Readers of the Edmonton Journal are no doubt familiar with the name Nick Lees, but you may also know him by his old nickname: “Nick Danger.” The journalistic equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, who has served as everything from wine columnist to court reporter in his 35-year tenure at the newspaper, Lees is best known for his adventure-sport writing. It’s taken him from the tops of mountains to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, from igloo-building in the Canadian Arctic to running marathons in Venice.
He’s starting to revisit some of those old stories in his new, reflective Journal column, Man of a Certain Age. But a traffic accident on the Trans-Canada Highway as a young man nearly ended Lees’s storied career before it got started.
Lees drove around a bend on the highway just as a trailer coming the other way jumped into his lane. Lees swerved and he was launched from his Cadillac when it rolled over. “Everything was in slow motion,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m whole now. I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I get to the ground.’”
He was taken to the hospital with just three broken ribs — and then kicked out with equal swiftness when they had to make room for victims of a nearby train accident. “So I lived in an RCMP jail,” Lees says.
“Eventually, when I could move, I came west.” When his money ran out for good, Lees looked around and saw he was in Edmonton. He did some manual labour until the weather was so cold he needed to work indoors, and that’s when he took a reporter job with the Journal. And that was that.
Well … except for that time in 1969, when he took off to the mountains for a month, without giving notice, with a visiting Playboy centrefold the newspaper had sent him to interview. He quit before he got fired. The two of them then took off to California together — but it didn’t work out. Eventually, Lees returned to Edmonton in the mid-’70s, and the Journal re-hired him. Of all his stories, this is the one Lees isn’t particularly keen on reminiscing about.
Back at the newspaper as a features writer, he developed his own brand of early stunt journalism, using his press badge as an excuse to try everything from flying in a supersonic Voodoo jet to travelling via submarine for a NATO training exercise. In 1981 Lees entered himself in a demolition derby, and won his very first event — that’s where Nick Danger was born. He also worked for a time as a news editor, but, as Lees puts it, “I wasn’t suitable for desk material.”
Born in Glasgow in 1942, and raised in London, Lees landed his first job out of school with a news agency based out of Heathrow Airport. He interviewed everybody from Elizabeth Taylor to the Beatles (twice). But, to broaden his horizons, Lees moved to Montreal in 1967 and later to Toronto, where he stayed with future CBC television reporter Brian Stewart, and hung out poolside with a young Conrad Black.
The adventures continued when he arrived in Edmonton. Lees has done a lot of bold things in his life. (Just ask him about the time he took a three-week training course with the Canadian Airborne Regiment, and then performed 19 actual parachute jumps, all to get an official — and very cool-looking — maroon T-shirt.) The scariest encounter he’s ever had, though, was near the summit of the Yukon’s Mount Logan, the tallest mountain in Canada.
He’d been climbing for a few days with three friends. But, just before reaching the peak, they got caught by an intense blizzard and couldn’t go on. For four days the pair was stuck inside the tent. Food and fuel ran dangerously low. “We were down to eating scraps of cheese,” Lees says. Eventually the clouds parted, just a little, and they made a break for it. Altogether, they spent 23 nights on the mountain.
Yet in typical Lees fashion, he was as concerned with getting a good story out of the experience. “It was tougher than heck to go back into my office and say, ‘No, I didn’t get to the top,’” he says. “Because up until that time, Nick Danger had never failed at anything. My whole ego was on the line.”
Over the years Lees also picked up the habit of marathon running (he completed 55 before calling it quits in 2002) and, later, cycling for charity. To date, he’s credited with raising nearly $1.5 million for the Kids With Cancer Society.
Ask him if he has any regrets, and Lees can only think of one: Not building a tourist resort near Cabo San Lucas, back when it was just a quiet, gorgeous stretch of beach. He even drew up plans when he first stayed there.
“I should have gone and done it. I’d be a multi-millionaire today.”