Philia - a dialogue on citizenship
advanced search
Home Events Calendar Resources Site Map Contact Us Version Francaise
About Philia Nourishing Ideas Good Conversation Inspiring Action

A Higher Calling
Stories > A Higher Calling

Story by Doug Ward

Ben Kramer, deriving a fierce and wondrous energy from his autism, swims from one Gulf Island to another and communes with eagles in treetops.

You sense something is unusual when you first meet Ben Kramer, the caretaker at Bradsdadsland Campsite on Hornby Island. You're not sure why. It's not his unkempt look: long uncombed hair, the wild beard. This is Hornby after all, one of the counterculture's last redoubts.

It's more his clipped speech pattern, the rapid fire bursts of detail. But, then, it's not the way he's talking. It's what he's talking about. Like when he invites you to watch him feed the eagles. Or the way he insists on giving you a tour of of the camp site. You tell him that it's okay but he's already striding away. Barefoot.

The tour meanders through the well-groomed grounds and ends at the foot of a towering old-growth Douglas Fir. The eagles, he says, will fly to him at the top. He begins to clamber upward. His perch at the top is about 50 metres above a rocky shoreline. He's one cracked branch away from death but you have no doubt he will make it up and down. You can tell he's got a different mental hard drive. His own vertigo-less autopilot.

It makes sense later when you learn that he has autism. It's all part of the story of Ben Kramer, 43-year-old tree climber eagle, photographer, son of Holocaust survivors. His is an archetypical Gulf Island story about an offbeat person flourishing in an off-kilter world. The Gulf Islands have long attracted refugees and rebels. They are places where people can turn what was a weakness or a disability into a strength. Ben is part of this tradition.

Most days at Bradsdadsland, summer campers are treated to the spectacle of Ben scaling the Douglas Fir, from branch to branch, barefoot. To the campers below, it's a high-wire act with no room for mistakes. But Ben carries it off with the nonchalance of a guy striding across a putting green to retrieve a golf ball from the cup. There's a constant smile on his face.

"I'm not afraid. If I know I am secure from falling, I have no fear. I've done it so many times. I've climbed trees all my life."

Isaac said that autistic people have a lower sense of fear and danger than most people. ``But something magical seems to be happening. Usually eagles won't get near people.''

Once Ben reaches the top, he removes his back pack and pulls out a fish or some roadkill. It's his cue to the eagles living in another fir about 20 metres away. One of the eagles leaves its aerie and swoops toward Ben, who has become a familiar provider. As the eagle approaches to snatch the food, Ben grabs his camera and snaps. His eagle photographs are displayed in shops and galleries on the island.

His most memorable encounter with the eagles came one day last year when Ben noticed from his perch that one of the eagles' babies was missing. Ben searched through the underbrush beneath the tree, found the young eagle, and carried it back up to its nest in a bulky sports good bag. As he moved to place the eagle in its nest, another baby eagle fell out in shock at the sight of Ben. Fortunately, it fell only a few branches below. Ben climbed down and retrieved the bird. On his way back, a branch cracked to the horror of the spectators below. Ben instinctively shifted to another branch and completed the rescue. His mission was watched by a group of campers. One of them caught the whole exercise on video tape, which Ben loves to play for people.

- - -

Ben is a high-functioning autistic, unusual but hardly rare! His story shows how early intervention by caring adults can teach many autistics how to negotiate the world. It also proves that the best treatment for autism is inclusion and integration into the community. Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The result of a neurological disorder that affects brain function, autism and its associated behaviours occur in about one in 500 people. Its symptoms can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Children with autism often appear relatively normal in their development until the age of 24-30 months, when parents may notice delays in language, play or social interaction. Language develops slowly or not at all. Behaviour may be overactive or very passive.

That something was different about Ben became apparent when he was about two years old, growing up in Montreal. He was aggressive and barely spoke. A few years later his mother died. His father, Abraham Kramer, was already carrying the burden of a time-consuming fur business. And he bore the psychic pain of having narrowly survived the Holocaust. He opted to place his autistic son in a foster home.

The foster parents, Ruth and Willy Weber, raised Ben like one of their own. "I did many bad things every day,'' Ben says. ``Some people wanted to put me in a lock-up home. But Mrs. Weber, she thought I was a normal fellow. She figured she could raise me up. She had me like a son.'' Her biggest challenge was teaching Ben how to speak. ``When I was 10, she told me that if I didn't learn then, I would never learn. I went to speech therapy and began to understand more."

In the summer Ben would attend special camps. It was at one in upstate New York that he learned to swim. Fifteen times he has entered the 43-km endurance test that is the New York Marathon swim. He has finished 13 of them, spending about nine hours in the water each time. Tomorrow he's entered in the Nigel Miller West Vancouver Seaside Classic, a three-km swim that starts at Ambleside Beach, and on Wednesday he plans a solo crossing of the Strait of Georgia.

- - -

As you might expect, there is a story behind the name of the campground, Bradsdadsland, where Ben works as a caretaker. The Brad in Bradsdadsland is Ben's brother Isaac, who called himself Brad for a time after arriving on the West Coast from Montreal. It was part of his search for a new identity. The dad in Bradsdadsland is Abraham Kramer, who was born and raised in a small Jewish shtetl in Poland.

At the outset of the Second World War, Abraham joined Stalin's Red Army, was captured as a POW and spent most of the war working as a farm labourer for a convent in the German Rhine Valley. Abraham met his wife, another Polish Jew, in a camp for displaced people after the war. They emigrated to Canada in 1949. They had three boys: David, who died at eight, Isaac and Ben. Abraham became a prosperous furrier in Montreal. He had lost virtually his entire family including seven sisters and all his cousins. He rarely talked about the war but it haunted him for the rest of his life.

Haunted his family too. ``There were so many unspoken things in our family,'' recalled Isaac Kramer. ``There was a profound sadness to my father. He had lost everyone he knew, he lost his eldest son and his youngest son turned out to be autistic.''

To find a new life, away from his family's pain, Isaac moved to the West Coast in the late '70s. He had no interest in taking over his father's fur business. So his father decided to invest his money in B.C. real estate to provide for his sons' futures. In 1980, Abraham bought a piece of waterfront property on Hornby, which because of its ocean view and cathedral of alder used to be the island's lovers lane. Isaac eventually turned it into Bradsdadsland Campsite.

"I came out West to recreate the world I missed as a kid. That's why Bradsdadsland is a perfect world. It's out of the picture book that's in my head. Hornby," he said, "is a place for people to either remake themselves or seek shelter." Hornby did allow Isaac to reinvent his life, which he now leads in West Vancouver. The island became, as well, a place of reinvention for Ben Kramer, who arrived here nine years ago, just after his father Abraham died.

"A lot of Ben's abilities to do the things he does derive from the fact that Hornby is a respite,'' said Isaac. And so, to the Hornby locals he's become the eagle photographer at Bradsdadsland. The fearless scuba diver called "Ben the Deep." The marathon swimmer who can stroke to nearby Denman Island and back to Hornby.

And the man who never wears shoes. He goes shoeless when he drives or shops at Hornby's co-op store, when it's bushy or prickly underfoot, when he climbs to see the eagles. Ben has been barefoot since he was 14, recalled Isaac Kramer. "We all let everybody know how we want to be treated. So we send out signals that we are not what you expect. It's Ben's way of saying that I'm a bit of a one of a kind."

Doug Ward is a Vancouver Sun reporter.

Kate Bird
Pacific Newspaper Group (The Vancouver Sun and The Province)
200 Granville Street
Vancouver, B.C.
Canada V6C 3N3
Phone: (604) 605-2699
Fax: (604) 605-2353

Date / Author
Subject Add Your Comment
May 06, 2021
06:05 PM
you and the eagles
patlj great to read about you Benn.Was happy to see your smiling face when you watched the Eagle hatch. I will always remember that
May 04, 2021
06:26 PM
Ben Kramer
Carol Crocker I am so glad that I read about Ben and how he carried on his life doing all kinds of wonderful things. Such a joy it would have been to have met him. Watching the Eagles as I've been doing over the past few days I've become entralled as so many others have done. I have never seen Eagles except in picture sof course and I have a Blue Mountain one that I love. I can only imagine what it was like for Ben to climb all those trees and find the treasures they held. Sounds to me like he lived a full even though brief life, probably more than most of us who live much longer. My heart goes out to his brother and his girlfriend. Thank you for sharing.
Apr 24, 2021
06:55 PM
Wilkinson/Brooks family We have been camping at Bradsdadsland for over 10 years, and will miss Ben a great deal. His connection with the eagles and with nature was inspiring. He had an appreciation of life which surpassed that of many a so called "normal" person.
Apr 19, 2021
11:51 PM
Benn Kramer's Obituary
Lyle Lexier KRAMER, Benn August 19, 2021  October 21, 2021 Benny Kramer passed away suddenly as a result of injuries by a climbing accident on Friday, October 21, 2005. He lived at his family resort on Hornby Island called Bradsdadsland. He was an autistic man of exceptional abilities and talents. A marathon swimmer, nature photographer, scuba diver, athlete, world traveler, and especially an inspiration to so many families touched by autism, Benny left a huge footprint during his shortened time on this earth. He will be greatly missed by his brother Issac, nieces Zoe, Zephi, Alethea and nephew Avrum, Diane  his betrothed of Manitoba, his best friend and life guide Don, dear friend Eliane of Texas, his adopted family and close friends around the country and especially his eagle family and home community of Hornby Island. Funeral Services and burial will be held in Montreal, Quebec, his place of birth. A celebration of his life will be held on Hornby Island, BC on November 12th, 2005. Anyone Wishing details can contact Linda at 250-335-1817.
Apr 07, 2021
12:52 PM
patriciahf Fascinating story about Benn. What happened to him? How did he pass away? Thanks
Apr 06, 2021
07:28 PM
Ben Kramer
SouthernGal We have been watching the eagles for a few days now. I wondered who Ben Kramer was-I am so glad to have found this wonderful story about him. No doubt, he is soaring with the eagles. What a wonderful person.
Apr 06, 2021
06:31 PM
MartyJo Ben I wish I could have known ye Wonderful article full of hope I will print this out and take to the facility where my son works Autism makes for special talents
Oct 29, 2021
03:58 PM
pgj Ten years of going to Hornby and wondering at Ben's connection to his is with profound sadness that my wife and I heard of his death. May his spirit soar with the eagles

What's New
This page lists all the most recent additions to this website with direct links to those pages.
Philia eZine
Click on the head to subscribe to @philia, our monthly ezine. You can also view current and archived issues here.
print this page
back to top