How do I describe my friend John?
He is unlike anyone else I know — a mountain man born to the wrong time and place, but comfortable at any time and in any place.
John Behnke is, above all, nonjudgmental. That’s a quality I value in a friend.
We met through a mutual friend and a mutual interest in kayaking. We’ve done more than a dozen multi-day trips together, including at least 10 wilderness paddle-camping trips to the Apostle Islands. If you can come through that kind of potential for getting on each other’s nerves, you’ve got yourself a friend.
John is the kind of guy you would turn to in an emergency because you know he would remain calm and draw on some life experience that would help the situation.
No description of John would be complete without noting that he is a man of deep faith. He has made retreats to the shrine of Our Lady of Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia. Greet him and ask how he is and his response will be, “I am truly blessed.”
Through heart attacks, strokes and cancer, John still sees himself as truly blessed.
My best shot at communicating the essence of the man is to share with you some of his few words. These sentences stand out in my memory because they capture something of John’s spirit.
Out in the open space of Lake Superior, you ask John which way we should go and he needs no compass:
“Forward!” John will declare, echoing Wisconsin’s state motto.
Fret about the weather forecast in front of John (he has little patience for fretting) and you will hear:
“We’re definitely going to have weather.”
John and our mutual friend Frank can disagree about any subject. It’s one of our main sources of campsite entertainment. When Frank finally and inevitably pushes John to the point of exasperation, John sums up the situation like this:
“Frank, Frank, Frank.”
Then there was the time John was wearing a t-shirt with a catch phrase on it that I no longer recall. I don’t know how to explain why this defines John so well for me, so I’ll just share it.
Frank read the shirt and told John that he didn’t understand the meaning of his t-shirt.
“You don’t have to,” John responded. “It’s not your t-shirt.”
I remember only one time that John’s words scared me. We were paddling back from a trip to the outer ring of islands in the Apostles. We had foolishly put our schedule back home ahead of the realities of Lake Superior and headed out in weather we had no business paddling in.
Conditions deteriorated as we headed toward the mainland. We bobbed and bounded over waves so tall that when they rose between us, they completely hid us from each other’s view.
I was hyper-alert but fine, confident in the skills of my fellow paddlers and the soundness of my boat. Until John spoke.
"Dave, let me tell you where my truck keys are … just in case.”
Now I was scared.
We made it safely back to shore. We may have actually kissed the sand.
I saw John recently and asked him about his latest medical problems. He was stoic, as always. The seriousness of his reaction was as if I had asked him about the latest oil change in his truck. Finally, he summed up the cancer, the heart attacks and the stroke, dismissing all of it with more words according to John.
“Don’t none of it hurt.”
Then we went back to talking about paddling.