Posts Tagged ‘Captain Don McVicar’


I have a confession to make. I’ve not always enjoyed canoeing. There have been times I was shaking so badly I thought my adrenaline would never kick in. Those were the mornings when my partner Tom Kazo and I had clients for a “You Point We Paddle” tour, and the early morning seas, instead of being flat calm as they usually were in the summer, were more than a bit choppy for human-paddled canoes. I began to call them “slappy” because of the sound they make when the waves smack our hulls.

I am thinking specifically of trips when I was learning to paddle solo, and he had one, two or even three people in his canoe (he was a powerful paddler!). I’m remembering how he taught me how to cut into the waves at a certain angle for both speed and safety; you’d never want to get caught in the dip between waves and broached; meaning the canoe would roll over and be swamped.

After all Tom Kazo had raced powerboats at frightening speeds from the tender age of thirteen, over the same Biscayne Bay where we were now paddling our Wildlife Research Team canoes at about 97 miles slower per hour. He knew how to handle any type of water, could read the waves like a menu in a Chinese restaurant.

I never thought to ask him if on those slappy days he wore his fluorescent yellow shirt with the words NO FEAR across his broad back to encourage me. That man of mine was a risk-taker par excellence! But he was never foolish. Our canoes were carefully packed and in top condition. After starting WRT in 1993, we quickly adopted nine-inch-bladed double paddles from Mohawk Canoes for the power we needed when he and I, as guides, were the “engines” of our canoes. This way, our passengers could enjoy the delights of nature without paddling, gliding magically over the clear water, feeling the stress melt away.

On those choppy morning excursions, we could not paddle parallel to the shore, or risk the above-mentioned fate. Nope: Tom’s methodology was to head out at an angle, southeast, triangulating our route according to where we intended to go down the coast. Which meant that the waves would get bigger the further from shore. Wonderful.

While navigating my fourteen foot canoe through these obstacles, feeling the twist and tug of the currents and tides beneath me, my mind flashed on certain things— such as the opening credits of the WWII documentary Victory at Sea, where the foredeck of the battleship crashes into an immense wave and is completely submerged. The most comforting thought was of my dad, Captain Don McVicar, awarded the King’s Commendation and Order of the British Empire for his World War II Arctic explorations piloting a ski-plane in the service of the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, and also for his courage and flying skill in the development of the Crimson Route across the most northerly reaches of the globe, so as to deliver warplanes from North America to Europe. Along with the other brave men of the RAFFC, Dad flew many deliveries across both the North and South Atlantic. The 10,000 bombers delivered were vital to the defeat of Hitler.

To feel my father’s bravery burning in me, to give it a reason to catch fire, even in a far less dramatic way, turned my fear into fuel. As Daddy had navigated over uncharted, mountainous, frozen territory where magnetic North played havoc with compasses, and weather reports were only guesses, in my much smaller way, I navigated between the ever-changing aqueous topography. I concentrated on where to place each stroke of my paddle, that the blade would bite water and not air. Every stroke mattered. I learned that a double paddle could act as an outrigger, to brace myself!

The most terrifying moment came when we had to turn towards the shore, momentarily exposing the hull of our canoes to the cresting waves. Which, were, I have to repeat, much larger out there. How far were we out? I’d like to say, Scotland was nigh, but I could be exaggerating. Let’s just say, the curve of the Earth revealed tall buildings well inland. Like maybe, Naples on the west coast.

After about a century of floundering in the trough between a couple of tsunamis, and finally turning my bow to the correct angle, Tom would exclaim, “Let Mother Nature help us out!” and we’d basically surf back to land! With my double paddle positioned behind me to keep me steady, yes, I have to admit: it was fun! The waves actually sizzled around me. Who needs a roller coaster?

After twenty years, I’ve never (touch wood!) tipped or dumped. I’ll give Tom credit for teaching me well, and my dad for genetically passing down his courage and skill. But I’m proud of myself, as Tom was proud of me. Yet I really did it for love; there is no more powerful fuel. When I became his canoeing partner, it was to help him control his diabetes; continual foot ulcers kept him in a wheelchair for many months of the last sixteen years of his wildly challenging life. Paddling burned off his excess blood sugar, so I can state with certainty that canoeing saved his life.

Now when I paddle a solo canoe off the coast like that, I eagerly seek the slappy waves. In those early days, we’d rig up ballast in the bow so my canoe wouldn’t blow around, but as my experience grew, the day came when I preferred the bow to be light, because with enough speed, my canoe can be mostly airborne as I skip across the wavetops. Exhilarating!

Tom and I later enjoyed several strenuous canoe-camping expeditions in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge with dear friends; in my solo canoe I again challenged myself and was rewarded with wonderful memories. (Photo taken by Tom, above)

Not everyone has an Arctic-exploring pilot in their genes. But all of us have times we need courage, when our bones and muscles feel like water as we wait for the adrenaline to power up. We may never know when we’ll be called upon to overcome fear, save a life of a loved one, even to be a hero because we were strong enough. Canoeing empowered me. Not that I wish to put anyone into jeopardy! But one reason Wildlife Research Team has value is that our people have the opportunity to challenge themselves in a small way, to prepare themselves for The Big Scary Stuff that WILL come to get you when you least expect it. It’s because of experiences like this, I began to say, “Canoeing is a metaphor for Life.”

So when you pick up a paddle, and launch a canoe, you are about to experience a great combination: fresh air, restorative water, improved mood, stronger muscles, endorphins by the truckload, challenges met, fear overcome, courage and self-knowledge increased, exponentially.

Such a deal!

Hoping to see YOU in a black canoe,




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Hello again, and welcome to the fourth installment of our seven-day journey. You have learned a bit of our history, and we hope you can see the benefits WRT would love to once again offer to the community and the environment.

But before we provide you with the answer to this important question, let me just say that as difficult as it may be to “re-launch” Wildlife Research Team after the Great Recession sucker-punched us, it is NOTHING compared to what Dr. Tom Kazo had to do in 1993!

When in April 1991, the Veterans Administration released him from long-term care in their Miami nursing home, they turned out onto the street this combat-wounded, decorated Army veteran without a pension, not a penny in his pocket or even a glucometer to monitor his diabetes. His two years in their care had caused all of his outside resources to disappear. Basically, they expected him to die in a few months.

My family was happy to take Tom into our home. We had known him from years before, during much better times. We knew very well he had gone out of his way to help so many others, so we were honored to be able to help him. Then came a long and agonizing process: when he applied for a disability pension from Social Security, his two doctorates counted against him! Surely a man so well educated and resourceful was not in need of government assistance, was the message they handed down, and he was denied again and again. As he put it, “I don’t need a handout, just a hand up.” Only when he appeared before a judge in his wheelchair with his feet heavily bandaged after yet another surgical procedure at the VA, was Tom Kazo granted his well-deserved pension, in early 1992.

This, then was when his dream of a Wildlife Research Team, could actually begin to become a reality. It’s a dream that literally came to him on what the VA doctors predicted would be his death bed. Tom proved them wrong, but he was always the best at cheating Death. He had another fifteen years to make it come true, as I wrote in a previous post.

So, even though times are still tough, what we have to do to get our black canoes back to work is a cakewalk compared to what I witnessed back then. I want to also take a moment to give credit to my father, Captain Don McVicar, OBE, who founded an airline in Montreal after World War II, and ran it for twenty years. World Wide Airways helped to build the DEW Line across the Arctic, among many other accomplishments. Tom was a lot like Dad: they were both big guys with huge hearts who never flinched from the hardest task. They were unsurpassed at making something substantial out of thin air. Lucky me: I seem to be genetically inclined to take on a challenge with passion!

Allow me to repeat the question: Where do we start?

Answer: a program we call Canoeing 101

Another good question: why do we need Canoeing 101?

Answer: Twenty years of observing people in canoes…

Watching people freak out and freeze and fight with their partner because they cannot for the life of them make the canoe move in any direction. Having to paddle out and literally tow them to safety.

Hearing canoes cursed hurts my heart!
Not getting to know some really awesome new volunteers who came out to our cleanups just the once, realizing I didn’t have enough time to get to know them during the event.
Waiting for someone to get hurt, and wondering if the release they signed would be enough to protect us.
Being amazed that some people, friends-of-volunteers, usually, were reluctant to share their names or emails with WRT, even though we were letting them use our equipment and represent our good name.
In short, what the heck was I thinking, letting strangers into our canoes? 

I took it on faith, that because we were doing good works, that all would be well. Based on my years of experience, I was sure that only quality people would volunteer for our cleanups, people not likely to sue for some small mishap. Happy to report that we still have an unblemished safety record!

But was this really Team-building? If we didn’t get “return customers” then we— I— had failed them somehow. And how could we fund our operations since we don’t charge dues like all the other nonprofits? We certainly couldn’t even dream of “charging volunteers” who were donating their time, love, muscles, sweat, and gasoline!

Took a while to come up with a plan. Won’t go into all of that angst! Here then is the answer…

Canoeing 101:

  • Will introduce new people to the wonderful lifetime sport and skill of canoeing;
  • To be held close to WRT’s canoe storage facility in Davie (west of Fort Lauderdale) at a spacious canoe launch with plenty of room for canoes to maneuver once in the water, in a sheltered location (our travel expense = nil);
  • To be scheduled on two Saturday mornings per month (to begin with);
  • Will have small classes so that students will receive personal attention;
  • Will be at NO COST to students; providing this free service to the community furthers our nonprofit mission by removing financial barriers;
  • From now on, every single person who will even step into a WRT canoe must go through this course.

(A Few) Benefits of Canoeing 101: 

  • Teach important safety skills in a more controlled environment;
  • Risk Management, forestall lawsuits as no “strangers” will be setting foot in our canoes;
  • Provide a public service; train people in a lifetime skill that may even save their lives later on;
  • Team building, fellowship, fun;
  • Great publicity;
  • Sponsors and donors can readily understand and support this basic training session;
  • As even future excursion passengers (non-paddlers) are required to go through Canoeing 101, this will weed out those who might ruin the trip for others because they find the canoe to be uncomfortable. (We’ve seen it happen!)

Canoeing 101 will be the doorway to a cherished goal of both Tom and myself: a Team within our Team, of trained and certified canoe guides/naturalists who we will financially compensate as valuable employees (NOT independent contractors!). 

As WRT wants everyone to be able to enjoy Nature from our canoes, not just the athletically inclined, we need an A-Team of Canoe Guide/Naturalists to be the “engines” for our canoes in our unique program, “You Point, We Paddle.” Passengers won’t have to paddle, as they may be too young/old/physically challenged.

How and why:

  • Volunteers become Lifetime Wildlife Research Team Members after giving us just twenty hours; they will never have to pay dues. They will be able to volunteer at cleanups and other events, and never have to pay a penny. Financial hardship should not bar good people from helping out!
  • Guides begin, like everyone in WRT, as volunteers, but showing more intensity and dedication;
  • These people will receive ongoing training and certification (CPR, Red Cross first aid, etc.), first, as WRT volunteer/members, and as time passes and they prove their reliability, as paid employees (we will engage the services of an accountant to keep us in compliance with all government entities).
  • Although some people get all they need from volunteering, some are looking for financially rewarding part-time employment;
  • Outside agencies look for accountability to the organization, and having people on a payroll meets that requirement;
  • Volunteers are the lifeblood of a nonprofit organization, but the sad and ugly truth about volunteers is that they know they don’t have to show up, and if they do show up, they don’t have to do a good job. What can I say? People have their own reasons, or excuses, for everything they do, or don’t do.
  • WRT has been blessed with the highest-quality volunteers any organization could ever ask for, I hasten to add.

Would YOU like to become part of a great organization with a twenty-year history of making a difference to the people and wildlife of beautiful South Florida? Or would you be happy to just learn how to make that doggone canoe move forward, so that you and your loving partner don’t turn the air blue cursing at each other? Would you like to improve your physical health while enjoying a Canoe View of Florida’s many waterways? Would you like to be PAID to paddle a canoe?

All of the above begin with good ol’ Canoeing 101.

Tomorrow: Canoe View University

Thanks so much for sticking with me! There’s been so much to cover on our journey together.
On behalf of the amazing people who have given of their time for our Team, I wish you a day of knowing you are making the right decision at every turn.

Think about it: what better gift could there be?
Your future Paddle Pal,


Photo: Members of Boy Scout Troop 254 are learning the fine points of paddling while working towards their Merit Badges, courtesy of Wildlife Research Team.

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