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Canadian Canoe Culture

The Canadian Canoe Museum: Where Centuries-Old Traditions Come to Life

This is The Canadian Canoe Museum. It’s the heart of all things Canadian, multi-cultural, and artisanal. It’s home to the biggest collection of canoes and kayaks in the world, some of them several hundred years old. It’s in Peterborough, and in case you didn’t already figure it out, this is not your average museum. The Canadian Canoe Museum is the kind of museum that parents and kids enjoy alike. You get to touch stuff, do stuff, make stuff, and take home material memories. It’s a museum for all Canadians. It’s an homage to Canadian Canoe Culture. It brings some of the most quintessentially Canadian traditions and histories to life for generations of new Canadians.

The museum tells the remarkable story of paddling as a tradition that actually built Canada as a country. The museum is home to Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s famous buckskin coat (made by Mary and Chuck Commanda, who are famous for their birchbark canoes) and his paddle and favourite canoe. Ever wondered what the fastest canoes and kayaks in the world look like? The museum proudly displays the world-class, finely engineered boats used by Canada’s many Olympic champions. The Canadian Canoe Museum also recently received a generous donation of several canoes from Canadian folk music icon Gordon Lightfoot.

The Canadian Canoe Museum also curates stories from people just like you about what canoeing means to you and your family and identity. In their online portal for Our Canoe Story you can read about the old “Battle Axe” of a canoe cherished by Lee’s family. You can share the magic of early-morning canoe trips with Mike. You can learn about the quest of one fan of the Group of Seven as he replicates Tom Thomson’s canoe. Stop by and learn more about how your personal story connects with these traditions. Maybe you’ve never touched a canoe before, but that just means you have yet to discover this beautiful chapter of your own story.

You may have heard of the family movies Night at the Museum, in which the displays and exhibits of the museum come to life for a night of adventure. That’s a fantasy. But it speaks to the dream of what museums ought to be for the younger generations. Engaging places where history comes to life and inspires us to keep our traditions alive and transform them to welcome the future. The Canadian Canoe Museum really is alive in this way, constantly growing, changing, and interacting with all the aspects of Canada’s rich tradition of canoeing and kayaking.

This museum is in the heart of Peterborough and serves as a unique destination for those seeking to discover the hidden gems of Canada’s waterways. With the Trent-Severn Waterway (a National Historic Site of Canada) and the world’s highest lift lock also at the heart of Peterborough, a trip just east of Toronto will guarantee you a great Canadian experience right in the heart of the scenic Kawarthas.

Discover your Inner Artisan

The museum has also grown to become a hub of artisans. These talented craftspeople not only volunteer their skills to help curate the museum’s remarkable collections, but also offer unique, once-in-a-lifetime workshops. In these workshops, anyone can learn traditional skills, from paddle-carving to beading, from leatherwork to the art of pyrography. (What’s “pyrography”? Think painting but instead of a paintbrush and paint you use tools that precisely burn the surface of the wood.)

You can spend a day, or two, learning traditional skills, meeting interesting people, and working with your hands in a relaxed setting with the guidance of experienced, supportive, knowledgeable instructors. Leave feeling positive, proud of your finished product, and inspired from a day of actually learning and physically enacting historical traditions. You’ll discover a new appreciation for your own creativity and talents, things you might not have known about yourself!

Meet the Makers: Two Interviews with Artisans who Lead Workshops

Andrew (Andy) Bullock is one of the many remarkable instructors who generously give their time to the Canadian Canoe Museum and make these workshops possible. Andy is of Wampanoag ancestry and he grew up south of the border with his parents and five siblings. He followed in the footsteps of his parents, becoming a master craftsman in the traditional arts of his family. “I’ve been at it for 50 years,” Andy says. “I started when I was a youngster. I’ve been doing it pretty seriously for the last 40 years both personally and professionally.”

Andy has a degree in Indigenous Studies and since he’s moved to Peterborough he has been teaching some workshops at Trent University.

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For the first couple months that we moved into Peterborough we just heard about the Canoe Museum and saw the colourful mural with all the paddlers on it. One day they went in. We immediately fell in love with it. We became members and volunteers. We’re consistently amazed at the collection of boats and the events they put on. It’s a huge community resource.
~ ANDY BULLOCK

One of Andy’s particular areas of expertise is in traditional beading techniques. “Beadwork has been in North America for hundreds of years, and that continuum is important to understanding the history of Canada and the U.S.A. One of the most rewarding experiences when I’m running a workshop is when people have that ‘Ah ha!’ moment of success, that moment when they really ‘get’ a technique or skill for the first time. Lots of people may have tried a technique at home and not had success, or they just never thought they’d be able to do the beadwork that they remember their mom or auntie doing when they were a kid. It’s rewarding to introduce them to it as an adult. I’m glad to be able to re-make that connection. Those are for me the most exciting and gratifying moments in the workshops.”

“One of the first things I say in my workshops is that a lot of people try to teach themselves beadwork. They take some techniques from a book. They watch some online videos. They smoosh it all together, but they are not happy with the outcome. You’ve just taken all those different components and each has its merits but together they don’t really make sense. I think a lot of people really value a hands-on workshop experience. That one-on-one learning is really valuable for people today.”

Andy is leading workshops on the Peyote Stitch and also a new workshop on making a Puzzle Pouch. “The Peyote Stitch is weaving one bead at a time. It’s ideal for beading around a drumstick or the base of a feather or something like that. It can range from a modest project to an elaborate and highly detailed project. There are a lot of variations within Peyote stitch and those can really open people’s eyes to the possibilities.

“This is the first time we’ve done a class on the Puzzle Pouch. These pouches were fairly widespread in Canada and the U.S.A. A lot of times they’d make the pouch, put something in it, and give it to a child to figure out how to open it. It encourages the curiosity of examining the construction and trying to figure it out. This class will be about how to design your own pouch and then how to construct and decorate it with different beading techniques.”

The workshops take place in the cozy back room of the museum. It feels kind of like an old cabin in the woods back there. People enjoy letting go of their daily distractions and immersing themselves in something different, something old that’s new to them. “The most exciting part for me,” Andy says, “are the conversations that evolve around the creative process. Talking about traditional beadwork opens up conversations about contemporary issues and interesting, healthy discussions come out of that. It’s nice.”

Russ Parker is another one of the remarkable craftspeople who work at the museum. He used to be a District Chief in the Fire Service who moved up to a remote cottage in Halliburton after he retired. “It was too remote. I needed some community, some culture. Peterborough’s a nice town. I can enjoy nature and community here.”

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I’ve been an amateur woodworker my whole life, learning different skills, like building archery equipment, furniture, totem poles, guitars, small boats. I like to lose myself in work like that. I taught paddle making at Lee Valley Tools, so when I moved to Peterborough I started volunteering at the museum.
~ RUSS PARKER

Russ feels a strong responsibility to pass on the things he knows. “I really love to lose myself in my work, but I feel like I should be sharing it too. I’m happy to share the knowledge I have, I really am. I know some folks who are the best in the world at what they do. They have amazing breadth of knowledge, but they won’t tell anyone anything. I don’t get that. When people come to the museum to ask questions and learn, I’m happy to share and teach them.”

Russ likes to share unique skills and experiences in his workshops. It’s often surprising how people enjoy experiencing the process just as much as taking home the finished product. “You can build a lot of things and never even use a hand-powered tool. You can just use power tools like routers. We don’t use those tools in the paddle-carving workshops. We use the spoke shave. It’s a bit arcane. Many woodworkers don’t even own one. So you’re not only learning to make a paddle, but your are also learning a hand skill with an unusual tool. That’s rewarding. When you get the hang of it, you can produce long, thin, curled shavings of wood. They’re beautiful. There’s something really satisfying about that. I don’t know why. It’s so much nicer to make those shavings than saw dust and powder.”

“Most paddle manufacturers these days are big industrial processes. The guys stand there day-in and day-out in front of belt sanders and huge machines. I’ve seen them do it. It seems like a horrible job to me. I don’t know how they do it. When you use the spoke shave and learn to read the wood and get a feel for the wood, that’s a lovely experience. That’s also transferable to other wood working projects. A surprising number of people say that it’s really satisfying.”

“One time I was working in the museum to replicate a traditional Inuit kayak paddle. It’s 11 feet long. I was making shavings out of a beautiful piece of red cedar, and the shavings were big and long. Even for me, making those long shavings was surprisingly satisfying. I’d pick them up and stretch them out and just enjoy the look and feel of them. The entire museum smelled of red cedar that day.”

Russ finds the workshops rewarding for himself also. “It really feels like these workshops are needed in this day and age. It’s an escape. Most people turn off their phones without me asking them too. They aren’t as interested in being connected in that way because they are so intent on what they are doing. They don’t want to be interrupted. Most people just get zoned into what they’re doing and don’t worry about their devices. I think it’s good for them to connect with something real. Chuck Commanda was here this year building a birch bark canoe and baskets and doing other workshops. He said the same thing. After the workshop gets started most folks don’t even bring their phones out. They just let go of that world.”

“Cara Jordan says the same thing too about people who take her workshops. They let go of everyday distractions and just immerse themselves in the skills and the conversation in the room. Cara comes in on some Sundays and does the Pyrography (wood burning) workshops. It’s amazing. I mean, her animals are as good as any Robert Bateman painting, and she teaches that to people. Incredible. You’d swear that if you put your hand over the animals you could feel the softness of the fur. That’s how real they are.

“The Canadian Canoe Museum is keeping these hard to learn skills alive. It’s important. You can’t just go down to the local college and take a course on these skills like you would with photography or computers. All these courses, beading, snowshoe weaving, canoe seat caning, they’re hard to come by these days.”

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