At age 90, Immanuel Braverman still puts his one-seat kayak in the water if it’s warm enough, checks in for regular practice sessions at the Montreal Kayaking Club, dons his own gear, and enjoys the beauty that surrounds him as he paddles across a body of water surrounded by nature’s beauty and quiet.
But at a time of life when the vast majority of his contemporaries are, if not already dead, rapidly getting there, Braverman is likely Quebec’s oldest active white-water kayaker.
That means that he can still shoot rapids.
One suspects Braverman could, if he really had to, perform an “Eskimo roll” – a manoeuvre to right yourself when a kayak capsizes.
“I still have my wet suit,” laughed Braverman, a retired engineer who first took up kayaking about 35 years ago, when he was 55. “Time and time again, even if I am on the same body of water I have been on many times before, I always discover something new.”
Braverman admits there are friends who think he’s a bit “meshuge” to be kayaking at his age, but he doesn’t care. He saw his first kayak as a youth in Poland and was immediately intrigued by it.
“I even built one at school [in Poland], but there was no water to use it in,” he said. “So I didn’t actually use one until all those years later.”
Although Braverman during his life enjoyed being physically active as a hiker and mountaineer, life got in the way and kayaking would be decades away.
Living with his father, Jonah, and mother, Rachel, in his native Poland when the Nazis invaded in the fall of 1939, Braverman, brought up as an only child after a sibling died at a young age, survived the Holocaust by having a good deal of luck on his side.
That included making it to the Soviet-occupied part of Poland and surviving at a “correction labour” camp by having the fortune – after being injured – of having a sympathetic hospital person help him eventually work as a male nurse. Braverman ended up serving in the Polish army on the Eastern Front until seriously wounded and discharged.
After the war, he went to Belgium, where he studied engineering at the University of Ghent, and arrived in Montreal in the summer of 1947. His father, meanwhile, was one of the Jews saved by Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. Father and son eventually reunited in Canada, while his mother was never heard from again (although her brother survived) and she presumably perished in the Holocaust.
Once in Canada, Braverman ended up going to Palestine for a year as “Machalnik” (a foreign volunteer) in the War of Independence. By 1952, he had earned his engineering degree at McGill University.
Braverman’s father, meanwhile, became a prominent educator at the Jewish People’s School and one of his students, Shirley Pripstein, became Immanuel’s wife.
Braverman said it was only after he had finally earned his engineering degree and got his first job that he was able to resume recreational fitness activities that led to kayaking.
They included skiing, hiking, mountain and rock climbing, and canoeing, including at the lower Laurentian hotel facility run by Braverman’s father-in-law, Chaim Pripstein. The place eventually became Pripstein’s, one of the Jewish community’s iconic Jewish summer camps.
Although intrigued by kayaking his whole life, Braverman tried it only for the first time in the Olympic basin after the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976.
“It is where I learned the basics,” Braverman said. “I was never competitive, only recreational, and eventually became a white-water instructor.”
Braverman also began the kayaking section at Pripstein’s, which has been run of late by a grandson, Jonah.
What makes kayaking unique, in Braverman’s mind, is its history. Both the canoe, which is open, and the kayak, which is closed, were developed by indigenous people of North America, in the kayak’s case, the Inuit.
Kayaks are unique in that you sit in them (not kneel as in a canoe), they cannot be flooded, you can “seal” yourself in, and you use a two-bladed paddle.
But there are inherent risks in white-water kayaking and “special techniques” involved, Braverman said, if forced to abandon boat, especially if the water is more than knee deep. Braverman’s only real close call was on the Rouge River in Quebec years ago, but he followed his training to the letter and stayed alive.
“If the boat turns over, you have 15 seconds to recover,” he said. “If you can’t you have to get out and swim.”
Not surprisingly, recreational “kayakins” have gone high tech. Boats are shorter than they used to be (Braverman’s two just over six feet long) and much more manoeuvrable. They are now made from a high-tech, light plastic (no longer fibreglass), and weigh about 15 kilograms. A new one can run $1,200, and they have airbags (not like a car’s) to stay afloat and special “skirts” with which to seal yourself in. Needless to say, Braverman also wears a lifejacket and helmet.
On a nice summer day, you can find him, perhaps for several hours, paddling on the water near his Saint-Adolphe d’Howard home, oblivious to everything but the beauty of nature.