Stirling, Ontario – Hastings County
As a kid, you couldn’t slow Phil Kerr down! Whether he was racing motocross, skateboarding or wakeboarding, he was active and outside all day, every day. With nature as his playground, he never saw himself in a suit or behind a desk; he saw himself at the top of the podium as a professional athlete. Fate, on the other hand, had different plans for Phil, confining him to a wheelchair after a battle with cancer. Not that that stopped him! “I never thought I would be doing any of the things I loved anymore, but I turned it around. I adapted, and I found myself again by returning to the place I feel most myself – outside.” Phil has been pushing the limits of adaptive wakeboarding for years now, but last summer he reached his elusive childhood dream with a first place win at the 2016 Wakeboard World Championships.
When you received your medal at the 2016 Wakeboard World Championships, what was the reaction like back home?
Growing up in a small, tight village like Stirling, you don’t really have time for the element of surprise! *laughs* Word spreads so quickly around here, immediately after the win I was getting messages of congratulations. When I did get back home, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone stopping me to show their support or tell me they were keeping track of how I was doing. It’s flattering, and that’s just how we roll in a small town.
Traveling often to train and compete, you’ve gotten to see a lot of North America. What inspired you to come back and create a life in Hastings County?
Well I was born and raised here, so my family and friends are all here. The bonus is the land itself: the lakes, the trails, the forest. ‘Cause I’m not much of a city guy, I’m a country kid at heart. I love the small town feel. To me, there is nothing better than walking out your front door and having Mother Nature’s playground at your feet.
What’s so special about the outdoors here?
The smell. My buddy brought his girlfriend down here from the city for the first time and when she came in, the first thing I asked her was, “Did you smell the air change?” And they both started laughing because that is all they talked about the whole way in. She totally noticed it. The fresh air. It never gets old.
It’s clear from your story that you’re pretty fearless. But do you consider yourself to be a wanderer as well?
Yeah! Wandering to me is all about trailblazing. Checking out new locations. [While out riding], we’ll spend an entire day, wandering the trails, finding new hidden ponds, sand pits, huge boulders and old tree forts. You can never anticipate what is going to happen. There might be a tree down on the trail, so you have to find a new way home, and that’s the best part.
Speaking of checking out new locations, is there anything that you think visitors would be surprised to know is in this area?
There are some really cool spots in the area where you can go surfing. So, my cousin surfs all the time, year round, out here. I met up with him and some friends in the King’s Mill area, just North of Stirling, once to watch them surf the river, under the bridge; there is just enough current, they stay in one spot, and it’s just one constant wave to surf. There were a bunch of vehicles pulled over on the side of the road, and people on the bridge who were lucky enough to be driving by at the right time and got to witness a couple crazy guys surfing the river.
What a way to meet people, too! Where are some other good spots to strike up a conversation with a local?
The gas station. You never know who will be there; it’s the same guy pumping gas that’s been there for the last three decades; people are rolling in off the trails on their ATVs filling up; there’s the city guy with his big boat lost and asking for directions; everyone’s running in for bags of ice. It’s always a happening spot in the summer. You can always count on an influx of characters at the gas station.
Is there one local character that visitors just have to meet when they travel to Stirling?
You can’t really meet him, but I’d suggest asking about the Mill Pond gator. A couple years ago, somebody said they saw an alligator in the Stirling Mill Pond and the story went nuts. It was never seen again, but CTV News and Global came, they were filming and interviewing the specialists that were here from the Ministry of Natural Resource trying to find it. We think it’s all a bunch of BS, but it’s a big joke around Stirling that we all like to reference from time to time. If something is awry, we’re always blaming it on the Mill Pond Gator.
Stirling sure sounds like a really tight-knit community. What is your ‘go-to’ meal when craving the tastes of home?
Poutine. You know Jimmy’s in Stirling? It’s our local pizza joint. Ever since we were kids, we would go down to Jimmy’s and get the poutine, but, you have to order it in the box. It’s just better in the box. It’s like a cardboard, soggy box, but that is the go-to. People would come home from school on reading break and you’d get messages from them like, “Who’s up for poutine in a box?”.
Is there anything else you long for when away from home?
When I travel for wakeboarding, I get to meet some amazing people, go to amazing places, beaches and resorts, ride behind awesome boats and in awesome cable parks, eat new foods and live with new people in beautiful, hot climates.You would think I’d never want to leave. But it doesn’t take long before I get the itch to head back home. It may be hard to understand, but there’s nothing like growing up and living in a small town.
I think the thing I miss most is just the familiarity of it all. If you are from a small town, then you know, things don’t change that often. There is a contentment knowing home will be the exact same when you return. And each time I drive down the Oak Hills bend and into town, I wonder why you’d would want to live anywhere other than “The small village with the big heart”, as we call it.