The U.S. has its Model-T, the British have the Mini and Canadians have the canoe. Discounting the ill-fated Bricklin sports car which was built in New Brunswick, few means of transport have become so ingrained in this country’s foundation story as the humble dugout.
It transported voyageurs through the backwoods, clearing the way for fur traders, trappers and settlers and earning a place alongside the beaver, the tuque and maple syrup as a Canadian icon.
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Indeed, the First Nations paddling vessel was among the leading entries in a 2007 CBC contest to name the Seven Wonders of Canada, right up there with Niagara Falls and the Rocky Mountains.
It’s still a quintessentially Canadian way to get around — few memories are more enduring than learning to paddle at summer camp, a rite of passage for many — but today’s canoe journeys are chiefly for pleasure rather than commerce.
So, how much do we really know about this timeless classic?
Enter the Canadian Canoe Museum in Eastern Ontario, a repository of all things birchbark carving, kayak making and portage plotting.
Based in the city of Peterborough, located about 110 kilometres northeast of Toronto, its collection of 600 canoes is the most extensive in the world, with more than 100 on display in a family friendly range of interactive and hands-on galleries.
As the largest city on the Trent-Severn Waterway, and home to the world’s highest lift lock, Peterborough’s past is inextricably linked to the watercraft industry and canoe manufacturing. So popular were canoes built by the now-defunct Peterborough Canoe Company that the word “Peterborough” became a widely used synonym for “canoe” among North American aficionados.
The last one came off the assembly line in 1947. The Canadian government sent it to the U.K. as a wedding gift for Princess Elizabeth, later to become Queen, and her new husband, Phillip. Today it is one of many prized artifacts on show at the museum.
All of this water-borne heritage would have been lost but for a Toronto university professor, pioneer in the field of outdoor education and unabashed canoe fanatic and collector.
Kirk Wipper, who died at the age of 87 in 2011, soon ran out of storage space for his growing collection and there were fears it would be lost forever. But the people of Peterborough stepped forward to save the precious cargo and in 1997 the canoe museum was carved out of an abandoned outboard-motor factory.
In an interview with the CBC describing his love of the canoe, Wipper labelled it “the gift of freedom” and likened a canoe trip to what now we would call ‘going off-grid.’
“You’re witnessing first-hand beauty and peace and freedom — especially freedom,” he said. “Flirtation with the wilderness is contact with truth, because the truth is in nature.”
Wipper, of course, wasn’t the first exalted Canadian to wax poetically about gliding down waterways to the ebb of a finely executed J-stroke.
In his seminal and much-quoted essay on canoeing, a young academic and future prime minister named Pierre Elliott Trudeau wrote in 1944: “Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”
Among the museum’s treasures: the buckskin jacket in which P.E.T. was famously photographed indulging his favourite pastime.
Other artifacts include clam-fishing dugouts used by the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, singular bark canoes deployed by the Beothuk of Newfoundland and the skin-on-frame kayaks embraced by Indigenous peoples of the north, from Baffin Island to the Mackenzie River delta. Over the years, the museum has expanded its international offerings, with paddled watercraft from as far away as South America.
Of special note is the Orellana, a bruised and decal-plastered fibreglass canoe that in 1986 set a Guinness world record for the longest canoe journey — an 18,000-kilometre adventure that began in Winnipeg and stretched all the way to the Amazon.
Should static displays fail to get the blood flowing, the museum lays on 90-minute paddling tours of the Peterborough Lift Lock that are suitable for all ages and abilities, and will create customized tours for corporate outings, school groups and large families.
Meanwhile, its guided museum tours promise “unparalleled expertise, behind-the-scenes stories and the tales not told in our exhibits.”
For those who like to get their hands dirty, a two-day workshop lays bare the skill and craftsmanship that goes into making the paddles that power the canoe. It makes for a great souvenir, too.
Explains the Kawarthas region tourist board: “With the guidance of a supportive local expert, you can create your own beautiful carved and sanded black cherry paddle and go home with all the varnishing supplies to see it complete.”
It’s open to a variety of skill levels, but be prepared to “get a little dusty.”
Given the pandemic, the museum is bringing many of its attractions to Canadians virtually through its CCM From Home initiative. Kids can create their own cut-out canoes, while grown-ups can view intimate curated videos that delve deep into Canada’s canoeing history. Activities and resources are being added.
This year is an exciting one for the charity as it prepares to leave its cramped digs for a new purpose-built home in a lakeside park. Expected to be shovel-ready at year’s end, it will boast “Class A conservation standards” and is tipped to be a key tourism driver for the city of 80,000.
Museum executive director Carolyn Hyslop, quoted by The Peterborough Examiner, said: “When visitors walk through our doors, they will still be greeted by our stunning array of canoes and kayaks, the rushing waterfall, and sounds of nature — just as they have always been, although they will notice the new protocols we have put in place to help keep our community safe.”
— Andre Ramshaw