Over the past seven years former police sergeant Pete Viol has cycled or hiked the width and breadth of North America and now that he is retired, he has slipped into the current with nothing holding him back.
“The point I want to make is that when you think you might be getting old, don’t let that thought direct your life,” said Viol. “There is still stuff you can do for your community and your own health.”
The 68-year-old Fergus resident and adventurer retired in May 2019 after 21 years with the Waterloo Region Police Service but his personal service to the community in terms of fundraising began years earlier with a series of long-distance bicycle tours.
“The first two were for the Grand River Regional Cancer Centre in Kitchener at Grand River Hospital and the last four plus this one will be for St. Mary’s Regional Cardiac Care Centre,” said Viol. “We are up around $112,000 for the cardiac centre and in total for the cancer centre it was around $35,000.”
It is money well-earned given that the first five of his month-long journeys were completed during his summer vacation.
“I covered Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and I covered North America from the US-Mexican border to the Arctic Ocean,” said Viol. “When I was working, I would use my holidays. I biked from Banff up to Tuktoyaktuk (about 3,600 km) and I was tired by that point. Then I had to worry about getting back to work.”
Retirement allowed him to put his feet on the ground and slow things down a bit.
“I got a little tired of biking so, last year I walked the entire Bruce Trail,” he said. “It took me 40 days, of which I walked 37, and that was a long trip. That was my longest trip.”
He travels alone but it takes a team effort to prepare and raise awareness for the cause.
“There is a group of volunteers that if I get into serious trouble, help is three or four hours away,” he said. “Jane Jamieson knows all the logistics on these projects. She has a background in fundraising and she pretty much runs the show.”
Jamieson has helped coordinate and communicate Viol’s message from the beginning.
“I’ve known Pete for about 14 years and worked with him on all these events,” said Jamieson. “He likes a physical challenge. That’s just part of who he is. It is something he enjoys and he likes to add the fundraising component to it otherwise it’s just about a paddle or a hike or a bike.”
The focus of Viol’s efforts for the past five years has been women’s heart health. Heart-related illnesses are the leading killer of women in Canada claiming nearly 140,000 in 2019 alone.
“It is a tragedy and that is part of the process here,” said Viol. “These events are to raise awareness about women’s heart health issues because they are issues that don’t get the attention they should. Way more women die of heart issues than breast cancer each year in Canada. That gives you an idea. Look what we get for breast cancer and what we get for women’s cardiac issues.”
It is a deeply personal issue for Viol who lost his wife Monique to heart disease nearly 40 years ago when she was only 20.
“We were married about a year and a half when Monique died,” he said. “She contracted a virus that was finally diagnosed correctly as myocarditis. This was back in 1983 and, in those days, myocarditis was on the radar but only just.”
Doctors determined that a heart transplant was Monique’s only chance of surviving her condition.
“At that time, I think there had been less than 10 heart transplants performed in Ontario,” said Viol. “Unfortunately, in Monique’s case they had trouble. She was on a ventilator post-surgery and they had trouble getting the gases to exchange properly in her lungs and she died 36 hours after surgery.”
Viol could be forgiven if the experience made him cynical and bitter but that clearly hasn’t been his response.
“He’s not at all bitter about that,” said Jamieson. “It’s part of his history and certainly it has shaped who he is over the years, going through that loss when he was pretty young. The main reason we’re doing this is to raise money for the cardiac centre and of course the awareness of women’s health as well. It spurs on that whole conversation. It really matters.”
Viol launched from Port Severn Sunday morning and expects to arrive in Ottawa mid-September.
“I did the rough math based on the Trent-Severn waterways,” he said. “That will take you from Port Severn down to Trenton. I will paddle across to Kingston and then up to Ottawa on the Rideau Canal system. The whole thing comes out to roughly 750 kilometres so, I divided it up and budgeted 20 to 30 days to give myself some room just in case I get stopped by weather.”
He hopes the sleek design and light weight of his canoe will give him an advantage over the average canoe that travels about five kilometres an hour.
“Five kilometres an hour is pretty good, but I think this thing will average around seven or eight,” he said. “This is 17 and a half feet long and 34 pounds. It’s not cheap but it is worth every pretty penny.”
Raising money is an important part of the whole adventure and Viol is especially thankful to his corporate sponsors Transit Fuels in Kitchener and Katlyn Holdings in Waterloo.
“They have been with me for all of my trips for the cardiac centre,” he said. “A special shout out to all the people in the community that have donated. Without the support of the community and the corporate sponsors these trips wouldn’t be possible.”
Viol hopes to inspire others to donate or even plan their own fundraising efforts.
“It’s okay for me to go paddle my butt off and go from Port Severn to Ottawa but without the support of these people all it is, is a canoe trip,” he said. “Anybody could do that. In my experience, people can do a lot more than they think they can. You don’t have to sit around and do nothing because that will shorten your life in a hurry.”