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)
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.
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.
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-1970’s. It grew into what may well be the finest collection of canoes, kayaks, and dugout canoes in the world.
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.
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.
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 1850’s 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.
In the mid-1970’s Wipper had seized the rare opportunity to purchase forty-four canoes and kayaks from New York City’s Museum of the American Indian. As Bevelery 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.
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.
Among the canoes is a recent one built in the 1970’s 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.
One canoe on display – a canoe from the Gatineau area of Quebec – was built from one piece of birch bark!
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.
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.
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 which had us marveling at both the ingenuity and toughness of those who came before us.
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.
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.
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.
Two Displays: Bill Mason and Pierre Trudeau
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.
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.
Post-2015 Canadian Federal Election:
I stumbled upon this Toronto Star photo of Pierre Trudeau paddling with his eldest son Justin in the early 1970’s. It captures a pretty neat moment of our then- Prime Minister at play.
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.
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 (see here for the source) 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.
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 –
Useful Resources and Links:
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.
As well, the book is available at the museum bookstore on-line but don’t enter the title in the search window because you won’t find it! Try – Canadian Canoe Museum Gallery Guide and the book should pop up on your screen. Update: August 2018 – now the book does not appear at all and I get some sort of warning of site danger! Maybe just look for it on your visit!
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.