Bob Olson wrote (29 June 2005):
> Mike Rankin died peacefully in his sleep this morning of a heart attack.
* Mike had been living with heart disease since 1980 (at least); his passing is a sore diminishment of all that's good and generous in the world.
He first entered our lives in 1979, when I was finishing my thesis, and Aleta was awaiting publication of Canadian Nature Notebook. As so often before and since, we were destitute of funds: our car broke down, and Mike lent us one of his. This pattern was repeated down through the years, most recently in 1998 when we finished the midnight loading of the last vanfull of Carleton University specimens for the fledgeling Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum, and, after the van had driven away, our pickup wouldn't start. No problem, Mike lent us a car.
I find Mike's name in the OBSERVER field of 1631 records in my database. The first is a Rana clamitans (Green Frog), 1 adult, specimen, CMNAR 20001, taken on 14 May 1980 in Renfrew County, Highway 17, 7.1 km SE Chalk River, UTM 18TUF 242 889, as we were heading, with Frank Ross and Fay Baird, for the Interlake of Manitoba and the Bufo a. americanus-Bufo a. hemiophrys hybrid zone north of Lake Winnipeg. The last was Turdus migratorius (Robin), 1 juvenile, DOR, on North Augusta Rd, 0.5 km SW North Augusta, UTM 18TVE 411.9 561.7, as we were coming back to Bob Olson's after the OARA field trip, 12 June 2005. It was an adult-size spot-breasted juvenile, mistaken by me for a Chrysemys (Painted Turtle), and by Mike for a Colaptes (Flicker): we'd both pulled over to check it out.
On that first trip, in 1980, Mike had just joined the Herpetology Section of the National Museum as technician, and I'd just started my postdoc. It was on this trip that Mike was first exposed to the methodology of field herpetology, out-of-doors hygiene, and the dictates of working in the organic conditions of "Toad Time." At our camp near Jenpeg, Manitoba, his fear of the (quite moderate) Mosquitos led him to the experiment of wearing a headlamp inside a mosquito headnet, which not only made it nearly impossible for him to see anything, but gave him an instant reputation across northern Manitoba as a "space alien" when he raised two dipnets in greeting to a passing pickup truck
Now up north at Whisky Jack portage
Mike Rankin, his net, and his light
All waved at a truckfull of locals
And gave them one hell of a fright
They spent the whole night at the ferry,
And complained to the RCMP
But it was frogmen rather than spacemen,
That had come for Herpetology.
We visited Gibson Lake, Wolf Lake, Upsala, Fairford River, William River, Jenpeg, Norway House, Limestone Point, Sipiwesk Lake, and Muhigan River, before, on the night of 12-13 June 1980, we realized we'd promised our wives we'd be home on or before the 12th, and, with more enthusiasm than prudence, we pushed the old National Museum ‘Tin Drum' van along the TransCanada Highway across northern Ontario. We were desperately tired, and coming down the Ottawa Valley Mike stopped at every roadside restaurant for take-out coffee. We relieved each other at the wheel (as well as relieving along the roadside) a couple of times each hour; my stint was 15 minutes, while Mike could hold out 3 times as long.
We debated whether we should go to Mike's in Vanier to sleep, or if I would succumb to his desire to deliver me to Bishops Mills -- and if we were going directly to Bishops, what route should we take past Ottawa? It's a well-known principal of relativistic chronology that for the exhausted driver the distance between Renfrew and Arnprior is of infinite duration, and as we droned down the highway, puzzling over the provincial road map, The Dwyer Hill Road emerged from the mist. We'd never before realized its entire length, but it ran with Euclidean elegance directly from Arnprior to Burritts Rapids (less paved and more interesting in those days than it is now), and Mike delivered me to Aleta in Bishops Mills somewhat after dawn. Ever since, the Dwyer Hill "Magic" Road has been our route of return from the northwest.
Then on the first day of the Federal Fiscal 1981, Mike & I headed southwest towards darkest Essex County, auspiciously beginning the trip with Mike's discovery of terrestrial amplexus in Rana sylvatica, on the North Augusta Road at the Long Swamp (Schueler, F. W. and R. M. Rankin. 1982. Terrestrial amplexus in the Wood Frog, Rana sylvatica. Canadian Field-Naturalist 96:348-349). Down the 401, Pickerel Frogs at Hwy 38, and into the flat agricultural clay and ditch-like streams of Essex and Lambton counties. We scooped Toads and Creakers from the roadside ditches and farm ponds of McGregor, Elmdale, Leamington, Hillman Creek, Huffs Corners, Bickford, Oil City, Wilkesport, Newbury Siding, and Cairo, and established the great Skunks Misery Thamnophis butleri camp, in the ruined rifle range 4.0 km NE of Bothwell. We did Ipperwash Beach and Kettle Point, Belle River and LaSalle, and found enormous hissing Heterodon (Hognose Snakes) at the Thamesville dump, and thrashing green-finned Amia calva (Bowfins) at the Dover Marsh before batting home along the 401, stopping at a restaurant Mike knew of, in Scarborough, where huge quantities of breakfast food were served. The desolation of southwestern Ontario had so deprived us of habitat that we slammed on the brakes at a ditch on Kyle Road, off the Branch Road from North Augusta, and jumped out, just because it was damp and green. I'd never seen frogs there before, and haven't since, but it was habitat, and after Essex County that triggered a reflex reaction.
In the El Niño spring of 1983, Aleta and I had newly acquired a vast Chevy cube van made over into a ‘camper.' Mike christened it the "Behemoth," inscribed the door with the Dantean motto "All hope abandon, ye who enter here," and opined that its conversion "had clearly been done by somebody who had heard of carpentry, but had never actually seen any." We headed north as 20 cm of snow blanketed Cochrane, and were buffeted north and south by the weather all the way from Rainy River (with its overly affectionate giant Dogs) to July Falls (with Water Shrews on the road and whole-firmament northern lights), to Windigo Lake (where Mike invented an imaginary punctured second gas tank to wheedle a purchase of aviation fuel to get us back to civilization). We established the traditional camp at Old Hwy17, 15 km WNW Ignace, 2 km W of Butler, where Hyla versicolor (Tetrapoid Grey Treefrog) was at its northern limit.
The previous owners of the Behemoth had decorated its interior in rank 1970's orange, and we were collecting Toads, which could only be done during the brief northern nights, so we had to sleep during the days in an intensely orange environment, with windows that admitted innumerable Black Flies. Our itinerary reads like a gazetteer of northwestern Ontario: Pamela Lake, Longlac, Ignace, Borups Corners, Butler, Dryden, Trap Lake , Kawawiag Creek, Nickel Lake, Finland, Emo, Crow Lake, Redgut Bay, Nestor Falls, Ear Falls, Pakwash Park, Nungesser Road, Naylor Lake, Balmerstown, Pindar Creek, Dinorwic, Franciscan Lake, Sioux Lookout, Mills Creek, Marchington River, Stanzhikimi Lake, Kashaweogama Lake, Little Pashkokogan River, Kawinogans River, Badesdawa River, Pinemuta River, Menako Lake, Pipestone River (where Mike lost a lure, caught a Pike, and cooked it with the scales on), Ariott Lake, McCauley River, Otoskwin River, Albany River, Sturgeon River, Savant Lake, English River, Lake Helen, Nipigon River, and Flynne Lake.
In 1985, as Aleta and I ranged across the province after the death of our daughter Elsa, Mike was there on the Bruce Peninsula, and as we crossed the continent on our "Northwest Passage," Mike forwarded our mail from the National Museum, unpacked our specimens, sent emergency supplies of collecting equipment, and piled up the non-herpetological specimens and gear for our return. Once we were back, there were fears that he and I were both too frail to go out alone, and we did my 1987 autumnal northeastern Ontario Wood Frog trip together. We both lived off his per diem, with unaccustomed restaurant food and motels, and visits to his in-laws in Timmins. He was equally reliable as the Ottawa anchor of our "West Coast Birds" trip, 1987-1989, when it seemed that reliability was nowhere else to be found in Ontario. Mike was also a patron of Aleta's art, supporting our work on the text of This Fragile Inheritance by purchasing original watercolour illustrations. He and Jo-Anne commissioned a portrait of their fierce lady cat named "Fred," who would as soon growl as look at a visitor, whom they tolerated and loved with characteristic good humour, but who had to be reconstructed by Aleta from glimpses and snapshots.
The Herpetology Section in the 1980's under Mike and Francis Cook was a hive of diverse activity, which ranged from processing the specimens sent in from many of the corners of the country, to changing the water for captive Turtles, to supervising hordes of summer students, to mentoring young volunteers of all ages, educational presentations to school classes and other groups, conservation research, raising mice to feed a Tiger Salamander named ‘Fang,' heaps of ‘specimens' confiscated under the CITES treaty, and careful adaptation of new technology: "You actually gave ME not only the valuable specimens [in 1991] but the disk too? Well, if I may say so, that was pretty stupid of you. Almost as stupid as my losing it (which is what must have happened). I have no recollection of ever receiving it but no doubt at the time I was totally computer illiterate and it probably meant as much to me as a pencil sharpener would to a canary. I am sorry... if that helps." (18 June 1997).
When the "Transitions" began at the National Museum, Mike was firmly on the side of the discipline of herpetology, giving that Section a solidarity that was lacking in some of the other divisions, and ensuring (with Francis Cook's connivance) that Research Associates who were being oppressed by the museum hierarchy found their obligations to the Herpetology Section already accomplished. Mike coined the title "Twinkletoes" for Lord Emery the Divine, and stood so stalwartly for what was right that he had to be transferred out of Herpetology, and finally prematurely retired from an institution that had become too rigid to tolerate free spirits. When we were planning a trip in 1997 he wrote: "Too bad the days of collecting for the CMN are long gone but that they are. Well, I am lucky that I got to do some field work back in the Eighties as museum techs in the future will know nothing but topping up bottles and parking in front of computer screens... I don't hate what I'm doing right now but am apprehensive about life in the Alan Emery Memorial Shoebox, about lack of job freedom for a lowly technician and about maintaining my enthusiasm for taking orders... at perhaps 70% of my current pay. Now, I wouldn't even mind that cut if I could go back to doing meaningful museum work and stop being micro-managed ("You WILL use the approved containers for your edibles brought into the new building and will consume same when and where you are told") but the combination of more hooey and less moolah is not particularly enticing."
Exploiting Mike's accumulated leave, in April 1997 he, Aleta, the Behemoth, and I set out into the wilds of the South Nation drainage (Moose Creek, Casselman, Dalmeny, Kenmore, Jessups Falls, Pendleton, Wendover, Treadwell, Vars, Lac Georges, Limoges, Senecal, Bourget, Charbonneau Creek, and Larose Forest), in pursuit of Wood Frogs and whatever. The latter goal was too mixed to allow success for the first, and while we were startled into the realization that Chorus Frogs had obviously declined in this region, and made many valuable collections of drifted land snail shells, we were then obliged to chase the Wood Frog season north into Frontenac County (Ompah, Snow Road Station, Plevna, Ardoch, Donaldsons Corners) before scheduled duties called Mike back to Ottawa.
Over the past decade, Mike and I had taken on so many disparate obligations that we didn't see much of each other, and did even less field work together. Our repeated attempts to arrange joint efforts for the Rideau Biodiversity Project resulted in only one 1998 foray to find Unionids (successful) and turtles (unsuccessful) in the rain on the Rideau River below the Kilmarnock Locks. We also went out on a brilliant August day in 2000 to look for rumoured Softshell Turtles around the Petrie Islands. Mike came to Mudpuppy Nights in Oxford Mills as often as anyone, and until this year always attended the OARA field trips, but in general our contacts were late-night visits to Revelstoke Drive, when Mike expressed dismay that we'd come with so little warning, and then plied us with beverages and wonderful food that just happened to be lying around, and talked until we all knew it was too late.
His years of retirement were marked with a placid serenity, free from distractions, which he couldn't have anticipated: "I went out one night with Dave Britton, found the Quigley Hill quarry to have been polluted with 3.02 million Pumpkinseed sunfish, ergo... no more salamanders... I have unfortunately had a touch of the ol' pneumonia so have been coughing and not feeling particularly strong... and to top it off, I put my back out last weekend while working on the reptile club show... I'm off to the Toronto symposium with Andrew Mott on Friday night, back on Sunday, off to Vermont to pick up more traps and my camera. Off to Portland to pick up new boat and trailer on Wednesday, off to Mississippi Lake to pick up old used 14-ft. boat on Thursday. I am buying Mike Coltas' excellent Suzuki 9.9 hp. for the larger boat, reliable motor, good mileage and a reasonable turn of speed. Good for our initial surveys of the whole river as an example.. Oh yeah, I was supposed to get back to you on those PIT tag prices... sorry, will do it on Thursday for sure... Cheer up: We three are going to be out in the sunshine doing dreadful things to helpless small animals very soon. What more could you ask of life?" (22 April 1998).
Part of this serenity came from a variety of local herpetological conservation causes, which led him to conclude that: "The City of Ottawa has an abysmal record when it comes to wildlife and plants... period." (5 Dec 2005). He followed the decline of Turtles in the Rideau River, and of Toads near his home: "...toads calling from temporary ponds in the power line right-of-way near Riverside Drive and the railway tracks about two weeks ago. Perhaps a half dozen calling now... When we moved to this area in 1983 the ponds were larger and the chorus was often at least 500 strong, only a few dozen remain. 'Informed' locals used to kill them or beg Hydro to drain the ponds because the noise disturbed them... the poor dears." (17 May 2003).
Maxims: Having misplaced and refound something in a way which he recognized as characteristic of the present author, he said, on 16 April 1983, "Schueleremia is alive and well and living in Vanier." And of a suggested excuse for his failure to do something Jo-Anne had asked him to do: "I'd starve to death before I stopped bouncing." And on the complacency of the well-meaning: "Sometimes young children and their ignorant parents can be almost as dangerous to turtles as herpetologists." (19 June 1997).
He maintained a nominal political position somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun, which often grated entertainingly on the views of ‘environmentalists' but which swung round to what seemed to be contradiction when he came to the punch line: "As for the Algonquin thing, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of being in favour of the point of view of the protesters (to me, logging in a park doesn't make sense since parks should be for wild things and only peripherally for people) while being very suspicious of the protesters themselves... some of them. I found the partial quote at the end of the piece offensive inasmuch as it seems to imply that the Earth's resources belong to everyone more or less equally and industry is Bad, Bad, Bad. Period. I favour the reactionary view that humanity is a wondrous collection of individuals of varying talent and worth but collectively man is as Alexander Hamilton put it.... "The People? The People, Sir is a great Beast!" I am not sure what that has to do with Algonquin Park but there, I have it off my chest so I must feel much better.
"...I believe that because there is so little systematic research being done worldwide that we will face a crisis in the next century as we are forced to base critical biological diversity management decisions on insufficient base knowledge of natural systems. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A big part of the problem is public ignorance and yes, indifference. I find it depressing and even shocking that almost all Canadian high school students can gain a diploma without a basic working knowledge of all the major sciences but especially of biology. With the complexities of natural problems and their (hoped for) solutions it would be pretty difficult to explain the situation to people with no knowledge of the subject. Sort of like explaining the Krebs Citric Acid Cycle to a groundhog.... The crisis facing the natural world is too critical to be side-tracked by private political agendas or corporate bonus schemes and it will not be properly dealt with until even, informed pressure comes from Ma and Pa Public... the only song the pols can hear. I'm not entirely optimistic..." (28 October 1998)
He was unflaggingly cheerful in the field, invariably late to meetings, and ridiculously modest about his knowledge of herps: "Mind you, ignoring advice I give is probably a wise decision on the part of my friends. I know I don't pay much attention to what I say because I know better than anyone what utter bullshit it is." (4 Nov 2003). But, anything you wanted, Mike could find or find who did it.
This competency was most appreciated when it came to automobiles, especially by field companions who preferred the passenger seat. "To many of us the automobile is much, much more than mere transportation and its highest form is the racing car. True, back-country dirt ovals are one of the lowest forms of this noble sport but they are also the last bastion of the common man racer... I can't say I was ever personally much attracted to oval track racing since for me it combined terror with boredom but I sure enjoyed tearing up the back roads of Nova Scotia in fast rallies for 6+ years. Many of the country people we passed cheered us (some of course, looked pained, mostly because of the dust and flying rocks I suppose)." (22 June 1998; commentary on a letter protesting the noise of the Brockville Speedway).
Mike's sympathy, or empathy, with the beasts he cared for, encountered, collected, or fed to other animals, was proverbial, and exemplified by messages to the NatureList in May 2003 about ‘assistance' provided to nesting Turtles: "Obviously, being picked up or moved is terrifying for an already stressed turtle. She has a hard time just lifting a heavy body on legs that are designed for swimming, not terrestrial locomotion. She is (usually) full of eggs, hungry and fairly easily dehydrated as she struggles through tall grass, bushes and up hills to find a suitable nesting site... Each situation requires one's judgement to be used. Usually it is best to take the turtle in the direction it was heading but if obvious danger awaits then an alternate destination is called for. It is important to NOT take the turtle very far from where it was originally sited as then it may be out of its hard won territory. That means not taking it more than 1 km away and preferably much, much less. I've often seen well meaning people spot a dry-looking turtle heading across a highway away from a lake a quarter of a mile away. They go to considerable trouble to find a road leading back to the lake so they can plop the turtle into the water. Poor old turtle says to herself; ‘DANG... it took me half a DAY to get as far as the road and now I have to struggle all the way back again!'"
25 December 1996: "Yeah, quiet Christmas hereabout too... and that is the way we like it. I did go in to the VMMB this morning as the animals and plants need their daily attention but it was a nice quiet, easy day: give everybody food and water, throw in a few extra treats (to a bullfrog, Christmas is a teenage mouse!). I started at seven and was out by 11:20. I expect to do the same on New Year's Day as Robert Leuenberger and Gerben Gazendam never have those days off with their families... an easy Christmas present for me to give them. Work can be fun when you're not obliged to do it and when you can do it on your own terms."
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COMMENTS: This is my memoir of Mike Rankin. It makes no attempt to be comprehensive beyond what we did together. In reading through the many e-mails I've consulted in compiling it, I'm struck again by Mike's unfalteringly colourful language, his unflagging compassion, and his contempt for those he saw as motivated by self-importance or self-aggrandizement. May his life be an admonition to all of us to adhere to the former virtues, and shun the latter failings. --- fred schueler, Bishops Mills, 1 July 2006.