Dag Aabye carries supplies back to his bus during a 2019 visit with author Brett Popplewell. Photo: Brett Popplewell
How 81-year-old Extreme Athlete Dag Aabye Became a “Magical Hermit”
In a Q&A about "Outsider," author Brett Popplewell explains how the former Bond stuntman defies ageing tropes and why he lives in a bus on a B.C. mountain / BY Kim Hughes / April 28th, 2023
It is no exaggeration to say core beliefs held by the both the subject and author of Outsider: An Old Man, a Mountain, and the Search for a Hidden Past were radically shaken by the writing of the book. In the case of acclaimed Canadian print journalist Brett Popplewell, 40, the six-year journey to profile lifelong extreme athlete and present-day “magical hermit” Dag Aabye, 81, upended everything he thought he knew about growing old.
For Aabye, Popplewell’s curiosity about his past, previously overshadowed in media coverage about his almost superhuman physical prowess — which includes running daily, year-round, in the B.C. wilderness — brought revelations about his childhood in Nazi-occupied Norway.
Aabye was adopted by a childless Norwegian couple so they could have a successor to run the family farm, and he always believed his biological mother was – voluntarily or against her will – impregnated by a Nazi soldier during the German occupation of Norway as part of the Third Reich’s heinous campaign to create a superior “Aryan” race.
After years of painstaking research, Popplewell solved that mystery, but another remained. How did Aabye, a stuntman in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, among other movies, and a ski instructor who later helped put Whistler on the map – earning Canuck alpine ski star Nancy Greene’s admiration as “the world’s first extreme skier” — wind up indigent in his twilight years?
“If you set your life up so that everything is comfortable, then you never have to work for anything,” Aabye declares in Outsider, one of many pronouncements made by the eclectic but learned protagonist. “If you never have to work for anything, then you start to grow old. Most people don’t understand that.”
That included Popplewell, who found completing the book a challenge on par with the Canadian Death Race marathons Aabye ran in his 70s. It required countless trips between Popplewell’s Toronto home and Aabye’s outside Vernon B.C., where he lives alone without electricity, running water, a cellphone or the internet — or even a mailbox — in a retrofitted school bus parked on a friend’s back country property.
“I was 32 when I first met Dag and I just turned 40. I had two kids and lost my mom to cancer during its writing. Just getting to the finish line was a huge success,” says the author, now an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. “There were lots of times when I thought this was an impossible task.”
Part biography, part memoir and a poignant, globe-trotting adventure story, Outsider is required reading for anyone convinced that aging is synonymous with being sedentary, dependent and disengaged from the wider world.
Before heading west to present a copy of his book to his subject, Popplewell spoke to Zoomer about aging, physical fitness and how difficult it was to report the story of a man who has no mailbox, internet or cellphone.
Kim Hughes: Do you think the reason Aabye’s incredible backstory hadn’t been probed is because people were too distracted by his insane physicality to question why he pursues it?
Brett Popplewell: Maybe. When I first heard about him, I read everything about him that I could, and everything focused on him as a runner or what he was able to do on skis. The stories always pulled towards his history as a stuntman who’d once appeared in Goldfinger. People often wouldn’t even get those details right. I was interested in his story for those elements, but also the fact that he was living a very rough existence in a bus on the side of a mountain. He was like this magical hermit, but that only took me so far into his story.
KH: What was the hardest thing to get right with the book?
BP: I struggled to understand certain aspects of why he was living as he lived or the relationships he had with his children and his homeland, because everything Dag said was positive. But there was a disconnect between what he was saying and what I was seeing and experiencing from talking to others about him. Everybody I met really loves the guy, but the way he lives and the decisions he has made created complications for people.
Most octogenarians don’t run for three hours or enter marathons. His view is that we impose our own limitations. This is how he presents the narrative of why he does what he does. But the more time I spent with him, the more I began to see that that’s what he needs to do to remain independent. If he lost that fitness level, his life on that remote hillside with no car would not be possible. He’d be forced to come into society and into retirement living. He will be 82 in May, and he is still living in that bus.
KH: Are there mental health issues at play?
BP: It’s a fair question, and I can see how people would look at someone living so far outside what society considers normal and wonder about that. But there was no point where I felt he was dealing with cognitive decline. I’m not a psychiatrist or medical professional, so I can’t diagnose people. But he insists he is happy – much happier – than he would be sitting with a remote control in his hand. He has always been outdoorsy and very into fitness.
I would also say there is something within him that won’t accept a sedentary life just because he has grown old. When he sees people doing that, he shakes his head. And even though he is taking on injuries with this lifestyle [he fractured a hip in October 2020 and refused treatment], he doesn’t let it slow him down. He just has this completely different outlook on life. One of the first quotes in the book is that old people need superheroes, too. If he becomes that for somebody, he is happy to fill that void. That said, he did quibble with being described as “an old man” in the book’s subhead.
KH: How has the book impacted your own view of aging?
BP: When I turned 30, I felt certain there would be things I couldn’t do anymore. So, I started running and boxing with a mindset of now or never. That’s part of the mythology of my own family. I come from a long line of men who died young. Dag has changed my view of that in several ways. I think he is right that chapters close because we close them on ourselves. I run further now than when I was 30 and am more physically active than I have ever been in my life. Part of that is because even if I do an hour a day, I know Dag’s doing more, even at his age [laughs]. I was also a fair-weather athlete who wouldn’t do anything when it was raining or snowing. Dag challenged that as I watched him run through snow. He’s sees beauty in the struggle, and I see that now, too.
I was also impacted by his view of how much of society you need to check into, especially now as a father myself. We’d be in a McDonald’s and entire families would be sitting together but not talking, just staring at their phones. He’d ask, “Is this how people live now?” Plus, just knowing someone who is 81 years old and able to do what he does is inspiring to someone less than half his age. There are obviously [physiological] things beyond our control. But Dag has shown that if you take care of your fitness, you can extend not just your vision of what you can do but what you can actually do.
KH: How will you measure success with this book?
BP: It’s already successful in that I finished. This is a man who is extremely difficult to locate. Any time I wanted to do any reporting, I had to fly across the country, and it would take weeks to organize because he doesn’t have a phone and I’d have to rely on third parties to convey messages [when Aabye came into town to buy food]. And then we’d have to set up meeting points and try to make them on schedule. Midway through this process, in 2019, I lost my mother to cancer and my life flipped upside down. When she died, I just didn’t know how to move forward.
In earlier drafts, I wasn’t really in the book — it was more a straight-up biography — but questions were driving the narrative as much as answers, which required me to be there to help explain. Then the publication date was set a year away, which meant one more winter in that bus. I worried about Dag still being here to see it. Honestly, I feel so fortunate to have been able to tell this story before it was too late. Dag could have rebuffed me and had every right to. But he opened the door to me, and I will be forever grateful. I will remember him for the rest of my life, and I hope the book will help others to do the same.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.