The Canadian with Rainbow Fingernails: Advice from the Trail


By Katrina Holland When I met Michael Connor, his fingernails were painted rainbow and he was wearing a tie-dye t-shirt with “Brewed High” across the chest. I knew Michael was an eccentric guy after my first day under his care in the backcountry, but I didn’t know his full story. I knew that he emitted childish energy that contrasted his grey hair and weathered skin from many years spent outdoors. I knew a baseball cap would never sit straight on his head, and he knew this, too. I knew that he loved to ask questions he already knew the answers to, and this I hated at first. But that small hatred sat in the shadow of the great comfort that was knowing if I woke up before everyone else with something on my mind, Michael would be making tea, waiting to listen and give me a token of advice. I noticed he loved to dance and sing at the most random times, and wouldn’t stop despite the eleven pairs of teenage eyes wondering what the hell he was doing. I saw he was humble, letting himself be overlooked. He stayed in the back of the pack, telling jokes to the day’s weakest links until they forgot they felt weak at all. I realize now he never demanded my respect in any way: In fact he saw himself as my equal, another kid just learning the ropes despite his decades of experience. But a deep respect for Michael came naturally to me, and to all of us. I knew he must have some incredible life story that gave him this aura of ease and grace, and he probably never would have shared his story if we hadn’t asked, because his ego was so nonexistent. But we asked, so he courteously explained in the most nonchalant manner possible.

Michael Connor studied Political Science at McGill University in Toronto and went on to be a photojournalist for several Canadian newspapers, but when he didn’t get the promotion he wanted, he bought a plane ticket to Japan with no real plan, job, or home to arrive to. After two years in Japan, Michael moved on to new adventures. One of these adventures included going to Africa where he was held at gunpoint by a drunk man and then saved by an Australian who smoothly slid between Michael and the man, and proceeded to take the drunk man for a waltz--a literal waltz. Today, Michael makes an incredible impact on dozens of teens and adults through his current jobs. He is a Wilderness Field Instructor at Algonquin College Waterfront Campus and a Sea Kayak Instructor at Harbourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre, both in Ontario, as well as a Field Instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School’s base in Alaska where he co-led the sea kayaking and backpacking course I took.

I believe there are two tiers for quality advice: regular advice, to be taken with a grain of salt, and then “Michael Advice,” which hits you like a brick and leaves you ferociously rummaging through your pack like a rabid animal for a pen and some paper. The times I succeeded in finding that pen and paper resulted in my ability to pass on these three tokens of Michael Advice:

  1. “There is no merit in going into a beautiful place and suffering.”
  2. “It’s not about getting from point A to point B. It’s about having a beautiful day in the wilderness.”
  3. “Having those hard conversations will save you so much time. And not waiting-at-a-bus-stop time-- I’m talking years of your life.”

Thanks Michael.