Canoeing is quintessentially Canadian. Pierre Berton, one of our great national historians and storytellers once quipped that “a Canadian is someone who can have sex in canoe”. While it didn’t come to that, looking for something unique to do last year on July 1st, our national holiday, I enlisted an old boyfriend to come along with me to the Canadian Canoe Museum.
Now, I have to confess that my canoeing experience is limited to a couple of overnight excursions at camp and some extremely relaxed paddling around the lakes of southern Ontario. I know pretty much nothing about canoeing – except that other people love it. Many pay big bucks to go up north, traverse rivers with exotic names, and get eaten alive by mosquitos. All I can muster is a basic J-stroke and even then, I rely on Canadians several generations deep to determine our course anytime I get anywhere near a vessel.
Nonetheless, the idea of a museum devoted entirely to the canoe intrigued me. As someone who, if I thought about canoeing at all, thought ‘a canoe is a canoe is a canoe’, I wondered what I would find. Now, having toured the premises, I can say with 100% certainty that I knew next to nothing about canoes themselves and less about their central role in the history of European exploration and settlement of North America. The Canadian Canoe Museum exceeded every expectation I had. From the incredibly generous and knowledgeable volunteers who welcomed my friend and me at the door, to the range and depth of the display, the variety of activities they offer, and the impressive book and craft shop, I was blown away.
A fantastic range of canoes – over 100 – is on permanent display. From the West Coast Salish large, sturdy vessels whose hulls are hewn from red cedar trees, and which are used to navigate in rough Pacific waters. To tiny slips of canoes delicately crafted from birch bark that designed to glide along the small rivers of the east coast. To impressive, watertight kayaks that insulate the paddler from ice cold Arctic seas.
And then there are the celebrity canoes. Three high-end canoes presented to various royal personages including Diana, Princess of Wales are suspended from the ceiling. (Alas the People’s Princess didn’t appear to be a fan of this mode of transport – a sign says that as far as anyone can tell she didn’t ever use hers and it does look like its in suspiciously pristine condition. This is in contrast stark contrast to Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who went to boarding school nearby and borrows his from time to time). A gorgeous beaded jacket and gloves worn by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau is elegantly displayed in a glass case.
And for hard core canoeing fans, there is a permanent exhibit in honour of canoeist extraordinaire Herb Phol, Canada’s most famous paddler. Unfortunately, like painter Tom Thompson before him , Pohl died while canoeing.
Museologists give pride of place to the canoe in their rendition of Canadian history. First Nations used canoes to navigate established trade routes along the continents waterways. They, in turn, guided the Europeans, who then consolidated local and regional knowledge into detailed maps. In the mid 19th century, geologists paddled canoes to survey mineral deposits. The RCMP even used canoes to keep the peace. The humble canoe kept on proving its worth.
Artfully constructed dioramas bring all this history to life. An example of a typical heavily stocked canoe attests to the fact that the courier du bois did not travel light – one canoe could carry up to 8000 lbs of goods and supplies. With up to 150 portages along one route from Montreal to Fort Chipewyan in the northwestern Alberta, the sheer athleticism of these men is impressive especially when you consider that all the material had to be pulled out of a canoe, moved, and repacked each time. Makes me ashamed of any complaining I’ve done schlepping bags while going through airports.
A replica of an overnight camp was so inviting, I temporarily forgot my intense fear of bears, and wanted to sign up for a canoe trip just so I could sleep around a campfire in the shadow of an upside down canoe. Which, as it turns out, is a program that the Canoe Museum offers to both adults and children.
Less than 20 years old, the museum’s holdings now number more than “600 canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft” from around the world. They have an artist in residence. Canoe restoration workshops. Even float and flow yoga classes. Ambitious plans to expand are underway – an international architectural competition to find the ideal architect has been launched. When the ice melts, I am very much looking forward to returning. And, who knows, I may even learn how to paddle and become a proper Canadian.