Peterborough’s Canadian Canoe Museum – Journey Into An Epic Past

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There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.                                                 (Gordon Lightfoot. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”)

The Canadian Canoe Museum provides a unique entry point to understanding the indigenous peoples who made what we know as Canada their “home and native land”.  This was the time before the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Trans-Canada Highway became the new rivers of a vast and growing country.  The Maliseet, the Algonquin, the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Dene, and the Nootka (to name just a few of the many indigenous peoples) developed watercraft that allowed them to move across the countless lakes and rivers of the Canadian Shield and tundra or along the ocean’s edge.

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.  (Pierre Trudeau)

voyageurs and native guides at rest

voyageurs and native guides at rest

The development of the canoe would be furthered by the fur traders and their equivalent of the 18-wheeler laden with trade goods, the canot du Maitre.  The Canadien voyageurs paddled them from Montreal to the Grand Portage at Lake Superior’s western end. Also a part of the story are the late 19th century innovators in the Peterborough area of Ontario who would revolutionize the art of canoe construction through techniques like the use of molds.

Canadian Canoe Museum's second floor

Canadian Canoe Museum’s second floor

The Museum currently has about six hundred canoes and other watercraft – most from northern North America; the 150 or so not in the nearby warehouse are the ones currently on display in the Museum building itself.

entrance of The Canadian Canoe Museum

the entrance of The Canadian Canoe Museum

Kirk Wipper And The Founding of the Museum:

Located in Peterborough, Ontario’s version of renowned canoe-building centers like Old Town, Maine or Fredericton, N.B.,  the museum has been open since 1997. How the impressive collection came to be is a story in itself.  It can be traced back to the passion of one man – Kirk Wipper.  In 1959 he started with one which became two and then a half-dozen vintage canoes.  They were put on display in the dining hall of Camp Kandalore, the boys’ camp he owned and ran in the Halliburton area from 1957 to the mid-1970s. It grew into what may well be the finest collection of canoes, kayaks, and dugout canoes in the world.

Camp Kandalore and Peterborough

Peterborough, Camp Kandalore, Minden, Port Hope –

By 1976 the first museum had opened at Camp Kandalore.  Named the Kanawa International Museum of Canoes, Kayaks, and Rowing Craft, it soon outgrew the space available and the search was on to find a more suitable site.  While the towns of nearby Minden and Port Hope on the shore of Lake Ontario were considered, in the end Peterborough won out. Given its canoe-building heritage and the presence of Trent University with its Native Studies program, it was a good choice.  With the $1. offer of a building left vacant by a departing U.S. outboard motor manufacturer in the mid -1980’s there was now a place big enough to do the collection justice.

Canadian Canoe Museum entrance view from second floor

Canadian Canoe Museum entrance view from the second floor

My brother and I visited the collection this May as a part of what we called a First Nations’ trifecta.  After overnighting in Peterborough, we also visited Petroglyphs Provincial Park and then spent a couple of days checking out the pictographs at Mazinaw Rock.

The Museum’s First Floor Displays:

As you walk into the museum, the space to the left of the ticket counter seems to be dedicated to a current and topical display.  The one up right now is in keeping with the theme of the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto. Sleek modern boats belonging to some recent Olympic champion paddlers are hanging there with all the latest design features and materials.

racing shells at the museum entrance in May 2015

racing shells at the museum entrance in May 2015

more racing boats on the ground floor display

more racing boats on the ground floor display

racing shells on ground floor - other perspective

a different perspective  of the racing shells on the ground floor

There is more on the first floor of the museum – a series of displays outlining the life of Kirk Wipper, a display on the Geological Survey of Canada and its craft, many examples of Lakefield and Peterborough canoes, as well as displays featuring two iconic Canadian paddlers – Bill Mason and Pierre Trudeau.  We would see all this after our visit to the second floor, where the story properly begins.

The Museum’s Second Floor Displays:

The steps to the second floor take you to the heart of the collection, the First Nations dug-outs, canoes, and kayaks made of birch bark, elm bark, and sealskin. There may have been about fifty or sixty on display; some go back to the 1850s and some are the work of modern builders like William and Mary Commanda of Maniwaki. Also on the second floor as well as the canoe displays is a recreation of a voyageur campsite and a Hudson Bay post counter and a birch bark tipi.

birch bark canoe F on display

birch bark canoe on display

ojibway-style birch bark canoe

a long-nosed Ojibway-style birch bark canoe circa 1850

In the mid-1970s Wipper had seized the rare opportunity to purchase forty-four canoes and kayaks from New York City’s Museum of the American Indian. As Beverley Haun tells the story –

The boats represented most indigenous design variations across North America, the majority of them being from peoples inhabiting the northern half of the continent. The Heye Foundation was interested in finding the craft a new home. In fact, they were in financial distress and needed to disperse parts of the collection. Kirk stepped in. He had received an Ontario government grant to pay for the additional Kanawa museum building, but when the Heye collection became available he used the funds in 1976 to purchase the Aboriginal watercraft.  (Haun, 121)

The above canoe from Leech Lake, Minnesota is just one of the canoes of the Heye Collection on display when we were there.

overview of display of various canoe types

overview of display of various canoe types – the Gwich’in canoe is at the bottom

The canoe at the bottom – an 18′ 5″ Gwi’chin birch bark canoe from around 1850 – complete with Chinese trade beads at the stem and Chinese rattan instead of root around the gunwales – also came to Wipper as a part of the Heye Collection.  While diverting the money from its intended purpose would complicate matters for Wipper later on, it is clear that in spite of the bumps in the road it led to a much stronger collection in the end.

Ojibwe canoe

Ojibwe canoe

Dene birch bark canoes

Dene birch bark canoes

birch bark canoe detail decoration

Algonquin birch bark canoe detail decoration

Among the canoes is a recent one built in the 1970s in Maniwaki Quebec by William Commanda and his wife Mary. (Commanda was inducted into the Museum’s Hall of Honour in 1995.)  The photo above shows some of the decorations on the bow of their canoe.

three birch bark canoes

three Algonquin-style birch bark canoes – the Commanda one is up top

One canoe on display – a canoe from the Gatineau area of Quebec – was built from one piece of birch bark!

high end of Algonquin-style canoe

the high end of an Algonquin-style canoe

Lac Seul circa 1900 with Cree-Ojibwe design features

Lac Seul circa 1900 with Cree-Ojibwe design features

West Coast style dug out canoe

West Coast style dugout canoe

west coast dug out canoe with sail

west coast dugout canoe with sail

Inuit watercraft

Inuit kayak

birch bark central- canoes and teepee

birch bark central- canoes and tipi

1880's Maliseet - Penobscot birch bark canoes

1880’s Maliseet – Penobscot birch bark canoes

As well as the Algonquin and Ojibwa canoes the exhibit includes a few built by the Maliseet.  The St. John River in modern-day New Brunswick was their heartland.   Along with the Mi’kmaq, they are considered the builders of the finest birch bark canoes on the continent (so writes John Jennings in The Canoe: A Living Tradition).  It left me wondering if any of their design concepts found their way into the canoes of N.B.’s Chestnut Canoe Company.

map with major fur trade routes

map with the height of land, river flow, and major fur trade routes

Along with the First Nations dugouts, canoes, and kayaks,  the second floor devotes some space to the fur trade.  Replicas of the canot du maitre and the canot du Nord are on display, as is a recreation of a Hudson Bay Company trading post counter.

decorative detail from HBC birch bark canoe

decorative detail from HBC birch bark canoe

canot -du-nord ...birch-bark-canoe

canot du Nord…birch-bark-canoe

Canot du Nord decorative detail

Canot du Nord decorative detail

HBC Trading Post recreation

HBC Trading Post recreation

snowshoes and beaver pelts

snowshoes and beaver pelts

An hour and a half later we found ourselves back at the steps leading to the first floor. It had been quite the inspiring history lesson that had us marveling at both the ingenuity and toughness of those who came before us.

Canoe Museum ground floor entrance view

Canoe Museum ground floor entrance view

Past the current display of racing craft, we checked out the display recapping the life and dreams of Kirk Wipper. A favorite hat, a recreation of a Camp Kandalore dining room table…nicely done. If not for his obsession, this museum would not exist.

Kirk Wipper gallery

Kirk Wipper gallery

Peterborough and Lakefield Canoes:

Around the corner…a bit of local history, the glory days of Peterborough – and nearby Lakefield – canoe-building centers whose watercraft would find their way to lakes and rivers across North America. Before my visit to the Museum, I will admit to having no real clue about any of this.

Peterborough Canoe Co. canoes

Peterborough Canoe Co. canoes

Peterborough canoes in all directions

Cedar Strip Freight Canoe by Lakefield Co.

Cedar Strip Freight Canoe by Lakefield Co.

My brother Max spent extra time looking at the above canoe. He recognized the workmanship and the technique used since he had once been given a 1922 – vintage Lakefield canoe that he worked on for a bit before deciding to pass it on to another owner. Like this one, once stripped of its outer canvas and gently sanded it too showed the copper nails used to secure the cedar strips to the half-round ribs. Brass ‘Lakefield’ oval badges (for lack of a better word) were located on the outside where the thwarts were fastened with brass screws. Half-round brass was also used as a skid or guard both stern and bow and as with many canoes of this era had the bow plate hole to allow rigging of a sail. How did he know the vintage? An original owner had burned a date and name to the underside of the bow deck plate. From the stories told by the person from whom he received the canoe, he may have been the third or fourth owner.

Lakefield Canoe Co. Logo


Lakefield Circle logo

Two Displays: Bill Mason and Pierre Trudeau

Bill Mason's red cedar strip

The Museum visit ended with us checking the last two displays.  Bill Mason’s red cedar strip canoe was there, as was his cotton canvas campfire tent. Mason’s late 1970’s films – Path of the Paddle and Song of the Paddle – helped ignite my interest in wilderness paddling back then. His books would become go-to sources of instruction and advice – and his adoption of the Tilley hat just made it seem like the obvious head-gear for any real paddler! I have gone through more than a few in the past thirty years, thanks to the occasional capsize.

Pierre Trudeau's buckskin jacket

Pierre Trudeau’s buckskin jacket

And finally, Pierre Trudeau.  Say what you want, the guy had a certain something – style, charisma, cojones – and of all the images of our late Prime Minister the one that speaks to me the most is the one of him serenely paddling his canoe.

“I Know A Man whose school could never teach him patriotism….”

Post-2015 Canadian Federal Election:

I stumbled upon this Toronto Star photo of Pierre Trudeau paddling with his eldest son Justin in the early 1970s. It captures a pretty neat moment of our then-Prime Minister at play.

Toronto Star photo - Pierre Trudeau and his son Justin running the rapids

Toronto Star photo – Pierre Trudeau and his son Justin running the rapids!

Our two-hour-plus visit to The Canadian Canoe Museum was absolutely worth it. There is no way I could remember all the bits of information that I read as we went from one exhibit to the next. Beyond the many facts, however, which I know I can always google to find,  there is still the overriding impression that I do not need to google.

It is simply this – a deep sense of respect for those who built not only these incredible canoes but also the very country I know as Canada. It is this incredible story which the Museum tells through its collection.

back to the entrance of the museum

back to the entrance of the museum

Plans For A New Museum:

There are plans to move the Museum from 910 Monaghan Road to a new and better site. The Museum website describes what it hopes will happen in the next few years –

Parks Canada and The Canadian Canoe Museum are exploring an innovative idea of relocating the Museum to the Peterborough Lift Lock National Historic Site on the Trent-Severn Waterway as a way to boost the tourism and revenue potential for both organizations.

The construction of a new museum at this location would consolidate two significant tourism and recreation destinations in the region and offer enhanced opportunities for Canadian families, including the opportunity to better explore the canoe’s history in Canada and enjoy the diverse water-related programming and associated activities that can be offered by the Museum at this historic location.

See here for the museum’s current page on why a new museum is necessary.

The Canadian Canoe Museum warehouse - 2:3rds of the holdings are here!

The Canadian Canoe Museum warehouse – just across the parking lot from the Display building

The new museum will allow many more of the 480+ canoes now sitting in the warehouse to be put on display.  As for the building itself, here is an artist’s rendition of what it will look like on the side of the lift lock –

an imagined view of the new Peterborough Canoe Museum

Useful Resources and Links:


Becoming Kirk Wipper: The Story Of The Museum’s Founder.

Beverley Haun. 2013. 152 pages. especially chapters 4 and 5  which cover the period from his taking over Camp Kandalore in 1957 to the opening of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough in 1997. It details the growth of the collection of canoes and related watercraft and the increasingly urgent need for a home that could accommodate them all.

I found a copy of the book in the Toronto Library system.  If you are a cardholder, see here to reserve one of the two copies available.  (Update: as of Jan. 2017, there is now only one copy available and it is at the reference library for in-library use only. Oddly enough, the Canoe Museum itself does not seem to have copies available! Check out its book section here.

The Canoe

The Canoe: A Living Tradition (2002) is the essential companion book to the Canadian Canoe Museum. Edited and introduced by John Jennings,  it has contributions from leading experts on various aspects of the canoe story. Forget Google – this book is the source!

The Canadian Canoe Museum website has all the information you would expect. Click on the title to find what you need to know about getting there, hours of operation, and the like.


Next Post:  The Peterborough Petroglyphs – Building Over An Ancient Algonquian Ritual Site


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4 Responses to Peterborough’s Canadian Canoe Museum – Journey Into An Epic Past

  1. Bruce Parker says:

    I was at the canoe museum back in April with my son. Had been many years since I had been there.Thanks for such an excellent and thorough report. I still love looking at Trudeau`s buckskin jacket.

    • Bruce Parker says:

      …BTW, I am a proud owner of a Walter Walker paddle, circa 1990.

      • true_north says:

        A Walter Walker paddle – nice! We have a couple of paddles made by Auggie Lolk in Coldwater thirty years. Well, had…we lost one of them on a nasty set of rapids we were walking up a couple of years ago!

        Walker is in the Museum’s Hall of Honour I think. I should see if I can find a list of all the people who have been inducted.

        Do you take the paddle on canoe trips – or does it hang on your man cave’s Wall of Honour?

    • true_north says:

      Bruce, I love that jacket too! That and Mason’s red canoe and campfire tent combo! I wonder if Mason and Trudeau ever went paddling together? Who would paddle stern?!

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