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Daniel Wood Has Months to Live. So the Writer Sent out a Funny Postcard

It’s typical of the acclaimed journalist who’s made Vancouver his base for a world of stories.

Heather Pringle 15 Mar

Heather Pringle has written four books and many hundreds of magazine articles for publications as diverse as National Geographic, Scientific American and Discover magazine. Based in Victoria, she is an editor emerita at Hakai magazine.

It wasn’t about fame, and it certainly wasn’t about fortune. There was never much money in freelance magazine writing on Canada’s West Coast. Most freelancers in Vancouver were broke or close to it, living off their wits and their credit cards, paying off their Visa balances with advances from Mastercard. But Daniel Wood didn’t become a writer to cash in.

He did it to tell stories about people and places, stories that eventually took him far and wide, from a remote, glacier-scored corner of the Canadian Shield, where he reflected on eternity and the world’s oldest rock, to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, where he mulled over human obsession and the early 20th-century dinosaur-hunter Roy Chapman Andrews.

Things were always going wrong on those travels, flights missed, cars dying, government officials making trouble, big angry animals putting in appearances, venomous creatures threatening. But the worse things got, the more Wood liked it. “Something needs to go wrong, and then you work with that,” he told his frequent companion on those trips, Salt Spring Island photographer Ron Watts. Calamity made for the best stories.

Certainly, Wood knows all about good stories. He has a kind of sixth sense for them. Over a nearly five-decade-long career, he has covered some of Canada’s biggest stories, from Sue Rodriguez’s legal battle for a medically-assisted death to the abuse of young girls in the polygamous community at Bountiful, B.C.

People have paid attention to the articles Wood wrote, and he’s been shortlisted so frequently at the Western Magazine Awards — 58 times in all — that jaded colleagues took to calling the awards “the Woodies.” As long-time friend John Masters, a Vancouver game developer, noted, if Wood’s entire haul of trophies and framed award certificates had fallen on you from a high shelf, “they would have done near-lethal damage. Daniel almost literally wrote killer prose.”

A few weeks ago, Wood, now 78, emailed an announcement to his friends. The subject line read, “The time has come, the walrus said....” What followed in three short, finely polished paragraphs was news he had withheld from his friends for four years, namely that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. But that wasn’t the big reveal. In early February, his last treatment option had failed, and Wood had three months to live. His friends were stunned. They hadn’t seen him for a while, given the pandemic. Wood, however, couldn’t resist a little gallows humour. Attached to the email was a photo of him on one of his travels, pen and notepad in hand and grinning as he stood beside a small sign. The sign read “End of Trail.”

It was pure Daniel Wood.

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‘Part of adventure is trying out the things that appear serendipitously in front of you,’ says Wood. ‘Near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, I encountered one of my favourite Chinese street foods, a glacé fruit-kabob.’ Photograph by Ron Watts.

I first met Wood in the early 1980s, not long after I moved to Vancouver from Alberta. I had a vague notion about freelancing as a writer, but I had no idea what this would entail, much less how to go about it. So I signed up for a class on non-fiction writing I had seen advertised somewhere, and a few weeks later, I strolled into a UBC classroom full of strangers — teachers, postal workers, court clerks, accountants, and others looking for a way out of their 9-to-5 lives. A few of us chatted as we waited for the instructor to appear. Finally, a tall, thin man with a neatly trimmed Tom Selleck mustache swept into the room. It was Daniel Wood.

Wood warmed up the class with a few personal stories. He described how a subscription to National Geographic as a child in the States had planted the idea of travelling to remote corners of the world and writing about the people he met there. He sensed — correctly, I think — that nearly everyone in the class harboured some version of that dream. Then he talked about a couple of his recent articles, recounting the obstacles he’d encountered while researching and writing them. That done, he got down to work. He outlined the basics of freelancing — how to look for a good story, how to pitch it to a magazine editor, how to interview sources, how to organize a story. I was fascinated. A week or so later I began hunting for my first story idea.

In the small world of freelance writers in Vancouver, Wood and I became friends. And as I got to know him, I saw another side to him — a more serious, activist side. During the early 1960s, he had been an exchange student at a Black college in Jackson, Mississippi. Civil rights leaders were organizing Black voters in Mississippi, and one prominent activist, Medgar Evers, was fighting racism in Jackson by gathering supporters for a Black boycott of white-owned businesses. One evening, Wood attended a meeting at Evers’ home. “We all — his children included — practiced the proper fetal-like position to take to minimize injury in an attack by white racists,” Wood wrote recently in a Facebook post. “I remember him saying, ‘You can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea.’” A few months later, Evers was shot in the back and killed by a white supremacist.

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‘In late 2019, New Zealand’s White Island volcano suddenly exploded, killing 22 visitors. I had been there a decade earlier. The air was poisonous, the ground so hot it would scorch your fingertips,’ recalls Wood. ‘Risk and luck are written in invisible ink on every adventurer’s itinerary.’ Photograph by Ron Watts.

After finishing college, Wood signed up for a two-year stint with the U.S. Peace Corps in Borneo, where he helped set up and organize schools in rural districts. He discovered an aptitude for teaching there, but on returning home, his plans were upended by a visit by FBI agents. An exemption he’d received from military service in the Vietnam War was rescinded, and Wood was expected to report for duty. The year was 1968, and like many others of his generation, Wood was fiercely opposed to the war. So he headed to Canada as a draft resister, driving the Ford Pinto that his grandmother had given him. At the Peace Arch Border Crossing, a guard waved him through, and Wood started a new life. He took courses at Simon Fraser University and qualified for a teaching certificate.

But he couldn’t shake the idea of becoming a magazine writer. He started freelancing for the Georgia Straight and other Vancouver publications, and gradually made a name for himself as a writer who could handle just about anything.

He was dismayed, however, by the way writers were often treated in the magazine industry. Although they were essential to a magazine’s success, writers were poorly paid, and they scrambled to make the rent. Wood wanted to do something about that, and he realized the first step was to organize them. So in the 1980s he co-founded the Federation of BC Writers and served on the executive of what’s now called the Professional Writers Association of Canada — two organizations dedicated to improving the professional lives of writers.

‘On assignment to do an Alsek River rafting story in northern BC and Yukon, we’d eaten all our food supplies, knowing a chartered floatplane was coming to take us out. The plane punctured a pontoon on landing, and quickly flew off in the face of sinking,’ says Wood. ‘Another bigger group of rafters arrived, also without food. We waited. No plane. No message. Darkness fell. Hunger grew. I imagined we were back in the Ice Age, Paleolithic hunters on their way into the Americas.’ Photograph by Ron Watts.

Wood’s knack for bringing writers together made itself known in other ways, too. He helped organize a baseball team for freelancers — the Write Sox — which played in Vancouver’s Media League for years, though seldom with distinction. (The team was chronically dysfunctional. Its players seemed incapable of acting together, even to put a batter out at first base.)

And Wood delighted in putting on potluck dinners for his freelance friends and inviting them to his big, noisy parties. You never knew who you’d meet there. His friends were an eclectic crew — urban planners, ex-politicians, foodies, editors, activists, filmmakers, anyone who could tell a good story or appreciate one.

In the early 2000s, I got a call from Wood, asking if I’d come to speak to his students at Simon Fraser’s downtown campus in Vancouver. He had developed an entire course on non-fiction writing, and for nearly a quarter-century, it had filled up almost as soon as it was announced. I was happy to accept, and I arrived a little early for the class, sliding into a chair as students around me chatted about their writing projects.

Wood breezed into the room, carrying a huge armful of magazines and a shoulder bag stuffed with marked assignments, class notes and an assortment of books by his favorite non-fiction writers. Almost at once, silence fell over the class. The students didn’t want to miss anything. And what impressed me then, as it had back in the early ‘80s, was Wood’s unfailing love of storytelling and his wonderfully generous advice.

Today, in the East Van home he shares with long-time partner Crisanta Sampang, Wood is still writing and keeping busy. He has just put the finishing touches on a children’s book for his granddaughter Caitlin and has sent it off to a printer. “I have no evidence of physical deterioration yet,” Wood confides. “I’m content. I don’t feel the least fearful.”

Wood’s friends are going to miss him, for many reasons. Vancouver writer and photographer Kerry Banks, for example, will remember Wood for his many acts of kindness over the years. “He was a guy you could count on to help you out,” Banks told me. “If you needed to move, he would be able to help you move. If you needed to borrow some money, [he’d] lend you money.”

Vancouver novelist Jim Sutherland, a former editor-in-chief at both Western Living and Vancouver magazine, will remember the pleasure of dealing with Wood professionally. “Other editors warned me that Daniel could be tetchy about editorial intervention,” Sutherland recalled. “I solved that potential problem by almost never making any, which was easy because his copy was always so perfect.”

Said Ron Watts: “Daniel was the perfect travelling companion, ready to pivot when the situation went sideways. He understood the work that went into capturing the photographs that complemented his stories and had the patience to allow me the time to do so. He was like the proverbial kid in a candy store, savouring what the world had to offer.”

But the 4,000 to 5,000 students who took his writing course over the years will almost certainly remember him most for holding forth in the classroom, telling tales of foreign adventures and sharing a career’s worth of advice about life and writing. Many students have stayed in touch and some have ended up writing books and magazine articles of their own. For Wood, the thought of those students brings joy at the end of the trail.

“In time, people will forget what I wrote,” he observed in a recent email to me. “But my former students are my legacy.”

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‘Four-hundred kilometres southwest of Cairo, dune-engulfed towns lie beneath the Sahara Desert. Archeologists had found there buried catacombs, full of “golden mummies.” So I went,’ says Wood. ‘I walked over the dunes for an hour or so, immersed in the vast, almost frightening solitude.’ Photograph by Ron Watts.


A Daniel Wood reflection

[Editor’s note: In corresponding with The Tyee about this piece-in-the-making, Daniel Wood offered this postscript.]

I was told I had three months to live. That news tends to concentrate the mind. I’ve always had a Buddhistic approach to life, choosing to accept that consciousness is a blessing. If you want to live fully: You seize the day. You take risks. You embrace opportunities. You go to the edge. But all things end.

I remember, on assignment to write about endangered Nepalese species, asking a monk in Kathmandu about his views on tigers and rhinos going extinct. His answer was: “All things come. All things go. That is the nature of existence. You, me, everything’s dancing...” and he pointed out the window at the trembling leaves on a nearby tree. “Everything’s dancing — in and out of time.” It sounded wise. I wrote it down.

Later, on that same trip, I found myself walking with a guide through the light jungle that borders Nepal’s Rapti River when we suddenly came upon a pair of rhinos grazing. They looked up and saw the two intruders. “Climb that tree,” my guide insisted. I studied the sapling and its scrawny trunk. And climbed. To my astonishment, my guide followed me upward. So — to give him room — I climbed higher. It was as I reached the tree’s highest branches that the trunk began to display a shocking limpness. It sagged. And sagged some more. I was soon hanging upside-down. From behind me I heard these words: “This no good!” It was supreme understatement. I fell to the ground. The tree, released from the weight of its odd fruit, suddenly sprang upright. And launched my guide toward the ground nearby. At that moment, with the rhinos approaching and me stunned from the fall, I found myself asking the most profound question I’ve ever considered: “Do rhinoceroses have a sense of humour?”

To find 15 stories Daniel Wood has written for The Tyee, click here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Travel, Media

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