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An Unexplained Death, Part One: Brent Hendren was born with a wanderlust spirit

By Heather Rivers, Woodstock Sentinel-Review

Brent Hendren

Brent Hendren

Gilles Miron spotted 23-year-old Brent Hendren hitchhiking on a lonely, rocky stretch of highway near Parry Sound.

A backpack — one that Hendren was proud to say held everything he owned — was strapped to the young man’s back.

Miron, a canoe instructor, slowed to pick up the former London and Woodstock resident, hoping to fill the hours ahead with conversation.

The retired autoworker was headed north on Sept. 17, 2010, travelling to Serpent River, a First Nations community near the northern shore of Lake Huron, to teach a whitewater canoe course.

He still had five hours of driving in front of him.

Right away, Miron had a good impression of his new companion.

“There was something strange about Brent that caught my attention right away,” he said. “A good strange.”

As they sped north on Highway 69, Miron learned Hendren had just caught a Roger Waters concert in Toronto and was hitchhiking for the first time to Vancouver, with a stop in Lake Louise to see his sister.

“We got talking. He was a very interesting and intriguing young fellow,” Miron said.

The avid canoeist kept a journal of every one of his expeditions, and the one on Serpent River was no exception.

It is from those records he was able to recall their conversations during the drive, including how Hendren had just taken up hitchhiking and was catching his first ride. They also bantered about the reality of travelling on one’s own and the perception it could be dangerous.

“Brent and I agreed that that is not at all true,” Miron said. “Nine out of 10 people want to help you.”

Arriving in Serpent River before dark, Miron offered to give Hendren a place to stay – a teepee on the property of his friend’s waterfront home on Lake Huron’s north channel.

Strangers, Hendren's mother Jayna Leroux-Hendren would later explain, were often generous to her son. A nurse in India once used her own money to buy Hendren medicine to help rid him of a parasite.

“That’s the kind of person he was,” she said. “People did stuff for him all the time.”

After breakfast the next morning, the two new friends headed back to the highway where Miron was to meet his canoeists. As fate would have it, only seven of the expected 10 were able to take part in the two-day course.

Hendren was asked if he wanted to take one of the spots, and he enthusiastically agreed to two days of free instruction, room and board.

“Talk about lucking out,” Miron said.

After a day of rapids and white water, they dined on fresh moose meat and dumplings.

It was during this time Hendren's new Aboriginal friends bestowed him with the nickname Longthumb in honour of his new penchant for hitchhiking.

Two days later, Miron’s new friend disappeared down the highway.

Hendren likely would appreciate the skills he learned during that course when, four years later, he canoed 750 kilometres alone up the Yukon River to Dawson City.

While they would never meet again, Miron followed Hendren’s adventures on Facebook and would occasionally comment.

“We were kind of like-minded,” he said. “We both liked adventure.”

Hendren reminded Miron of Christopher McCandless, whose life inspired the book and movie, Into the Wild. McCandless had donated his savings to charity and developed a dharma bum lifestyle, while spending long periods in the wilderness where he sought to live off the land.

“When I saw Brent, that was him,” Miron said. “It may be his reasons were different, but the mindset was the same.”

Into the Wild was, in fact, one of Hendren’s favourite films. He once commented that he enjoyed the “poetry and bravery” behind McCandless’s mindset.

“He liked the idea of the less you have, the more you have,” said Hendren’s longtime friend Brandon Ball.

The comparison would prove to be eerily accurate.

An avid traveller, McCandless died at the age of 24 after hitchhiking to Alaska in April 1992. His body was found in a bus that had been converted into a shelter on the Stampede Trail.

The official cause of death was starvation.

Five years after Miron and Hendren parted company on a northern Ontario highway, Miron would be distraught to learn Hendren was missing and presumed drowned off the coast of Kumdis Island in Haida Gwaii.

Hendren had borrowed a small rowboat and was on his way to work on a garden and to forage 10 kilometres up the coastline. While his body has never been found, the boat, his backpack and several of his belongings were found in locations throughout an inlet.

It is presumed Hendren perished in the frigid water, but the true cause of his death likely will never be known and so remains a mystery.

“It really hurt me when I heard,” Miron said. “All I could think was he was such a fine young man. He was everything any guy could wish to be. He took on the world.”

Miron was particularly disturbed to learn Hendren wasn’t wearing a lifejacket when he perished.

“One of the things I taught him was to always wear his lifejacket,” he said.

•••

Before his tragic demise in 2015, Hendren would travel across the world, canoe the Yukon River and journey into the wilderness in an attempt to live off the land.

Hendren passionately believed the human race needed to do more with less in order to survive and, as if to set an example, lived alone in the wild with a goal of being completely sustainable.

“Although it is tragic, it is a really important story,” his friend Christy Konschuch said of his life. “It’s a beautiful story.”

Most obvious to his friends and family was that he lived a life only a few are brave enough to even contemplate.

“He knew what it is to live in a trap and have a life you don’t want to lead,” Miron said. “Every young man dreams of leaving society and living life on their own terms, but they don’t have the gumption to do it. It takes courage.”

hrivers@postmedia.com