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Kirk Whipper was a pioneer in teaching children about nature.

Kirk Wipper spent a lifetime contributing to environmental education. An early proponent of wilderness exploration, he literally paddled his way into the hearts and minds of a generation of canoeing and camping enthusiasts. Over a period of 45 years, his love for Canada was embodied in his collection of more than 500 canoes, most of which are now housed in the Canadian Canoe Museum.

For Wipper, the canoe was not only a means of travel across the Canadian wilderness. He felt it symbolized our heritage and the connection between the founding cultures of Canada. As Wipper reflected in a 1995 CBC Ideas program, "The canoe carried aboriginal people for thousands of years, followed then by the explorers and the missionaries and the engineers and the surveyors … until in modern times it gives us the gift of freedom. The canoe is a vehicle that carries you into pretty exciting places."

Wipper, who died on March 18 at the age of 88, was a disarmingly humble man who nonetheless possessed real determination when it came to his beliefs, as comfortable in the limelight as he was on a solitary canoe ride. A true visionary, Wipper believed that what lay beyond the next bend in the river was the chance to become part of something greater than himself.

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Kirk Albert Walter Wipper was born in the remote town of Grahamdale in Northern Manitoba on Dec. 6, 1923. The Wipper family were of German stock and had come to farm in the early 1900s. They soon discovered that the land was harsh and unforgiving, but the family stayed on. Kurt Wipper eventually married a local girl named Marjory Verch. The couple had two children, Kirk and a sister Marianne.

Grahamdale was situated near a native reserve and when Kirk was growing up, many of his friends were native children. From them he gained a profound reverence and appreciation for the bounties of the wilderness, which often made the difference between hunger and a full stomach. School, held in a one-room log cabin, was where he had his first experience of poetry. He could recite most of the poems he learned there for the rest of his life. His high school diploma was completed by correspondence and he then travelled to Winnipeg, where he attended normal school to train to be a teacher. He returned to Grahamdale to teach when he was just 15 years old.

When Wipper was 17, he joined the Canadian Navy and for the duration of the war he found himself on very different waters as a young seaman aboard HMCS Runnymede. After the war, he enrolled at the University of Manitoba to study geology, but when he received a scholarship to study sociology at the University of Toronto, he moved east. He was only one year into the sociology program when W.G. Griffiths, a professor at the School of Physical Education and Health, persuaded him to transfer.

By this time, Wipper had developed an impressive physique and was a natural athlete, who competed on several varsity teams. He was captain of the wrestling team and for five years the undefeated champion. He also coached the wrestling team. When his students were not winning. but obviously possessed the talent to do so, he admonished them that they did not believe they were winners. "You have to believe," he said. When they believed in themselves, they started to be champions.

During the summer, he earned money as an outdoor educator at various camps. In 1948, he met a young nurse at Camp Pinecrest named Margaret Niddery, and the two were married a few years later. The couple had three children, Douglas, David and Joanna. In 1950, after completing degrees in both physical education and social work, Wipper joined the School of Physical and Health Education at the University of Toronto as aprofessor. He quickly became a major innovator within the department. One of his students was Robin Campbell, who describes Wipper's influence: "Kirk was recognized as a pioneer in the development of outdoor education in Canada. In the 1970s, Kirk developed the syllabus for outdoor education courses, a program that is still required today as part of the BPHE undergraduate curriculum at U of T."

When Wipper wasn't in the classroom, he was outside teaching youngsters about the natural world. In 1954, the CBC ran a series entitled Walk with Kirk, which featured Wipper as he travelled to various locations teaching about the importance of conservation and protection of the environment, long before environmentalism became mainstream. Wipper's concern that young people were often not given the opportunity to appreciate the natural world led him to purchase Camp Kandalore in 1957. Kandalore was an all-boys camp located near Minden, Ont. As owner/director, Wipper's formula for success focused on what he referred to as the three Ws: water safety, woodsmanship and wilderness travel.

In the late 1950s, he began his extraordinary collection of canoes, beginning with a gift from his former mentor, Prof. Griffiths. It was a rare, Payne Brothers basswood dugout circa 1890. For many years it hung in the dining hall at Kandalore, before becoming the centrepiece of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont.

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Executive director of the museum and former Kandalore camper, James Raffan, describes Wipper's fascination for the canoe. "Kirk loved canoes because they were both functional and beautiful. Part of that beauty is that they were wrought from the materials of the earth by the hands of this country's first peoples. … Kirk knew that in amassing a collection of canoes he was creating a unique and highly significant portrait of the country that would endure."

Wipper travelled across the country acquiring canoes and housed them at Kandalore in a building which in the late 1960s became the Kanawa International Museum of Canoes, Kayaks and Rowing Craft - the world's largest collection of watercraft. Eventually, the collection grew to more than 500 canoes and artifacts and Peterborough was suggested as the perfect location for a permanent museum. With the help of enthusiastic volunteers, many from Trent University, the concept of a knowledge centre about the role of the canoe was developed. In 1997, the museum opened its doors to the public.

Wipper sold Kandalore in 1978 and retired from the School of Physical Education and Health in 1987. Divorced in the early 1980s, he met Ann Angotti in 1988. They were married in 1992 and settled in Keene, Ont.

A new chapter of Wipper's life began as he found himself in constant demand to head a variety of camping associations and conservation organizations. His efforts were recognized in 2002 when he became a Member of the Order of Canada as well as the Order of St. John.

Another cause close to his heart was the Circle of All Nations, founded by long-time friend, Chief William Commanda, the Algonquin Elder from the Kitigan Zibi Reserve. Their friendship had begun when Wipper began to buy Commanda's birch bark canoes as part of his collection. The Circle consists of individuals committed to the environment, Canada's water resources, racial harmony and respect for indigenous wisdom. Its tenets reflected Wipper's own personal creed: "You have to do what you can, do your best with what you are. And you have to believe in wilderness. If you do that, you can't go wrong."

Wipper leaves his wife, Ann, and children, Douglas, David and Joanna, and stepson Michael and his grandchildren.

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