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Paddler. Putterer. Messy cook. Mentor. Born June 23, 1922, in Haileybury, Ont.; died Jan. 17, 2017, in Toronto, of heart failure; aged 94.

Entering a four-person canoe race at the age of 91 might tell you something about Jean Stinson. Doing so with advancing dementia and a weakened heart reveals more layers to her story.

For some, canoes are intimidating. Instability and the fear of tipping can create anxiety. Paddling necessitates an intimate relationship with the water, and intentionally or otherwise, sometimes you get wet. Jean embraced this as a part of the experience and in this way, paddling came to define her life. Intentionally dumping her kids in a canoe, at an appropriate age, helped them to overcome fears, tackle obstacles and make the best from potentially difficult situations. Important life lessons taught and learned.

In Jean's family, paddling was as innate an activity as walking. For the most part. Her husband of 52 years, Fred, was a non-swimming farm boy from Janetville, Ont., who never took to paddling. Despite this void, love blossomed, grew and matured.

Work ethic was paramount in her life. Eighteen-hour workdays at the Groaning Board restaurant were common for Jean. During her 15 years as proprietor, chief cook and bottle washer, she befriended and inspired legions of customers and staff. Her "retirement years" were spent overseeing the Out of the Cold program at Metropolitan United Church in downtown Toronto.

A summer's day on Pine Island in North Muldrew Lake near Gravenhurst, Ont., began with a skinny dip, a bowl of lumpy porridge and then a chaotic rotation of activities that usually involved emptying a paint can, nibbling on fresh bread and nippy old cheddar, misplacing a myriad of tools, breaking for a hot tea or a cold beer and eventually cobbling together a dinner-hour feast from a bag of rice, a tomato and an onion. Every morning was celebrated as a fresh start and every day lived fully. When it came to the daily grind, she was never a lilly-dipper. She always put her back into it.

Her compass remained pointing forward to the end. Like everyone, she had opinions, but she always respected others. Anger and regret were unnatural emotions for her. And perhaps for this reason, whether paddling or not, she often steered clear of conflict. After prematurely losing first a brother, Fred, and then a son, Tom, the resulting catastrophic sadness was overwhelming. If ever there was a time to rest, reflect and perhaps allow the wind to blow you downstream, this was it. Instead, forward she paddled, into the wind or against the current.

Best to adjust your stroke and weight, and keep moving toward the finish line.

Keith Stinson is Jean's son.

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