risk that makes it worth it. If complete safety in the woods were guaranteed instead of being one’s primary responsibility there, we might as well just watch somebody else do it on TV. I am definitely not a child of the current generation,” he explains as we take a seat in his veranda which overlooks the lake through a screen of trees carefully managed so they conceal most of the cottage without blocking our view from within.
His first trip to Algonquin Park was at the age of ten, and what followed has been a life-long passion for exploring the great outdoors.
“I can go pretty much anywhere in Algonquin or Quetico Parks without a map,” he points out as we discuss some of his early adventures.
Anyone who has been to either of these parks can appreciate the significance of this statement.
Extolling Learning Through Experience
Far from being simply an adventurer and enthusiast, Williams has spent his life giving the gift of knowledge to others, instructing hundreds of people at all levels in the arts of canoeing, kayaking and sailing. Most of his students are school heads, superintendents, principals and other instructors. Others learn the skills to be guides, and many are simply embracing the sport for the first time.
In fact, it was this desire to give leaders and young people the opportunity to experience the thrill and character-building impact of being outdoors that led him away from a career in the 1960’s as a Cornell-trained lawyer, and into a fledgling organization called Outward Bound.
Leaving his job at the law firm, Williams went to work for $600 a month to be national program director, guide and mentor at the organization he would subsequently help develop into a world-renowned institution dedicated to assisting young people change their lives through challenge and discovery.
“At that time it cost $15,000 a year to incarcerate a young person. The program at Outward Bound cost $400 and the recidivism of those who attended it dropped by two-thirds. This increased to 85% if their parole officers did a short 10-day course too, so they understood what the kid had been through.”
Williams eventually moved to Minnesota to be the Associate Director of Outward Bound for the region and continued to help bring the gift of experiencing the outdoors to those who needed and benefited the most from it. “Experiential education simply means: do it first, talk about it later. It’s learning by doing.”
As a method for helping young people sort out their lives and find their wings it has been a proven success for decades.
Eco-Tourism and Protecting the Lake
With the discussion turning to business we quickly find ourselves engaged in a dialogue about the best way for Kenora to fully unlock the value of its position on Lake of the Woods. At a time when many traditional businesses in the area are struggling, the community is also battling to preserve the lake and its unique surroundings.
Kenora’s new branding strategy focused on becoming the world’s premier boating destination is a good start. Williams believes the area’s key to differentiating itself from seemingly similar venues lies in offering visitors outdoor-experience choices that put them on the water, learning to be there happily and safely.
“Here’s the chance for the Kenora area to truly become the boating centre it could be by letting people ‘learn and do’ rather than simply act as spectators. A participatory program would be unique, differentiating Kenora from everywhere else. Not everyone would come, but if just a fraction of the tourist market came we’d be swamped!”
Williams says families go to Disney World because it is a safe choice, rather than heading to lodges or camps. They know the full cost of the trip ahead of time and there are no perceived risks. Parents are overprotective and kids just want to play with their gadgets, he says.
According to Williams, today’s “screenilly-dependant kids are not allowed outdoors by their helicopter parents.” Google “nature deficit disorder,” he says.
Williams recently asked a teenager why it is that kids prefer video games over getting out and experiencing new challenges in the outdoors, and the reply he got made perfect sense.
In video games you get “do-overs”. If something doesn’t go right, you just reset the game and try again. In real life, that doesn’t exist. “Real life is hard.”
As a way to entice families to the region and develop a new type of tourism that is both environmentally and economically sustainable, Williams believes Lake of the Woods entrepreneurs should be creating opportunities for people to come on a package deal and be given a variety of experiential learning options to choose from during their holiday.
He says the activity possibilities are endless, and could include learning to fish, canoe, kayak, sail, navigate the lake safely, camp, cook a shore lunch and create useful traditional crafts, just to name a few.
The focus is to get people involved, to participate and learn rather than simply take tours. The end result is a confident, repeat visitor. People will come back because they have become comfortable in the environment and see that the activities are safe and enjoyable. “Then Kenora can be a boating centre attracting people who know and love the lake and know how to take care of themselves and the lake.”
Parents will relax a bit, and may even set aside the notion that it is too dangerous to let their children escape from the bubble for a few days and explore the wonders of the natural world.
Inevitably, some of the kids will fall in love with the lifestyle and become guides, instructors or entrepreneurs themselves, or simply contribute to the community by bringing their future families back to the lake.
The approach is similar to the one employed with the birch tree; under the right conditions, with the proper planning and care, the people and their families will return in perpetuity.
The challenge is to convince various stakeholders to embrace the vision and put a system together where all the different entrepreneurs and municipal parties work together. For example, Williams says a vacation “package plan” which includes many entrepreneurial programs can offer one-source planning, advertising, booking, accounting and more. Even insurance could be covered by the businesses as a group.
Praising Young Canadians
As our chat begins to wrap up, Williams makes one final point that really shows how strongly he feels about the potential these ideas have for success in the Kenora area. He firmly believes that “Canadian young people are the very best choice to be leaders and instructors” for wilderness-based learning activities. Coming from an American (who admittedly has some Canadian roots), that’s quite a statement.
Our visit finished, Gerry and I hop into the boat and pull away from the dock for the scenic trip back to town.
And as we do, the thought occurs to me that maybe one of the many great sages of our global village really does live on Lake of the Woods during the summer. The label is quite apt, and I find out later that our host’s grandsons sometimes gleefully refer to him as “village elder.”
Dyke Williams has spent most of his career helping young people from all walks of life. As a visionary, instructor and mentor, he has committed to improving the lives of young people by helping them discover their inner strengths while identifying and conquering their fears and weaknesses.
The character-building benefits of outdoors-oriented learning activities are unquestioned, but can only be realized with passionate and dedicated leadership.
For any parent, entrepreneur, or local politician in search of creative and forward-thinking ideas, a trip to see Dyke Williams would certainly be worth the effort.
Written and photographed by: Andrew Walker