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Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Canoe

Image courtesy D. Burton
The Canoe
No other vessel, craft, or man-made form of transportation has stayed as close to its original roots, endured in its purest of forms or proved as true a course as the canoe. The canoe is a craft of the people, yet it is the embodiment of true individuality. Its lines are manufactured virtue and artistry combined; practical, aesthetically pleasing, rugged to a fault. Its composition can be of a natural substance or a scientific breakthrough. Its design has been promoted and advanced by commerce, sport, warfare and even romance. The canoe embodies freedom, hearkens back to a simpler way of life yet represents a progression in time. One’s compulsion to build, posses or paddle a canoe runs deep within our DNA. 
My first boat was a canoe. I’m quite sure that most of us who have had boats had a canoe first. Many of us have owned bigger boats, but it seems we always return to a canoe. It’s a boat that can attract all who wish to be on the water, and be within their reach. No matter what one’s financial or societal situation is, there’s a canoe that works.

Walk almost any neighborhood in this great country of ours and chances are you’ll see a canoe. It might be astride work horses in a backyard, leaning against the side of a house or amid an overgrowth of weeds tucked behind a shed or garage, but believe me there’s one close by.       

Unlike other forms of transport, little of the canoe has changed. My ’93 Jeep is a far cry from the Jeep that won the Second World War, and differs even more from the Jeep being driven off the assembly line today. And bicycles, they’re another story; how many of us still ride a Penny Farthing? Yet my forty-year old canoe is little different (other than its construction materials) than those paddled by the early pioneers to this country. It’s propulsion system is the same; its shape and capabilities equal. For a few hundred dollars and a trip to Canadian Tire I could replace it this afternoon. But why should I?

Construction methods and materials have changed little. Progression beyond the dugout was inevitable and warranted. But beyond the birch-bark or cedar-strip, technology has encouraged and bred irresponsibility. Aluminum and fiberglass have only brought one advantage; accessibility. Even so, a cedar-strip or simple plywood canoe can be constructed with a few modern tools and a modest amount of funding.

History, adventure, romance and legend; all characteristic of the canoe. 
Niagara Falls’ namesake, the First Nations’ princess, was immortalized by paddling over the falls in her canoe. The Voyageurs and the fur traders, paddling their canoes to discovery, built commerce and established the original economic base our nation would be founded upon. Thousands of years ago the first migrants to this land plied its rivers and lakes in canoes seeking fish and game, and shelter from the elements. A few hundred years ago explorers and map makers charted this vast wilderness in canoes.  
The art that exemplifies Canada is heavily reliant on the canoe. Canoes are depicted in the work, or worked to deliver the product. Emily Carr portrayed the indigenous peoples' culture of the Pacific northwest and their great war and whaling canoes. Krieghoff depicted nineteenth century rural Canadian life with birch bark canoes even present in his winter scenes. Many of the Group of Seven were inspired while paddling. The last anyone saw of Tom Thomson was of him paddling away on a fishing trip, coincidentally to be found dead days later, floating on Canoe Lake. 
Archibald Belaney, better known as Grey Owl, set out on his adventures in a canoe. His quest to save the beaver propelled by a paddle, brought a knowledge of Canada and its wilderness to the world. Castor Canadensis would not be our nation’s symbol and quite possibly extinct were it not for the canoe.
Frances Anne Hopkins, while travelling with her husband Edward Martin and Sir George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company, was not only inspired to paint scenes depicting the great Voyageur canoes, but is thought to include herself seated amongst the fur traders' cargo on many of her canvases.      
The canoe, if not a main character, has often played a supporting role in Canadian literature. Whether advancing the story-line or transporting the author, the canoe will always be a devise for the written word in this great wilderness. From “Paddle to the Sea” to “Lost in the Barrens,” or the many works by such people as Bill Mason or Robert Service, canoes have always been an inspiration.     
Image courtesy D. Burton
Many great discoveries have been made in a canoe. Even greater though may be the personal discoveries we make while paddling our own canoe. Views of where the water meets the sky, or the land meets the water. Reflections of our world on a glassy lake or the multitude of colors churned up in the fury of a rock-strewn river, these images give us time, resource and a reason to ponder our own journey through life. 
Image courtesy D. Wade
The canoe is of great significance to Canada. Its profile is recognizable by all. All Canadians can easily have access to one, all of us have read about them. With all its practical and symbolic meaning why is it not immortalized as other Canadian iconic images are? 

Image courtesy C. Smith
We have the maple leaf on our flag and penny. Some will even dispute the maple leaf as symbolic of all of Canada. On the nickel a beaver; representative of Canadian resourcefulness and a true success story. On the dime the Bluenose, a vessel far beyond the means of anyone I know. The quarter shows a woodland caribou, most mistaking it for a moose. The “Loony” depicts a loon, the “Toonie” a polar bear. And where’s the canoe, far more representative of Canada than most of these? On some silver dollars. But most of us never even see these in circulation, most silver dollars are relegated to dresser drawers and coin collections.
Now that the controversy of the penny has been put to rest, why not replace the image on the dime with a canoe. My nomination would be that icon of provincial parks, portage route signifier, great Canadian super hero, Mr. Canoe Head!         

Water sustains our world. The canoe sustains my need to be on the water. It protects me from its depths while allowing me to quietly visit its solitudes. In a canoe I can harvest the water’s bounty and ponder my own contribution to this life.   

The canoe courses a passage through time. It’s wake our past, its heading our future. Between the gunnels and chines, our hope for prosperity.

A few notes, observations, recommendations and most importantly, a few words of thanks...

As you can see I've had help with some of the images that accompany this post. Dave Burton, a great friend, always comes through with requests petitioned through emails and Facebook, sent me some great shots, including my right hand! Dave also "lifted" the "Mr. Canoe Head" image from the Internet for me. That image came from The Portage Store. So if any of you are in need of equipment or interested in a paddle through Algonquin Park, check them out.

Colleen Smith and Ryan Madill, fellow paddlers, sent me a few images also. The one I used is fantastic, with a real-life Mr. Canoe Head! Keep paddling, guys!

The best canoes are "Free Canoes!" Doug Wade salvaged the sunken canoe and it now sits on his and Julie's shoreline. I guess old canoes never do die!

Beth Stanley, Artisan Program Coordinator of the Canadian Canoe Museum was also a great help! Please pay a visit to the museum next time you're in Peterborough. If you can't make the trip you can make a donation on-line. We need to preserve the wonderful craft on display there.

Both Paintings depicted here are by the above mentioned artist Frances Anne Hopkins. I believe the originals are held by Library and Archives Canada. If they have a problem with me using these two images they can give me a call. I'll remove the images and the link to their website!

I photographed the birch-bark canoe just this morning. It was built recently right here in Durham by Elder Marcel Lebelle in conjunction with the Oshawa and Durham Region Metis Council. There are some great images on their website showing its construction using a combination of modern tools and traditional methods. Well worth a visit!

Finally I would like to thank Brenda Ghent. My canoe, the green one pictured along side the red and the yellow canoes, lives at Brenda's and Paul's cottage on Skeleton Lake where it's well taken care of! If you would like to paddle my canoe, you can rent the cute little cottage in the background; Brenda can be found on my Facebook Friends list.    


Image courtesy D. Burton

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