The annual spring canoe trip is a relatively new tradition in my family, but it triggers a timeless ritual: the simple pleasure of movement on the water, followed by a blazing fire, hot meal and dry tent.
My wife, twin daughters and I put in at a beach on Lac La Pêche in Quebec’s Gatineau Park, about 60 kilometres northwest of our home in Ottawa. Our group of friends consists of seven or eight adults and at least that many kids—a small flotilla of canoes heaped with food and camping gear for two nights at a secluded lakeshore site. The paddle only takes an hour, but that’s not the point. The instant we hit the water, enveloped by green blooms and birdsong, the previous night’s packing quarrels fade and we fall into an ancient rhythm. Outdoors, away from cars and screens, bodies and brains active, perspectives fluid—the canoe acts as a conduit to an elemental balance that’s often shuffled to the sidelines of a busy urban life.
“First, God created the canoe, then he created a country to go with it,” legendary paddler, writer and conservationist Bill Mason liked to say. But, despite Canada’s abundance of lakes, rivers and coastlines—and the canoe’s status as a national icon—I don’t canoe much, which fits the national trend. Kayak sales have overtaken canoe purchases in recent years, and you’ll probably see more stand-up paddleboards than canoes at your average city beach.
Yet, that May long weekend trip has become essential. It gets our family of four into the backcountry, travelling together in one boat (with enough space to schlep pillows, a cooler and lawn chairs amid the sleeping bags and tarps). Away from work and school, immersed in the forest, refreshed by campfire coffee and plunges into whatever lake we choose to paddle, it stokes a carefree mindset.
Such excursions remind me that most of our cities and towns were built on the water, and that a place to canoe is rarely far away. My local options include the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, and the concrete-lined homestretch of the latter, the historic Rideau Canal. Each has a distinctive character, from shallow and scattered with rapids to dam-controlled and slack.
“The instant we hit the water, we fall into an ancient rhythm.”
The Ottawa River is wide, with a mild current, but a fairly consistent wind blowing from west to east; downstream from the Remic Rapids and the Chaudière Falls generating stations, there’s a good run past the copper-roofed Gothic revival architecture of Parliament Hill.
Heading south, toward the suburbs, the Rideau River is fringed by back patios and manicured lawns, which soon give way to woods and farms. The water is warm—for Canada, at least—and, for long stretches, mirror-smooth. A quick submersion makes for a wonderful reboot under the hot summer sun. The canal, its calm water flanked by paved paths, takes you through the core of the city: the new football stadium, the old lift bridge, a couple of universities, the National Arts Centre and the castle-like Fairmont Château Laurier hotel.
“I get a tremendous thrill exploring a big city on the water,” says Max Finkelstein, a fellow Ottawan and one of Canada’s foremost canoers. “You get a feel for its history. You don’t see fast food restaurants and big-box outlets. It’s old buildings and crumbling industry. You see how a city grew up.” Downtown skyscrapers look like a mountain range when you approach a city by water, says Finkelstein. He sees herons alight beside rusted out factories, the resilience of nature on display.
Finkelstein has canoed from coast to coast across Canada; from Ottawa to Washington, D.C., via Lake Champlain, New York City, and the Hudson and Delaware rivers; and once, by himself, from Ottawa to Montreal to Kingston and then back home in a week. Earlier this year, he organized a series of trips: groups embarked on multi-day paddles to the capital from the four cardinal directions (from Montreal, Kingston, Mattawa, Ont., and Quebec’s Kitigan Zibi First Nation). Canoeing may attract more weekend warriors than diehards these days, but still, about 250 people joined these expeditions to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. To Finkelstein, communing with nature while honouring indigenous customs is an apt metaphor for the reconciliation—cultural and environmental—that the country should strive toward. Canoeing can help unify diverse peoples and lifestyles, and help bridge the gulf between where we were and where we’re headed.
“I get a tremendous thrill exploring a big city from the water.” —Max Finkelstein
“The canoe is a First Nations creation that carried the freight of our nation,” says James Raffan, director of external relations at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont. “It brought us to where we are in space and time.” But, rather than lament its waning popularity and our disconnect from the natural world, or begrudge engaging alternatives like whitewater rafting, he’s hopeful about canoeing’s potential to help reinvent the country—to help us rediscover things we’re leaving behind. Working with a centre for new Canadians in Peterborough, his museum runs occasional paddling events, canoe picnics and citizen ceremonies for immigrants from places such as Syria and Afghanistan. Canoe imagery is so prevalent, even recent arrivals quickly pick up on its cultural significance. They learn to balance in the boat and glide through the water into the wildness just beyond our backyards. “I think it’s a potent metaphor,” says Raffan. “If you can pull together in the same canoe, you build connections and trust.”
Raffan has penned a bestselling biography of Canadian filmmaker, naturalist and canoeing expert Bill Mason, as well as books that detail his own epic voyages, including journeys through the barrens of Nunavut and, most recently, around the world at the Arctic Circle. He estimates that about 50 per cent of the vessels he sees at urban paddling events are kayaks, 25 per cent are paddleboards and the remainder are canoes. Whether you are a member of the “home-before-dinner” crowd or a languid week-long canoe tripper doesn’t really bother Raffan. “They’re all expressions of the same idea,” he argues. “Self-propelled silent craft that connect people to themselves and to the landscape through an intimate experience on the water.”
Most important, perhaps, “canoeing is accessible, cheap and cheerful,” says Raffan, who lives on Cranberry Lake, between Kingston and Ottawa, and paddles almost every day. For him, it’s a meditative and restorative ritual. Which is also the appeal for me. Sometimes, on summer evenings, I’ll go for a solo paddle on the Rideau River. The sun melds from orange to crimson to purple, stars sprinkle the sky, city sounds and stresses recede. And I see everything in a whole new light.
[This story appears in the July 2017 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated]