Without the canoe, Canada’s history might have been very different.
Designed by Canada’s First Nations, the canoe allowed early explorers, fur traders, missionaries and colonists to travel across the North American continent, eventually finding a route right to the Pacific Ocean.
The canoe remains a symbol of Canadian identity. In 1935, the design of Canada’s first silver dollar included a member of the First Nations and a voyageur paddling a canoe past wind-swept trees. In the canoe are bundles of goods labeled HB, for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
A lesson in Canada’s earliest history is part of our adventure with the Canadian Canoe Museum. We’re paddling a large voyageur canoe along the stretch of the Trent-Severn Waterway in Peterborough. This was a major trading route and apparently hundreds of canoes like this one would transport freight from major ports.
The canoe adventure is offered through The Canadian Canoe Museum. Once we get our paddling rhythm going, we fairly fly along. Our guide, Jen Burnard, says, “Canoes like this have the momentum of a transport truck.” Nonetheless, she teaches us how to turn our craft on a dime and challenges us to paddle 55 strokes per minute for 30 seconds (apparently this was normal speed for those early paddlers, and they maintained it for hours at a time!). It’s hard work and I’m grateful she didn’t suggest 5 whole minutes as the trial time!
As we approach the Peterborough Lift Lock, we offer a traditional salute thumping our paddles and lifting them high three times. We’re rewarded with a wave from Ed, the lock operator.
I have had the opportunity to ride up this lift lock before, but never in a canoe – even a large canoe! Three pleasure craft dwarf us in the containment area as we ride up nearly 20 metres (65 feet).
What is remarkable is that it takes only one foot of water to raise us all to the top. There is no motor; it’s all done with gravity!
This liftlock’s design was an internationally acclaimed engineering achievement. When completed in 1904, it was the highest hydraulic lift lock ever built and was also the largest unreinforced (no steel beams inside it) concrete structure in the world. Apparently it’s as straight today as the day it was built.
This is just one of 44 locks along the Trent-Severn Waterway. Three years ago, during our annual Travel Media Association conference in Peterborough, I had the privilege of opening another lock. But unlike this one, it had to be opened by hand. I felt like one of those horses which turn a mill wheel!
Did you know that most of the canoes in North America and many in Europe were built in Peterborough? In fact, canoe building is such an important part of Peterborough’s history that the city has declared a National Canoe Day, which is celebrated near the end of June each year. The original site of the Peterborough Canoe Company is now Millennium Park, and on Canoe Day each year visitors can see a display of antique boats; some of them were actually built right here generations ago.
In 2006, Prince Andrew became the royal patron of the museum and donated three canoes on long term loan. These had originally been built in Peterborough and gifted to the Royal Family between 1947 and 1981.
The Canadian Canoe Museum tells the story of Canada– its past and its present. There are some notable Canadians who famously loved canoeing – people like Farley Mowatt, Gordon Lightfoot, Gord Downie and more, found solace paddling the still waters of Canadian lakes.
Artist Robert Bateman has said that his most formative experiences were the summers he spent working in Algonquin Park, where, on his time off, he would paddle to picturesque spots to paint.
Even Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, our current prime minister, was a keen paddler. His buckskin jacket as well as his canoe can be seen on display.
Indeed, most Canadians have taken to the water in a canoe at least once. And it’s part of summer for many of us – at camp, cottage or in one of Canada’s many National or Provincial Parks.