The Long Journey Home by Robert Griffing
“It is as if God made the canoe and then set about creating a country in which it could flourish. That country was Canada.” – Bill Mason, as quoted in the book Canoe Crossings by Sanford Osler
By Lewis Parker
As we celebrate Canada 150, it is hard not to think of the canoe and how it shaped this country. Would Canada be a nation if it was not for the canoe? The Aboriginals of Canada are known for creating the well-known canoe, a frame of wooden ribs covered with the bark of birch trees, and sometimes elm or cedar trees. The canoe was critical to every part of life for everyone in Canada. It was the primary means of transportation across the country for all tribes except those of the plains. Aboriginal groups could be identified by their canoe designs and materials. Birchbark is lightweight and smooth, but also waterproof and resilient, making it the perfect choice for material for the Ontario Algonquins. For the birchbark canoe, all its parts come from nature, and it is returned to nature when it is no longer needed. These boats, which have remained unchanged in design for thousands of years, are ideal for travelling the streams, rivers and lakes of North America. A perfect invention, the canoe could manage the rigours of early travel in the Canadian wilderness as it could carry a great load but could still be carried itself if needed.
Canadian Voyageurs Walking a Canoe Up a Rapid by William Henry Bartlett
The early European settlers, venturing into the wilderness past their first settlements in search of furs, found an extensive Aboriginal trade network already in place along established canoe routes. They soon discovered that their heavy, clumsy European boats could not navigate this country, especially the winding rivers and lake systems. Settlers quickly turned to the birchbark canoe, which became the foundation for fur trade commerce like the Northwest or Hudson Bay empires. The growing fur trade increased the need for canoes, so much so that the French set up the world’s first known canoe factory at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, around the year 1750. Large canoes paddled by explorers known as voyageurs could carry a crew of up to 12 people and a cargo weighing around 2400 kilograms. 25 foot freight canoes could be portaged for hours by just two men, and were used for distance transport, connecting the businesses of the St. Lawrence valley with the Mississippi, as well as the western and northern reaches of the continent.
As the fur trade declined in the 19th century, the canoe became more of a recreational vehicle. Most canoes are no longer made of birchbark, however the canoe’s enduring legacy and popularity as a pleasure craft have ensured its preservation as a Canadian cultural icon. From the maritimes to the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, up through Lake Winnepeg, through to the North, the canoe helped reshape the North American continent itself. How would we know each other as Canadians but for the canoe? It facilitated a sense of community between the disparate corners of the country, bringing Canadians together literally and figuratively no matter who we are or where we are. There is no way to paddle with another person except by working together, even if you are paddling with someone unfamiliar. Paddling together fosters a sense of egalitarianism and inclusion, values that are at the foundation of this country. The canoe is a cultural mainstay in Canada.
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall by Frances Anne Hopkins
Ontario is arguably the centre of canoe culture in Canada. Ontario, an Ojibway word, roughly translates to “shining waters,” a perfect way to describe Ontario’s thousands of lakes and rivers. There is no better way to maneuver these waterways than by canoe. Algonquin Park is the best example of the ideal canoeing landscape. The Park occupies 7,630 square kilometres of land and water, with water making up approximately 12% of the area and contributing an extensive network of canoe routes. The best way to celebrate Canada 150 is to reconnect with the land that brought us together and the boat that made that connection possible. Grab a canoe and head to the park to discover what Canada’s earliest inhabitants have known for centuries – that Canada is best understood by paddling.
Voyageur Outfitting, in collaboration with the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation (OTMPC), is pleased to participate in the Canadian Canoe Culture Campaign, a celebration of the impact of the canoe on Canadian identity. The campaign will inspire adventurers, novice to avids, to get out and paddle in Ontario’s waterways in order to make real connections with your friends and family, with other Canadians, with nature, and with yourself. The campaign will build on the collaborative spirit of paddling, bringing together the paddling community, operators, indigenous communities, destinations, and paddling experts across Ontario in honour of our country’s 150th anniversary. Join one of our Algonquin Park guided trips or rent a canoe to get in the spirit of Canada’s #canoeculture and Canada 150!