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Recluse Okanagan ultramarathoner the subject of best-selling book

Dag Aabye is the focus of Brett Popplewell’s recent best-selling book
Dag Aabye near his bus on the side of SilverStar Mountain in 2018. (Brett Popplewell)

Six years ago, as Brett Popplewell tried to decide what his next book would be about, his editor at Harper Collins asked a simple question to help him come up with ideas.

“Who is the most interesting person you’ve met,” recalled Popplewell.

Dag Aabye was his answer and now the subject of Popplewell’s Canadian best-selling book: “Outsider: A Man, A Mountain, and the Search for A Hidden Past.”

Popplewell is an Ottawa-based journalist and associate professor at Carleton University with an extensive background in sports journalism. For eight years, Popplewell made the trek across the country to meet with Dag Aabye — the subject of his book. Popplewell spoke about Aabye and the process of writing.

81-year-old Aabye lives off the grid in a school bus near SilverStar Mountain Resort, northeast of Vernon, which he’s done for more than 20 years. As Popplewell described Aabye’s life story, there was no question as to why he was the most interesting person he’d ever met.

“I’m gonna do this chronologically, so he was born in 1941 in Norway,” said Popplewell.

Popplewell described a life of near boundless adventure that Aabye had experienced. Pioneering freeride skiing, surviving an avalanche, and an appearance as an extra in Goldfinger and other movies.

“Dag doesn’t really talk about it, but he is often referred to as the world’s first extreme skier,” said Popplewell.

From Norway to Chile to Whistler — Aabye’s skiing took him around the world. When a fellow Norwegian wanted to make Aabye the face of Whistler, which was in its infancy, Aabye found himself living in Canada full time and eventually moved to the Okanagan.

Aabye has lived without access to running water or electricity since 2001. A lifelong runner, Aabye started competing in ultramarathons to keep himself healthy, and to get water, firewood, and other vital resources.

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For as long as he took part (more than 10 times), Aabye was always the oldest runner in the Canadian Death Race — a grueling ultramarathon of over 120 kilometres of trails in Grande Cache, AB. When a colleague of Popplewell’s from Sportsnet Magazine competed in the event in 2009, he saw Dag and kept hearing rumours about his incredible life, which he spoke to Popplewell about.

To write the story, Popplewell talked about a dogged reporting process.

“It was like trying to report 100 years ago,” said Popplewell.

Without a phone or internet, contacting Aabye took time and patience. Popplewell would reach out through his daughter or different places in Vernon, and then he would have to wait until Aabye got back to him by returning the call weeks-later on a payphone.

In eight years, Popplewell figured that he’d visited the Okanagan more than a dozen times to be with Aabye and learn more about him. When he wasn’t travelling to and from the Okanagan, Popplewell balanced a hectic home life that included his ongoing freelance journalism, being a husband, becoming a father (twice), and working as a professor at Carleton University.

Travel, write, research, repeat.

Over the years of reporting, Popplewell became friends with Aabye — they both were accustomed to checking in on each other periodically.

Part of the book is a deep dive into Aabye’s family history, including a search for a photo of his mother. The search brought them both to Norway, during which Popplewell’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“I wrote the first several chapters of this book while my mom was still with us. And I was writing it in a palliative care ward and reading it to her,” he said.

As he sat with his mother, Popplewell remembered getting a call on his cell phone with no caller ID. It was Aabye checking in on him.

It’s been a whirlwind week for Popplewell since the book’s release on April 25th. Within three days of its release the book made Popplewell a best-selling author.

Although his work is done, Popplewell still feels a connection to Aabye, and looks forward to the next time that he makes the expedition into the woods that Aabye calls home.

The author has no plans for other books yet, but his teaching and journalism work will keep him busy. For now, Popplewell said his plan was to enjoy the completion of the project before finding another one. Of his current mindset following the book’s release, Popplewell quoted Aabye.

“Happiness is a moment in time.”

The book can be found at Indigo and Chapters and available for purchase online at Amazon.

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