Surviving Killer Bees and Giant Surf

Door County Magazine: You mentioned being attacked by killer bees? This is my WORST nightmare--I have a real phobia about wasps and stinging insects. How did you survive that?

Fons: Verlen and I landed and began setting up camp before dark on the Rio Negro (Negro River). We became aware that our camp site was increasingly populated by bees. We had the tent up and climbed inside. Verlen was the last one in the tent.

He is the one who brought bees unknowingly into the tent under his shirt. While we sat in the tent, the bees were pelting the outside of the fabric dome. Fortunately, Verlen was a farm boy from Indiana. He knew that the activity level of bees decreases in the dark.

As soon as it became dark, we dismantled the tent and launched onto the river to get away from the site. We know that the bees were “what you Americans call killer bees,” because I pulled several out of Verlen’s skin and stuck the bee bodies into my journal. When we got to Manaus in Brazil, a scientist identified the bees. We were fortunate with timing and option to get away in the dark.

Could you describe that situation when you wrecked and were hit on the head by the canoe?

We made a mistake the day we crashed in the surf. We had completed a nearly six-month paddle through the interior of South America and had come out the mouth of the Rio Paraquay/Parena into the south Atlantic.

We had not thought through the transition from (the dynamics of) a jungle river to the south Atlantic Ocean. We remained with the two canoes linked together by aluminum poles between the hull decks. The swells were mammoth, completely obliterating our view of land when we paddled in the trough of each wave.

It was getting dark. We headed for shore, near Santa Terisita. Townspeople came out on the shore and were watching us. Our canoes pitch poled—nose down into the sand while the wave behind the canoes lifted the stern of the boat and tossed the canoe over itself. Our connection poles broke. I was tossed ahead of the boats. My canoe hit my head.

Townspeople came out into the surf to rescue our boats, floating equipment and me. Verlen’s canoe remained upright. The townspeople built a fire and insisted on opening an off-season restaurant where we could recuperate and repair our boats. At mealtime, townspeople gathered with food for us. They sat down and ate with us.

The mayor of the town had written a proclamation that Verlen and I could eat free in any restaurant in town during our stay. But the townspeople were offended and ripped the official document in pieces.

“Verlen and Valerie are family. When it’s time to eat we will bring food and eat with them,” we heard from a community member named Tony.

Valerie Fons is dying.

There’s no easy way to say it, and it is not an easy thing to write. You would certainly forgive her if she was unwilling to talk about circumstances and unwilling to waste time on an interview.

But her spirit is breathtaking—a bundle of enthusiasm, optimism and faith.

She gracefully allows the interview with unexpected energy. She answers questions—so many questions—and steers the conversation to her projects.

“This is a very precious and spectacular time,” she said in a late September interview at her home on Washington Island. “I’m extremely grateful. There is an urgency to continue and hopefully further the work I’m involved in.”

Her work is expansive, and her life story profound. It is too big to cover entirely. We get around to talking about that, but the immediacy of the moment prevails.

With her cancer diagnosis, doctors stamped an expiration date on her life and told her to get her affairs in order. She has outlived those expectations, but understands the path ahead. It’s a very “complex and mysterious” case, she explained. Her current diagnosis is “therapy induced” cancer, the result of being treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and undergoing a successful bone-marrow transplant in 2009-10.

After absorbing the reality of the diagnosis, she immediately set to work trying to “give away” her Washington Island properties to local non-profits, she explained.

“But no one has taken me up on it,” she said, saying she understands the hesitancy. “They (non-profit boards) are being responsible” with finances and needs.

So she’s working on developing her own non-profit for her properties on Washington Island—the Butterfly House, an initiative of Lake Adventures Uniting Nature & Children With Hospitality (L.A.U.N.C.H.); her home property, Tipping Bucket Farm on Townline Road; and her cafe, lodging facility and paddle museum, Bread and Water, on Main Road. Her idea now is to establishing a retreat center.

“We’ve had some retreats already,” said Fons, whose home property has 10 bedrooms and can operate as a lodging facility.

One of the bedrooms originally served as her office and writing area. The author of several books and articles, ranging from her experiences in long-distance canoeing to issues of faith, Fons said it was hard to give up the writing space. But it will allow the retreat idea to move forward.

It’s quite a load. But that isn’t all she is juggling. Late last summer, her husband, Joe Ervin, was enrolled in hospice care, suffering from dementia.

Together, they are the parents of six adopted children, three of whom who are still at home.

Again, she responds with an unimaginably positive outlook.

“There has been a tremendous amount of good,” she said. Going through this process “normalizes grief, dealing with Joe. Each kid’s perspective is different. It’s wonderful. What’s happening is, we are dispelling fear, caring for him and growing in love.”

She isn’t all Pollyanna. Indeed, the gravity of the situation is all too real. “Being terrified and overwhelmed is part of the journey. It’s one of the steps to a deeper, fuller experience. But I am so certain of the blessings we are living.”

Part of her strength lies in a deep faith. An ordained Methodist elder and chaplain, she was appointed to serve on Washington Island, without salary. Although she retired in February, she keeps her appointment on the island, and leads by example, she explained.

The other part is the strength she draws from each of the 30,000 miles she traveled by canoe, setting world records along the way.

That’s not a typo.

In the back room of her Bread and Water cafe, her record-breaking canoes are displayed, each stamped with stickers and inspiration sayings, each looking weather-worn and well used.

There are impressive quilts she created with intricate story panels about her voyages—she is an award-winning quilter—and a display case filled with magazine articles.

It’s a small—very small—homage to the remarkable feats of endurance she accomplished.

Her canoe exploits started in 1982 when she joined avid canoeist Verlen Kruger, who was age 60 at the time, on a treacherous journey around the Baja Peninsula.

Although small personal crafts look a bit like kayaks, the mechanics of paddling are different, she explained.

She recounts the journey in her book Keep it Moving: Baja by Canoe, published in 1986 by The Mountaineers press (and simultaneously in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre press.) In it, she describes her decision to step away from her life and jump into an adventure.

A life-changing decision

It was 1982.

Kruger, who had already logged more than 20,000 paddling miles, was on an Eddie Bauer Expedition Outfitters sponsored Ultimate Canoe Challenge around the North American continent. The journey was expected to take 3-½ years.

At a stop near Fons’ home in Seattle, Kruger met up with the local canoe and kayak club that Fons had recently joined. Kruger and his paddling partner and son-in-law Steve Landick talked to the club about their adventures and the expedition, thus far. Moved by the duo’s enthusiasm, Fons spontaneously asked to join on the long-distance event.

But Landick and Kruger had been partners in the journey and worked well together, so Kruger refused the request. Only weeks later, however, a family tragedy sent Landick home to Michigan and opened the door to Fons, who was 31 at the time. She eagerly jumped at the chance, selling her Seattle home, quitting her jobs working with a geologist and writing a column for the local paper and finding homes for her two Newfoundland dogs. At the same time, she began planning for the months-long trip from Long Beach, Calif. to Yuma, Ariz. around the Baja Peninsula—more than 2,000 miles of the most hazardous portion of the Ultimate Canoe Challenge.

As she recounts in her book, as the journey down the rugged peninsula progressed, she grew in confidence, strength and wisdom, battling conditions that were, at times, life threatening.

Not long after, in 1984, Kruger and Fons set a world record, paddling down the Mississippi, beating teams that included military personnel. They did it by staying in their canoe for 23 days, 10 hours and 20 minutes, non-stop. They smashed the previous record set by the British Royal Air Force by 19 days.

Three years after their Baja journey, Kruger and Fons married, and she moved to Michigan.

Two months after the wedding, they set out on their next adventure—paddling from the Bering Sea in Alaska to the tip of Cape Horn in South America, documenting land, people and water quality on a 21,000-mile voyage of discovery.

Her adventures on that trip included being attacked by killer bees and surviving a canoe accident where she was hit in the head by her craft while in the pounding surf. After the accident, she was tended to by locals in Santa Terista, Argentina. (See sidebar on page 10.)

It was during that harrowing life-or-death incident that she felt called to the ministry. “I was born into the church, baptized in the church, grew up in the church. My call to ministry happened in the south Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Argentina, shortly before crashing in the surf.”

She kept 37 journals during that trip. “We would meet people and have them send things back home. Missionaries, business people, all came back,” she said.

“When I got back (from that journey), I was hollowed out,” said Fons. It took a huge toll. Eventually Kruger and Fons divorced. “I was a wreck. Quilting was therapy.”

The next step

She kept busy in Michigan. The Michigan Humanities Council provided grants to have Fons speak in schools. She also created an exhibit of women’s photos and narratives titled Faces of Strength for the Michigan Historical Center and Hall of Fame.

“The women I met from the Arctic Ocean to Cape Horn were important examples in my life as I tried to find my voice and believe in myself.”

She also studied and wrote a book about the Biblical grandmothers and Mary from Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. “Each one of these women carried shame which was transformed into glory,” said Fons.

“My premise of the book, written along with Nancy Regensburger, is that Jesus, en route to take upon himself the shame of the cross, was encouraged by the examples of his foremothers.”

Those studies in strength were part of an extensive journey toward healing from abuse earlier in her life. The canoe journeys were also part of that healing process, she explained.

Having experienced abuse in her late 20s, she recalled, “I was once taken by police to a Seattle shelter,”

“My canoe journeys taught me to reach a goal. They contributed to my journey to health. For the first time, my efforts created motion. The canoe taught me that. It had a profound effect.

“Healing through a history of abuse is a life process. I still experience difficulty with accepting authority in ministry and parenting.”

Changes in course

In 1989, Fons met Ervin.

During her Arctic Ocean to Cape Horn canoe paddle challenge, she conducted water quality tests along the way for Michigan State University. “Joe worked for Michigan State as the Institute of Water Research Manager, but I did not meet him until I had completed the TCCE with Verlen.” Ervin was part of a group that canoed and researched the Grand River in Michigan. “We were friends and colleagues way before romance happened. We respected each other.”

In 1990, Fons attended Garrett-Evengelical Theological Seminary in Evanston.

Fons continued on her own, logging in thousands of miles of canoeing and kayaking journeys until, in August of 1997, Fons and Ervin married and went on to adopt their six children.

Then the couple eventually moved to Washington Island. “We came here 10 years ago for the school,” she said. There was also a deep family connection—the Island was where her great-great grandparents had settled.

“But when (the children) got to the high school age, we thought we should get them out into the larger world,” she said. But several of the young teens felt at home on the island.

To accommodate, she arranged to house exchange students from around the world. “We had eight students. We brought the world here. Our children became brother and sister to the elite of the planet,” said Fons.

Because her children are African-American and Haitian, she wanted them to have contact with others of similar heritage, so Fons would host Boys and Girls Clubs from larger cities and other organizations at her property. “My kids would meet the yellow school bus at Northport and start the connection” before the group would get to the island.

Backtracking a bit, Fons explained that a year after arriving on the island, the building that now houses Bread and Water became available, and she jumped on the opportunity. She immediately began operating the cafe and lodging establishment, and a canoe and kayak rental business. “We started within a year of being here. I never thought I’d run a cafe,” said Fons.

Soon after her arrival, another issue dawned on Fons. Washington Island schools did not offer hot lunch or breakfast. So as part of her outreach programs, she began to bring breakfasts to school, at no cost to the district or students.

But then came the first cancer diagnosis, in 2009.

The hot breakfast program was very important to her, she explained. Initially, Fons paid someone to continue in her stead, but after Fons underwent a bone-marrow transplant and after dealing with the rigors of that procedure, the food program “petered out,” she explained with lingering regret.

The canoe experience helped her through that grueling time in her life, she explained. “I’d have the IV tree in one hand, and my paddle in the other.” Bringing the paddle with her during treatment reminded her of those 30,000 miles and the strength and determination she had within her, she said.

Just one year later, while Fons was recovering from her bone marrow transplant in Seattle, and immune compromised, Ervin was diagnosed with dementia in Wisconsin. She flew back to be by his side at the hospital and advocate for him, and arrange for home care.

After her return, she began the task of learning how to care for him, while caring for her children and business ventures.

And then, a year ago, she learned of the new cancer diagnosis.

That strength and her abiding faith she’s carried for so long are currently supporting her, she said. It’s been another grueling year. This past winter, she returned to Seattle for medical interventions. She’s also been working with the Carbone Cancer Center in Madison, the University of Chicago and three trips to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where she was originally treated in 2009.

But by January, she found her blood counts had dropped to alarming lows. And she began reaching out to others to carry the torch for her non-profit retreat center mission and to provide care for her husband and her children.

In an early January letter she wrote to a friend, “It appears that my marrow is failing. I was given six months to live one year ago. But with my platelets dropping to 3 this past Friday, I do not know how long we will be able to sustain me with transfusions.”

The remainder of the letter focused on securing care for her husband, her children and her non-profit retreat mission. “I do not have a mission statement for the retreat center,” she wrote, “but I am adamant regarding tolerance, welcome and hospitality for lives being changed.”

While some have encouraged her to sell the properties, she has resisted. “I have carefully considered my own self-interests,” she wrote. “Perhaps I am a founder having a hard time letting go.

“But I am telling the world that I have a treasure to give.”