broadsideblog

Have paddle, will travel

In culture, History, life, travel on June 26, 2012 at 12:11 am
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall ...

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada). Scene showing a large Hudson’s Bay Company freight canoe passing a waterfall, presumably on the French River. The passengers in the canoe may be the artist and her husband, Edward Hopkins, secretary to the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoePierre Berton

Well, kids, I don’t personally know if that’s true. But I do know how much I love being in a canoe.

I rented an aluminum one this week for a big $7 and paddled for 45 minutes on the very edge of Lake Champlain. It was a long way from the 3, 5 and seven-day canoe trips of my adolescence, at summer camp in northern Ontario.

I loved how, still today, it felt automatic and natural to pick up a paddle and carve it smoothly and cleanly into the water with that distinct, delicious gurgling noise of water being pushed behind me only by my own muscle power. The gentle slap of waves against the hull. There’s an intimacy with the water and the land you can’t get any other way.

The last time I canoed, also solo, was in Quebec, on Lake Massawippi, where I crept up on that most elusive and Canadian of sights — two beavers swimming by. (I solo, so far, because my husband Jose does not swim, nor paddle. But since he bought me a tent for my 55th. I see a canoe trip in his future!)

I learned to paddle in 65-pound red wood-and-canvas canoes, learning strokes like the J, feathering, the pry, running pry, C-stroke. We’d set off into Algonquin Provincial Park, (7,630 square kilometres), our packs laden, our eggs packed in oatmeal, our cookpans covered with thick soap to protect them from burns. We got to know these dark, deep, cold lakes as well as our streets at home — Cedar Lake, Biggar, North Tea. We’d start out at the Amable du Fond, which sounds really romantic but was a river winding through a marsh full of mosquitoes, a winding passage deceptively easy compared to what lay ahead.

At night we’d hear the haunting cry of loons. If something crashed a little too loudly in the woods, we pretended it didn’t. We skinny dipped in water lapping against ancient granite, carved millions of years ago by glaciers. The air smelled deliciously of dried pine needles.

We portaged across muddy, rocky paths. Portaging quickly separated the wussies from the trippers — it means carrying all your stuff across a piece of land, no matter how steep or slippery or mucky or thick with black flies. It means hoisting that bloody canoe yourself, up onto your shoulders, solo or with another paddler, while also carrying a heavy pack, no matter how sweaty or miserable you are.

We didn’t freak out when a diabetic camper once took the wrong path — it’s easy to do when all you can see are your own feet and a bit of path beneath the canoe on your weary shoulders. Someone just ran and got her.

This is what you learn on canoe trips — what you, and your companions, are made of. Who whines. Who lily-dips. Who’s willing to scrub out the grimiest pot. Who freaks out over nothing and how deeply annoying drama is.

We paddled in rain, in fog, on chilly mornings. When we were sore and tired and fed up, when the lake seemed endless and the next campsite unimaginably distant, we’d sing, loudly, sometimes in a round with choruses echoing across the waters, a song written by a woman in 1918:

My paddle’s keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing
Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing

One of my favorite museums in the world is the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ontario. If you are a lover of canoes and kayaks and the world they open up to you, it’s a must-see, with 600 beautiful examples of  both.

As every Canadian knows (or should), the country was opened up by the coureurs de bois and voyageurs often led through the wilderness by Indians along their well-established routes. Only at the Canoe Museum did I finally understand the bravery and organization it took to load up one of these enormous vessels — usually 25 feet in length or 36 feet.

June 26 is National Canoe Day.

Paddle on!

  1. Thank you. This brings to mind so many amazing canoe moments. I was probably born with a paddle in my hand. The canoe was always at the ready and we could tell Lake Ontario weather from our home view from the Great Escarpment which ran from Lewiston-Queenston to Tobomory and beyond. The Adirondack’s were our New York water playground. In my twenties, after leaving an Algonquin River guide behind, I found myself paddling through some quiet places in Alaska. Your stunning paddling images, both auditory and visual, bring me so close to those early paddling moments! Thanks, Renee

  2. I was a river canoe guide for summer camp while i attended university. I think back and shudder thinking I can’t believe I took 12-14 year olds out on the river for a week at a time! What if what if what if? I also look back and think it was the best job I ever had. Happy canoe day!!

    • OMG. I was always completely in awe of our counselors — then all of 18 or older — who somehow got us in and out of all those lakes. I wondered how scared they got. Not I know! :-)

  3. Brings back so many wonderful memories. I’m singing right now. Thanks!

  4. Happy Canoe Day my dear. Wonderful post.

  5. My husband and I recently bought a second kayak – not a canoe – so we can go out on our lovely lake together. I wonder how we would go paddling the Canadian canoes -0 and keeping them upright? :-)

    • A canoe is not wildly different than a kayak, having done both. You keep your center of gravity low and shift from side to side as necessary for balance or direction. You do need to learn the different strokes, but they’re not complicated or difficult.

  6. oh, you made me in the mood to get out there in a canoe. We had a fantastic family day out recently on Loch Tay paddling around looking at the fish and the scenery and then landed on a tiny island and sat round a camp fire (until the midges chased us away). I also had an unforgettable day kayaking from Barra in the Outer Hebrides over to uninhabited islands with dreamy beaches with white sand and crystal clear water, aaaah.

  7. I want to go there….sounds amazing! What’s so fun is hearing from fellow water-babies worldwide — NZ to Scotland to Canada…The Hebrides have long been on my to-do list (along with a tour of whiskey distilleries.)

    Have you been to SF yet?

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