Sadly, I have to confess I’ve never perfected the J-stroke, never undertaken a long portage, never shot whitewater rapids or travelled for days and nights on a long, remote northern river.
In truth, I’m far from adept when it comes to canoes.
But like millions of Canadians, I love being in a canoe.
I’ve paddled past loons, ducks and turtles and watched as deer and moose stood motionless at the water’s edge. On misty mornings I’ve glided across the still waters of lakes bordering on Algonquin Provincial Park and on blustery afternoons I’ve struggled to keep going forward in a straight line on open lakes.
And on this long Labour Day weekend, I dream of sitting in a silent canoe, magically far from the stresses of everyday life and of taking a break from the increasing noise spewing from our current federal election.
For years, Canadians have grown up with the idea of the canoe as a symbol of our nation — from the images of hearty French voyageurs to those of happy kids paddling around summer camps. There are an estimated one million canoes in the country and just a few years ago voters in a CBC-TV contest went so far as to select the canoe as one of the “seven wonders” of Canada.
Now, Roy MacGregor, one of Canada’s leading writers, has pulled together the history, the legends and personalities linked to this magical watercraft in his latest book, Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, published by Random House Canada.
The result is a book that celebrates our love affair with the canoe and how the vessel shaped Canada in its early years and how it still plays a huge role in defining who we are as a people and in differentiating ourselves from Americans.
“If the canoe is not on the Canadian flag, it is most certainly to be found in the Canadian imagination,” MacGregor writes.
I have known MacGregor for many years and have listened with interest to his stories of canoe trips to James Bay and other points north, as well as through Algonquin Park where his family has deep roots.
In the book, he explores how the canoe went from being a critical tool of business to being a way to get exercise to today’s way of finding escape.
“Early commerce would have been impossible without the canoe,” MacGregor writes. “Some would say today there is equivalent value in how it lets us get away, helps us find or rekindle romance, lets us heal and challenge ourselves. Once used to explore the land, the canoe is now used to explore ourselves.”
With detail, he describes the dugout canoes of the First Nations on the west coast, the early bark canoes of central and eastern Canada, skin-on-frame kayaks from Baffin Island and the modern wood, canvas, fibreglass and Kevlar crafts of today, some of which cost thousands of dollars.
He also explores the romantic side of canoes, following up on a quote attributed to Pierre Berton, the late famous author and one-time Toronto Star columnist, that “a true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping.” I’m unsure of how many canoeists have actually met Berton’s criteria.
Parts of the book are devoted to politicians who love canoeing. He writes of Olivia Chow, the former NDP MP and a current NDP candidate in Toronto, who in 2011 took a 12-day whitewater canoe trip in the Northwest Territories after her husband Jack Layton died in 2011. The couple were veterans of many northern canoe excursions.
Another canoeing enthusiast was Pierre Trudeau, the late prime minister, who taught his sons, including current Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, how to paddle properly. Trudeau even commissioned a canoe as a wedding gift for Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Unfortunately for MacGregor, he and his family never got to take their annual major canoe trip this summer.
But as the long Labour Day weekend neared, MacGregor emailed me that he and his wife “are heading out right this moment for Almonte and a little paddle on the Mississippi,” a small river near Ottawa.
I confess I was envious.