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Canadian Canoe Culture

Paddling Through History: A Visit to the Canadian Canoe Museum

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The canoe is absolutely central to Canadian identity — so much so many of us haven’t stopped to reflect on how deep those roots go. I’m an avid canoeist myself (my canoe, the affectionately named Swamp Bullet, is a regular fixture of the waters around Peterborough), but even so I hadn’t taken the time to fully appreciate the local, national, and international ripples this iconic craft has made. If the same applies to you, you owe yourself a trip to The Canadian Canoe Museum.

The first thing you hear when entering The Canadian Canoe Museum is the sound of a stream trickling down a waterfall beside the central staircase. There’s something immediately comforting about the ambiance, perhaps a function of being surrounded by artifacts with such a rich history. The wood timbers of the Michipicoten Provision Store installation, for instance, give an impression of solidity because they belonged to an original 1876 outpost of the Hudson Bay Company.

The immersive touches are so striking I reached out to Karen Taylor, Director of Programs, to ask how visitors typically react. Turns out my reaction was pretty standard: “Surprise is one of the most common reactions, actually!” she told me. “In part, it’s because our current exterior doesn’t give much away, and when people enter the museum and see our waterfall, and the multi-level canoe exhibits, they are just amazed. But more significantly, what we often hear from visitors is their surprise to discover that the canoe tells so many richly interwoven stories of Canadian and First Nations, Inuit, and Metis cultures, history, and the experience of the land.”

The latter certainly struck a chord with me. Most visitors will begin their visit in the HBC trading post like I did. It’s a fitting opener because it immediately answers the question of “why the canoe?” The genius of the canoe is that it is ideally adapted to Canadian conditions. It can smoothly navigate inland channels that bulky European vessels could never enter, and the traditional models were reparable with materials readily available from the bush. That versatility is what made the canoe indispensable to the fur trade, lumber trade, geological surveys, and in turn transformed it into national symbol.

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The genius of the canoe is that it is ideally adapted to Canadian conditions.

Note the emphasis on versatility. If the canoes you’re used to seeing are the usual fibreglass cottage paddlers, prepare to expand your horizons. The Canadian Canoe Museum is home to freighter canoes, dugouts, canvas canoes, racing shells, birch bark canoes, sealskin kayaks, and more. It’s not just impressively diverse — with over six hundred watercraft it’s literally the world’s largest collection of its kind. Karen estimates that only about 20% of the collection is on public display at any given time. For anyone with an eye for design and engineering, the versatility of a single basic shape will impress. Others will be struck by the subtle variations of an ancient idea. From a purely practical perspective, the next time you get in a canoe you may find yourself admiring the way a flat-bottomed shape contributes to stability, or throwing around terminology like “rocker” and “beam” with authority.

I definitely picked up some canoe lore to throw around with my paddling partner, but I also found the associated artifacts equally fascinating. A collection of paddles near the front door showcases a variety of designs. Other gear like fishing spears can be found around the museum and sheds light on the daily life of a canoeist. The plaques and displays throughout The Canadian Canoe Museum are peppered with impressive soundbites that drew me in. I learned, for instance, that voyageurs of the 18th century needed 5000 calories a day to fuel their fur trading expeditions. Somehow that fact made the reality of how arduous and physical their trips were seem less abstract. In Karen’s words, “It’s important to us that visitors, whether from this community or further away, see themselves in the stories in our exhibits, and that they come away with a sense of connection to this land and to each other.”

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“It’s important to us that visitors, whether from this community or further away, see themselves in the stories in our exhibits, and that they come away with a sense of connection to this land and to each other.”
~ Karen Taylor, Director of Programs

You’ll find that sense of connection represented by Canadian celebrities like Gordon Lightfoot, Farley Mowat, and Bill Mason, but the local roots in Peterborough run even deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advances in technology made mass manufacturing of canoes possible. A boom in innovation followed, with Peterborough serving as a hub for the industry. This was the golden age of the cedar strip canoe, in my opinion one of the most aesthetically pleasing watercraft ever made. As I continued through the museum’s first floor exhibits this was reflected in a shift towards recreational canoeing. Here I found information on the birth of canoe clubs and sprint racing, one of the oldest organized sports in Canada. This era also gave us the term “canoodling” — the art of wooing a partner in a canoe.

That’s what makes Peterborough the natural home for The Canadian Canoe Museum. When I asked Karen how they’d managed to strike a balance between national and local perspectives, she referred me to curator Jeremy Ward. “The canoes and watercraft made in this town were shipped all over the world,” he said, “but a lot of them were and are in this community as well, and we have been fortunate to receive many canoes in our collection from the local community. There’s a responsibility to the local community that takes many forms — whether it’s the dinners we held for retired canoe factory workers, or more broadly by ensuring that we are a keeping place for all the stories, images and family histories connected to this part of the history of this area.”

The canoe manufacturing boom may have been led by outfits like the Peterborough Canoe Company, but these innovators were founded upon the achievements of Indigenous peoples. It’s fitting that the second floor of the museum is largely devoted to the canoes and traditions of Indigenous peoples. I was struck by the drama of the Nuu-chah-nulth, the nineteen nations that inhabit Vancouver Island’s west coast. I’ve read Moby Dick, but their practice whaling from a dugout seemed an order of magnitude more intense. A number of other nations are also represented, such as the Coast Salish and Inuit, and I enjoyed studying their traditional construction methods up close. It also provides invaluable counterpoint and context to the focus on European contact in other exhibits.

The museum’s got plenty to keep kids engrossed too. “Hands On” stations are posted at regular intervals and are satisfyingly in-depth. My personal favourite was the canoe hide drum — I tested it and those bass notes are seriously satisfying — and when interpreters are available kids can try their hand at traditional skills like weaving a snowshoe. My tour was self-guided, but I could see why this is a popular choice for school groups. I asked Karen when might be a good time to come back with my whole family and she added, “our museum is always family-friendly, but we have new craft activities every last-Saturday of the month, and we have our Great Canadian Family Day coming up on February 18. Our artisan workshop schedule for 2019 is open for registration, which includes day long, half day and full weekend courses in canoe restoration, felting, birch bark basket making and more.” Workshop info and registration is available here.

I dropped in on the museum on a Thursday, when admission is free from 5-8pm. That makes for an outrageous value, but given the scale and scope of the museum a $12 admission fee is more than fair (and if you do manage save a little scratch on admission, the Tumblehome Shop has some neat memorabilia). The current location is at 910 Monaghan Rd near Landsdowne St., which is convenient if you’re coming from out of town. It officially opened in 1997, but over the course of more than two decades its ambitions have grown further. 

A new location is in the works with the intention to break ground in the year ahead. The new facility looks bright and airy, and is engineered according to sustainable principles. Most importantly it will be on the water, making it easier to expand special programming like voyageur canoe expeditions. The Peterborough Lift Lock and the Trent-Severn Waterway are themselves cultural institutions with a rich history, and Karen told me it’s the potential to integrate on-water paddling experiences that excites her most. Early childhood-friendly classrooms, dedicated artisan spaces, and a spacious event room weren’t far behind. “We’ll have so much more capacity to offer a wide range of programs that meet the needs and interests of the community, students, and visitors from Ontario and beyond,” she said. “And it goes without saying that all of our programs and visitor experiences will be enriched by the new museum’s capacity for our entire collection to be under one roof.”

If the current museum presents such a thorough and engaging picture with only a portion of it’s collection on display, I’m excited to see what the future holds. Award-winning author, paddling enthusiast, and the museum’s Director of External Relations James Raffan sums up the appeal: “It’s a lovely embracing, friendly environment — cool in the summer, like a warm fire in the winter… It’s totally real (nothing virtual about it) with things that you can see, feel, touch and smell.”

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