By Connor Lynch
BEACHBURG —Renfrew County’s Russell Mackay is legally blind. He can see like looking through a windshield veiled by heavy morning fog. That’s only in one eye. The other is completely kaput.
But he has two working feet and last month put them to an astonishing task: Hoofing it the 129 km from Beachburg to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in the centre of the city of Ottawa.
The fundraising goal was $25,000. By Farmers Forum’s press time, they’d raised $91,933. Mackay said he was feeling good that morning. He’d been a bit sore in the calves some days, but that’s to be expected after walking 12 km a day at his age.”Every time I hear money coming in, I go a little faster,” he said. So close to $100,000, he hoped his many supporters could dig a little deeper. “If we can’t get to $100,00, I’ll try to walk back home.”
Born on a farm in Shawville Que., Mackay bought a farm in Westmeath in 1975, raised beef cattle, milked cows for seven years, then sold the dairy herd and got hard into Charolais cattle. He kept beef farming until two years ago, when he sold the farm and bought a house in Beachburg.
About 15 years ago while he was farming, he was having eye trouble. He went into the Ottawa Hospitals’ General campus, which meant walking through CHEO. He recalled a little boy there, crying as his parents were leaving: “Please, I want to go home with you.”
Said Mackay: “That really hit me.”
After selling the farm and moving to Beachburg, Mackay wanted to do something for the kids at CHEO. He suggested to his children that he wanted to leave something for CHEO when he dies. “They said, ‘Why not do it now?’” Good idea. But what to do?
At 82, Mackay is still in solid shape, which he credits to eating lots of vegetables, fruit (and beef, of course), and lots of walking. After selling the farm, he was bored just sitting around the house, so he started walking. He’d walk eight miles some days, doing two-and-a-quarter miles in 75 minute increments and going out three or four times.
So a walk it would be. The journey was roughly 77 miles, which means 10 days allotted for it, walking eight miles a day, would get him there with time to spare. He was joined by his two daughters, one of whom, Crystal Mackay, is the inaugural CEO of Farm and Food Care who went on to the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity. They alternated walking with him and driving the RV, which, for the first few days, they would take back home to sleep, driving a steel post that’d been painted orange in the ditch to mark their stopping point. From Arnprior on down it was a series of sleepovers, asking locals if they could park the RV in the yard. With a portable generator and a barbecue, all they really needed was a place to put it, after all.
The Ottawa area has had its fair of bad weather: two years ago, tornadoes tore through Dunrobin, not far south of Mackay. In the weeks leading up to the walk Ottawa region had two tornado watches, with bad weather threatening to turn worse.
But, Mackay explained before he set out, he has a raincoat. See, back in the day, when he was working pushing logs down the river in the 1950s, he didn’t. “We’d start in May, when you’d get them cold rains,” he said. “I’d get soaked.”
“Now, I have a raincoat and a mission.”