Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Iron the wrinkles out of your soul'

Canoe museum will have you yearning for the Whiteshell

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PETERBOROUGH -- I was standing in the middle of the Canadian Canoe Museum and wishing more than anything that I could be out on the water in the Whiteshell again.

There's a quote here among the exhibits, from Winnipeg-born former National Science Council head Omand Solandt, that canoeing and kayaking "could iron the wrinkles out of your soul."

I can't visit the museum without closing my eyes and feeling the paddle as I glide along the shoreline of our lake or through the reeds and past the beaver houses up the Whiteshell River.

Sigh.

An hour and a half northeast of Toronto, The Canadian Canoe Museum looks like a dumpy abandoned warehouse from the outside, but inside, it's a shrine for people who understand what being out on the water means to Canadians.

There are more than 600 canoes and kayaks here, some centuries old, some built by splendid local craftsmen for royalty, some built painstakingly by coastal peoples in pre-contact days, laid out in historic and regional progression.

Natives on the West Coast ventured out to sea to fish in canoes made of red cedar and spruce. They fired up rocks and used hot water and steam to soften and widen tree trunks by 50 per cent, then curved the ends to produce ocean-going canoes.

Another display shows how northern peoples made a kayak frame, then stretched sealskins before they could dry, and set out in Arctic waters more than 1,000 years ago.

Champlain quickly realized that the canoe was the ideal vessel to explore North America.

A Dene woman named Thanadelthur, one tableau explains, showed the Hudson's Bay Company a route to canoe and portage 17 rivers to open up the northwest. Good intentions, unintended consequences.

And elsewhere are huge voyageur canoes, 50 strokes a minute, 30,000 strokes a day, the paddlers consuming two million kilograms of pemmican a year.

The museum boasts a reconstructed HBC trading post from Michipicoten on Lake Superior.

And there is plenty of interest for people from our part of the world -- dioramas displaying the crucial role that canoes played in Manitoba for First Nations and Métis.

In a display of the roots of recreational canoeing, we find the establishment of Camp Stephens way back in 1889, Winkler Bible Camp in 1948 and the Caddy Lake Camp in 1949.

The Canadian Canoe Museum has been open since 1995, but had its roots much earlier, in the canoe and kayak collection of Kirk Wipper, a fellow from the Interlake who later moved to Winnipeg.

Peterborough is where many of Canada's finest late 19th and early-to-mid-20th century artisans plied their craft, turning out recreational canoes for decades.

There are extensive displays of the 18 National Film Board features made by Winnipeg's Bill Mason, huge photos of Mason's canoe poking into creeks and tributaries on the morning mist north shore of Lake Superior. And, it goes without saying, there's Mason's canoe.

The Royal Family has loaned the museum three canoes made locally for them and presented as state gifts on special occasions: to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip as a wedding gift; the same for Prince Charles and Princess Diana; and to Prince Andrew, who went to school in nearby Lakefield. The scuffing and paddle marks on The Queen's canoe show evidence that she and Prince Philip used it often at their country estates -- bravo, your majesty, and we trust you always wore a life-jacket.

And, of course, Pierre Elliot Trudeau's red canoe and buckskin jacket.

Here's what Trudeau said in 1944 in Ascetic in a Canoe: "I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism, but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it."

Peterborough is a beautiful little Ontario city of 70,000 in the heart of FOOF country -- Fine Old Ontario Families -- blessed with the Otonabee River running through the centre of the community.

This is Kawartha cottage country, not that far from Algonquin Park, a paradise for canoeists, kayakers, hikers, and cross-country skiers.

Peterborough understands far better than Winnipeg how to use its riverbanks. A couple of blocks north of downtown, in a Wolseley-like neighbourhood with some older houses converted to student rentals, there's a footbridge over the Otonabee. Once across, you're on a paved path that runs along the river about six kilometres to the gates of Trent, crossing maybe four roads in all that distance through bush and trees, an easy bike ride to campus and a great run.

If you've ever known the magic of being on the water in Manitoba, paddling yourself quietly past the loons, the only human on a lake so quiet that you can hear the leaves turning colour, this museum is a special place.

Finally, there's a quotation here among the canoes and kayaks from Henry David Thoreau, who knew how to nail the connection that some people have been fortunate enough to make with nature: "Everyone must believe in something. I believe I must go canoeing."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2009 E6

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