A friend lost
My friend Ed Hixson — hiker, mountaineer, skier and world-class paddler — passed away last week at his home on Upper St. Regis Lake. As a child he was sent to a summer camp on Lake Placid to escape the polio epidemic of the 1940s, and here he started a lifelong love affair with the outdoors. I don’t know anyone that loved the outdoors more than Ed.
I first met Ed in the mid-’70s at a meeting of paddlers, when some local paddlers were trying to organize a paddling club of sorts. Ed was a legend on the Hudson River and regularly tackled whitewater in his open canoe that others were hesitant to do in the safety of a raft. They looked to Ed for guidance, which he was glad to provide, although he was more interested in getting out and paddling than creating a club.
Once Ed found out I’d climbed Denali, he invited me to dinner to pick my brain, because he had much grander mountaineering plans than I: He wanted to climb not just Denali (which he did) but also Mount Everest. He ended up serving as the doctor on three Everest expeditions. He nearly summited one year but suffered a stroke, which caused him to walk in a slightly awkward way for the rest of his life. One day he said to me, “My gait is caused by my stroke.”
I said, “I always thought it was due to your two hip replacements.”
He smiled and said, “That’s what I want people to think.”
We came from different spheres. Although we were both believers in learning by experience, he believed colleges should provide canoes and other outdoor gear and just let the students have at it. By contrast, I advocated guided instruction, emphasizing safety and protection of the environment. Over the years I think he came to appreciate my approach, and I his — sort of along these lines: “Good judgment is learned by using bad judgment,” and, “Smart people learn from their experience. Wise people learn from the experience of others.”
When I first got to know Ed, I found him politically much more conservative than I. That changed considerably after Al Gore’s movie about climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth,” came out. It had a tremendous impact on him, making him more attuned to environmental issues. Whether the issue was acid rain in the Adirondacks or climate change nationally, Ed knew what the issues were and supported a healthy environment.
In 1998 my good friend Doug Fitzgerald and I started a biennial tradition that lasted 14 years and totaled nine two-week wilderness river trips throughout North America. We paddled the Buffalo and Green rivers before teaming up with Ed and his family in 2002. Ed and his wife Karen, with their two boys, joined our wives and kids for a two-week trip down the Rio Grande River.
My memory of Ed on that trip is him paddling through the rapids, demonstrating the smoothest paddling technique I’d ever seen.
Two years later our families paddled the San Juan River, where our whitewater skills were put to a better test. Ed loved it when we overheard rafters exclaim, “Look at them old folks paddling open canoes. Wow, they’re good. Are they from National Geographic or something?”
Ed was a bit old school, so when he saw male rafters wearing skirts and other rafters running around naked, he didn’t mind the nudity, but he couldn’t comprehend the skirts. All he said was, “Why would men want to wear skirts?”
Ed was also old school when it came to packing. He liked to bring everything, no matter what the weight. We were all worried about meeting the weight limit for our flight into the Thelon River and tried to discourage Ed from bringing his ax and hammer, among other heavy items. We were desperately trying to figure out what to leave behind when the pilot surprised us by pointing to a giant 4-by-10-foot box and said, “If it will fit in the box, you can bring it.” This ended the argument with Ed for the time being, but on other trips excess weight was a problem, especially when lots of canoe carries were involved.
My career was spending time outdoors. I loved it but took it a lot for granted. Not Ed. He was a surgeon, and having spent too many hours in the operating room, he never took the outdoors for granted.
It was on the Missouri River that Ed’s love of the outdoors was reinforced. We were debating whether to end the trip a day early. The weather was marginal, and the long drive home was on our minds. Ed, with a look on his face like a kid in the candy store, said, “Yeah, I get it; we could get off the river a day early. But I’m content to stay out here, cook my meals and enjoy the river.” The comment said it all.
Our most remote trip was in 2010, when we traveled to northern Canada and flew 350 miles by bush plane into the Thelon River barren lands. The Thelon, known for its wildlife, had been on Ed’s bucket list for a while, and it didn’t disappoint. We had great fishing and saw moose, wolves, caribou and signs of musk ox. But the highlight was one morning after breakfast when a grizzly bear came into our camp. We were all thrilled, but none more so than Ed. We were taking pictures with one hand and prepared to fire away with bear spray with the other when, after a tense five minutes, the bear finally wandered off. We looked at each other, and Ed exclaimed, “Wasn’t that something?!” It was a story Ed told many times.
They say there are three aspects of a wilderness adventure: the pre-trip planning, the trip, and the post-trip reflection. Ed cherished all three. He loved to read books and research the areas we were traveling. He may not have been as detail oriented as some, but he knew the history of an area as well as anyone, and even more he loved sharing it with others.
You know your trips have been successful when the outfitter picks you up at the end of the trip and says, “You must have done that bonding thing. Most groups aren’t even talking to each other when we pick them up.” Indeed, with our three families — the Hixsons, Fitzgeralds and Drurys — we had found a formula for success: good folks, good planning, good communication and clear recreational objectives built around fun and enjoyment. When combined with a spectacular environment, it was a recipe for great adventures and wonderful memories.
After each trip Ed loved recounting stories, as we all did. Often the winds got stronger, the waves bigger, the scenery better and the bugs worse. The fish got longer and the bears more ferocious. Of course, we all had stories a-plenty. But when all is said and done, trips are about the people you share the experiences with. I will forever be grateful that Ed and I shared a lot of them.
(A slide show celebrating Ed’s trips can be seen at https://youtu.be/35FnPsuhcT4.)