In the summer of 1945, my father was invited to Buckingham Palace by the king. The war in Europe had ground to an end in the streets of Berlin. As George VI pinned the Distinguished Service Order upon my father's uniform, he proclaimed him the most highly decorated medical officer in the British Empire.

In the summer of 1945, Erl, my dad's older brother, was living a traditional lifestyle in a teepee near Algonquin Park, selling crafts to tourists. Uncle Erl had experienced World War I and was too old for this second great war, but I doubt he would have wanted to participate anyway. He enjoyed life in the woods of northern Ontario in summer and the life of a world wanderer in winter.

I'm forty years old, the third youngest of eleven children born into a strict Irish Catholic family. My age betrays the fact that my father sired a number of my siblings, including me, when he was quite a bit older than most fathers. I grew up with history and myth swirling around me, stories of my father's war exploits and my uncle Erl's Ojibwe ways inseparable. I was born into a family from a very different era and listened to stories of how my father and Erl and their younger brother Robert had to form their own gang when they were young because they were Mick Catholic bastards in a world of Orangemen. My father was older than most of my friends' grandfathers, and had actually delivered a number of my schoolmates' fathers into the world.

My father was blond and blue-eyed. Erl was brown and high-cheekboned and had a hooked nose. Robert looked something in the middle. My father chose one route. He became a doctor and a war hero and brought his family to the city. Erl took the other route. He lived in the bush and made his own clothing out of hide and travelled the world with only a few coins in his pocket, somewhere along the way picking up what now sounds like the horribly racist moniker "Injun Joe." There are still postcards of him in full Indian regalia floating around Algonquin Park trading posts. Robert chose a quiet life somewhere between the two.

My dad died when I was eight. Erl took the three day road years earlier. Robert died not long after my father. My ravenhaired mother, strong and still beautiful, was left to raise my sisters and brothers and me. She was no stranger to war veteran relatives, either. Her father, Guy, had been a motorcycle dispatch rider in World War I, had had the dubious distinction of being wounded on November 11, 1918, the last day of the war. He spent the rest of his life blinded in one eye from shrapnel.

With so many children to keep track of and a full-time job as a teacher at the local elementary school, my mother was forced to grant a certain amount of lenience to my wandering ways. Just like my Indian uncle, I had a taste for the road and for adventure. The punk rock scene of the early 1980s was a nice fit for my rebellious sensibilities. In deference to my uncle I wore my hair in a mohawk, and lived on the streets of Toronto in the summers, returning home to pursue my schooling in the autumn. At the time, I didn't recognize the parallels between my uncle and me.

At sixteen I began travelling to the United States on my own. More and more I felt the inexplicable pull of the Deep South, making close friendships with a group of misfits in South Carolina and Louisiana. I became a roadie for their band and criss-crossed the U.S. and Canada with them. Responsibility, the ghostly apparition of my father, always pulled me back to continue with my schooling. I kept all kinds of jobs in order to feed my growing passion for the road: gravedigger and groundskeeper at a cemetery, tutor, dishwasher, waiter, and bartender. But always, as soon as my last exam was finished, I'd climb on a Greyhound or stick my thumb out or jump on my motorcycle and hit the road once more.

I fancied myself a writer, eventually enrolling in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans. Here I finally learned to focus my energy and work ethic in a city that seemed too good a fit at times. I met my wife, Amanda, here, a trapeze artist, contortionist, and writer.

But the pull of my home and my family is strong. I returned with my wife to Ontario and took a job as professor of Aboriginal programs on James Bay in the far north. Here I was introduced to the Mushkegowuk Cree, northern cousins of the Ojibwe. Stationed in Moosonee, I worked for two years up and down the reserves of the west coast of the bayMoose Factory, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, and Attawapiskatteaching communications, my wanderlust satisfied by moose and caribou hunts and snowmobile treks into the frozen wilderness of Hudson Bay. Over the last ten years this gateway to the last great wilderness has become my muse and obsession, refusing to loosen its grip on me even now that I am back in New Orleans teaching in the same MFA program that birthed me. I visit what have become old friends on James Bay a number of times a year.

It seems I'm a bit of a split personality, a combination of my father and my uncle Erl. I have my father's responsibility and my uncle's belief that the world is to be travelled. I split my life between the Gulf of Mexico and the gulf of the Arctic. I write and I teach writing. My heart is part Irish, part Ojibwe. I'm a Canadian in America. I'm grounded by history, and I am inspired by legend. I'm part my father, part my uncle. I am a father to my son, Jacob, and I am a writer.

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Copyright © 2012 Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Canada Inc. Photographs courtesy of  Bryan McBurney Photography