“Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute;
pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois;
paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”
– Pierre Elliott Trudeau
June 15th-23rd is National Paddling Week in Canada. An activity that helped shape this gnarly nation of ours. A celebrated aspect of national identity, whether it be cliche or not. Try to think back to your first, or favourite canoeing experience – it’s likely that you’ll find a story riddled with memories of camping trips or cottages. I fancy myself a good Canadian boy, so in theory canoeing should come naturally to me… But it doesn’t. It takes time to learn the ins and outs of the hobby. What my driver’s license says has nothing to do with it.
In early April, my two brothers-in-law and I took a drive to my newly acquired storage unit to pick up my cedar strip canoe; aptly named ‘The Red Beauty’. It was a wedding gift, originally built in 1961 by the same man who crafted the Canadian National rowing teams’ boats in the ’60s and ’70s – and who now apparently lives in Sauble Beach, ON.
I don’t know if I’m worthy of a boat shrouded in such a sexy story. I’ve had it for a year and I’m still terrified to touch the thing. It’s older than me. It demands respect – the same type of respect you give to a cop who lets you off with just a warning. If the canoe had eyes, I don’t know that I could look straight at them. We drove from Owen Sound to Heathcote, talking the whole way about how great our morning paddle was going to be, excited to get out on the water after a long winter. All the while, my palms sweat on the steering wheel, and my left foot bounces nervously as I reach up to make sure the ratchet straps are still tight.
We put in on the Beaver River, on the south end of a bridge. We push off from shore and suddenly I’m not nervous anymore. Everything is perfect; until I realize we’ve put-in on the wrong side of the bridge and the high water levels have produced a strong, steady current pushing us towards a narrow 3-foot section of space between the bottom of the bridge and the surface of the water. I begin to panic again. I use my hands to guide my body through a corridor of rebar; the others duck down. I look to my left and my paddle is drifting away from the boat, and in this moment of sheer stress I half-heartedly make the decision to go after it while it’s still within reach. I miss. My arm dives into the icy water, and our weight is thrown off balance. My 10-year-old brother-in-law grabs the gunnels and unwittingly helps the canoe try to tip us. Amid this chaos of inexperience, we’re suddenly out from underneath the bridge. Broken confidence and all, we’re still upright. The rest of the ride goes off without a hitch, and it’s become my most memorable canoe experience yet – my own canoe trying to teach me a lesson. It’s always had my respect, and one day I’m sure I’ll earn it.
Get out there this week and make some memories of your own. It’s good for ya.