I’ve only canoed once in my life. My day of canoeing was semi-mandatory at a day school camp for physical education and science class when I was 10 years old. I haven’t gone into the waters since then, because I don’t know how to swim.
Canoe and Kayak- Icons in Canadian Cultural History
So why would I be beating the drum for canoes and kayaks? They are iconic water vessels that are both borne from thousand year long cultures of native Indian groups across Canada and from the Inuit in the far Arctic. I actually
didn’t learn of kayaks as a child growing up in the 1960’s in Ontario until later as a teen. Probably because Arctic life and the Inuit to many southern Canadians at that time, were not yet revealed much to the general public nor written much into books at the time.
As a child, I saw more often, the wooden, fiberglass and birchbark canoes in photos. My friends also went camping and canoeing Ontario lakes and rivers as part of their family summer vacation.
Museum Still Unknown Even in Ontario
Over 15 years ago, I had visited the fledgling Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario. They had a small, but impressive collection. Peterborough is 120 km. northeast of Toronto, in the Kawartha Lakes region by the Trent-Severn
River Canal Locks. An area where there are forests, rivers and lakes for cottagers and enthusiasts for canoeing. Peterborough also used to have several booming companies that built canoes for the North American market in the first half of the 20th century.
Even now, most of my long-time Ontario friends, acquaintances and family, still aren’t aware of this fascinating, well-executed museum only an hour’s car drive (or all day bike ride) away from Toronto.
Showcasing Aboriginal Legacy and Canadian Exploration
I wanted to visit the museum again after its 2015 spring relocation to a larger, better designed facility. Recently the museum mounted an expansive
marketing strategy to promote the culture and history of canoes and kayaks that’s deeply rooted in various aboriginal cultural groups across Canada, in 17th-19th century exploration, mapping, and trading within Canada by aboriginals, British and French colonizers. Finally the museum highlights canoe in iconic recreational outdoor experiences for Canadians and visitors.
Stroll Through Garden of Suspended Canoes
We weren’t disappointed. In fact, you are overwhelmed by the tri-level museum with hanging canoes and kayaks artfully displayed all over the place. It was akin to walking through a carefully planned garden of canoes
and kayaks. Every few steps, would reveal a different mini exhibit vista of text posters and jutting birchbark canoes at different angles and of different vintages and shapes.
Museum staff must have spent many months just play-positioning unwieldy 10 ft. long canoes and eyeballing their visual effects without cracking a lightbulb, or scratching a wall. Quite impressive.
Different Canoe Curves, and Symbols Adorn An Icon
Who knew that different Canadian aboriginal groups had different canoe designs as marked by different curves of the canoe bow? Or there were different shaped canoe paddles. Some canoes were traditionally decorated with beads, images of fiddleheads, 8-point stars, triangles respresenting wigwams and half circles for clouds. Later, with the influence of Catholicism for some aboriginals, a fish symbol adorned to signify the canoe was launched on Friday. Rabbits were magical symbols, while the enemy rival was the lynx.
Some canoes were held together by caribou sinew and dried spruce tree pitch on its seams. Such canoes clearly were made of birchbark sheets. The museum was where you saw large wide rolls of birch bark and a wigwam, a tipi-hut like structure, made completely from large tree branches or trunks, that held tapering walls woven with birch bark sheets. A warm traditional shelter for fall and winter.
Different canoes and kayaks are featured – from west to east coast native Indian groups, as well as from Arctic to southern Ontario. Cedar longboats and dugout boats from the Pacific coast in British Columbia, were often fashioned from steaming cedar wood to shape the boat hull. A fact, I learned a few years ago from Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, where the best and most extensive museum collection of Northwest coast aboriginal artifacts, can be found.
Of Birchbark, Moose Hide and Sealskin
On the other spectrum of canoe natural materials, moosehide was even used to cover canoes since the skin would dry hard and stiff. The museum tracked the necessity of using animal skin when there were no plastic nor engineered wood at that time. Awhile ago, Inuit women skinned seals for proper seat draping in kayaks and clothing. I wondered, if ever, Inuit women did learn to construct kayaks since kayak construction was reserved for men. Most likely the assimilation of Inuit culture, where now the convenience of fibreglass kayaks trump anything hand-constructed.
Nevertheless, the museum features a canoe and kayak worshop inside where craftspeople fashion the watercraft while visitors watch and learn.
Songs and Rigour of Paddlers
Further into the museum, were replica large canoes stuffed with boxes, barrels and baskets of goods that early 1600-early 1900s explorers and traders with
Hudson’s Bay Company, used to penetrate Canadian wilderness and waters. No different than aboriginal groups who would have piled their canoes with household goods and food to move their home camps or from hunting and fishing.
Imagine burning off 9,000 calories a day while canoeing through wind, water rapids and portaging (or carrying) canoe and goods overland through the forest, as a job. Our 21st century, week- long backcountry vacation hiking would be a whistle in the wind.
Cultural Reminders and Feeling Very Canadian
This museum made me feel hopelessly Canadian: I was reminded of my Ontario schoolchild history lessons of radisson (French fur traders in Canada 1600s -1700s), Metis (aboriginal-French people), singing a traditional French paddling folk song of radisson (en roulant, ma boule roulant), and canoe
as Canadian government’s signature gift to visiting British royalty. Of course, any long-time Canadian remembers the iconic photo of our former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who found Zen peace in his favourite activity of wilderness canoeing away from politics, either solo or with his sons.
In fact, I would introduce any immigrant first to the Canadian Canoe Museum: The canoe and kayak forever remains firmly interwoven in Canadian cultural history. The cultural romance of canoeing and kayaking lingers in the pleasure and exploration of a vast country.
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Canadian Canoe Museum.