Rollie and Umeda-san
Nov., 1996 Izumi, 32.189, 130.104
I first met Rollie in 1987. Noda-san, an adventurer and writer, had invited me to Japan. He had written about paddling the Yukon and other northern rivers and had become interested in my kayaks because the folding kayaks then available in Japan were very breakable. I had no idea what I was getting into when I arrived in Tokyo and was taken to a big ceremony. It turned out that Noda-san was revered and was receiving an award that evening. Later I would paddle with him on a number of rivers, starting with the Shimanto River in Kyushu. This would lead to the annual Feathercraft Owners’ Meetings that took place over the following 25 years. But that evening I was lost. To my surprise a tall white guy with a patch over one eye, wearing a big leather hat came up and introduced himself. As if he knew me. Rollie Innes-Taylor was born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon. Somehow he had ended up in Japan some 20 years earlier and had married a beautiful Japanese woman. A motorcycle accident had left him with the loss of one eye and a severely damaged hip, causing him to walk with a cane. But this didn’t slow Rollie down in a kayak. In that society Rollie always stuck out, which didn’t bother him at all. He traded on his Yukon notoriety and was at his best sitting around a camp fire on a beach with a bunch of people telling dirty jokes in both languages. Always, he kept us in stitches. Rollie was a successful adventure travel writer as well as an advisor to Honda for car ads. His job was to take rough English translations and make them acceptable to North Americans. He even posed, as an outdoors guy, with a kayak on the roof of a car, for promotions in Japan. A couple of years earlier he had started on a multi-year endeavor with his good pal Masa Umeda-san. They would paddle a leg of the journey whenever they could get the time off and then leave their two-person Feathercraft at a nearby car dealership.
Umeda-san is a gentle soul and so soft spoken you have to lean in close to hear what he is saying. Quite a contrast to Rollie. He is a professional photographer and very successful in the outdoor world.
Like Rollie, he has kids and has to juggle work, family and his passion for travelling Japan by kayak with Rollie.
They had started a couple of years before from, I think, Rollie’s town of Kamakura and headed south, with the hope of circumnavigating, in a clockwise direction, all the islands of Japan. When I met up with them they were on the south coast of the south island of Kyushu. We paddled from possibly Izumi, around the south end of Kyushu to Fukuoka. (I was just paddling along with them, almost as a guest. Looking back I wished that I had taken more note of our route).
This was a whole new experience for me. They were not in a hurry. At each major point they would stop for a smoke break, and often a laugh, too. We carried a minimum of gear. At night we would usually pull in to a “gyoko”, (protected harbour for small fishing boats) and forage for food. If the village or town was sizable we might eat at a sushi or ramen bar. If not we’d find a small store and buy some rice balls and soup packages to heat up on our gas stove. We’d sleep right beside the fish boats on the concrete wharfs. There would be a wash room for the fishermen. Nobody minded us and we felt like hobos.
One afternoon we were looking at the chart and Rollie was wondering where to pull in for the night. I noticed a town called Kayaki and said lets go there. Then I asked Umeda-san what it meant and he said, well, literally: “Burning mosquitoes”. When we started pulling up our kayaks an elderly couple asked us what we were up to. Rollie and Umeda-san explained. They invited us in to their home for the night. We didn’t want to impose ourselves, but they were insistent. The woman didn’t say much but she served us a delicious meal and favored us with a beautiful smile. We learned that the man was a doctor. Nagasaki was quite close by and he had spent his whole career healing survivors of the nuclear bomb blast that had devastated the community in 1945. Early on he treated severe burns, broken bodies and radiation sickness. Then heart and liver diseases and leukemia and other cancers. Many people, maybe most, would have become hardened with all this tragedy. But it was obvious that Hiroyuki Fujinaga-san had opened up his heart and soul, offering up compassion instead of hate. His deep humanity touched me. They were two of the most remarkable, generous people I have ever met.
Umeda-san and Rollie eventually made their way as far as the northern island of Hokkaido. But by then Rollie had become quite ill. Eventually he succumbed to cancer, leaving behind his wife, Akiko, and his two young sons, Chris and Ian. Years later I ran into Umeda-san in Tokyo. I was glad to see that he was the same quiet, thoughtful guy. But he misses his great friend Rollie.