As you enter the doors of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, you are confronted with a dramatic waterfall, an icon of Canada’s pristine wilderness. There can be no more fitting introduction to the display you are about to enjoy. Throughout the building are nearly 600 canoes and kayaks, plus 1,000 related artifacts. The canoe, says Prince Andrew, 'is the one thing that makes Canada unique.' The museum is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. (Photo courtesy Canadian Canoe Museum)

Explore the Canadian Canoe Museum's tribute
to 'humble vessel without decks' in Peterborough

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If Canada’s waterways can be called our original turnpikes, then it stands to reason that the canoe was our first national mode of transportation.  

Created by the aboriginal peoples, the canoe was quickly adopted by European explorers, fur traders and settlers as ideally suited to the conditions of the vast forested regions of our continent. It is one of the few examples of the European newcomers borrowing an indigenous people’s technology.  

And despite the strides that have been made in transportation technology since, the canoe remains much-loved in our modern society, a symbol of rugged individualism and environmentalism. It’s as much a part of waterfront living today as the dock, the diving raft and the waterslide.  

In Peterborough, which straddles the banks of the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region, they have a long history of celebrating our canoeing and canoe-building heritage. That’s where the Canadian Canoe Museum is located.  

As you enter the doors, you’re confronted with a dramatic waterfall, an icon of Canada’s pristine wilderness. There can be no more fitting introduction to the display you are about to enjoy. Throughout the building are nearly 600 canoes and kayaks, plus 1,000 related artifacts. The museum is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.   

People come here to explore how the canoe helps to define the Canadian character and spirit. They can listen to First Nations Creation stories inside a traditional Mi'kmaq wigwam, learn how the fur traders travelled down vast rushing waterways and get a glimpse of the cottage lifestyles of our ancestors.   

Just like the canoe it celebrates, this museum is a symbol of independence. Unlike most museums, it does not survive on government grants, but rather operates outside of traditional funding programs.  It is a registered charity with a business plan that relies on activity fees, gift shop sales, admission fees, memberships, and local and national fundraising campaigns, plus a twice-annual canoe raffle. It depends heavily on volunteers.      

Adopt-a-canoe program

And since December, an innovative program has been encouraging supporters to “adopt-a-canoe.” You can drop in to the museum at 910 Monaghan Rd. in Peterborough to pick out the canoe you want to adopt, or even go online to select your favourite. Each of the canoes available for adoption is listed with photo, description and history.  

For $15 a month ($180 a year), you can adopt your canoe, obtain a charitable contribution receipt for $150 and help sustain the museum and all of its fine works.  

You’ll also receive a certificate suitable for framing and get a free pass into the museum for the period of your adoption. As well, your name will be added to the label of the canoe for museum visitors to see.   Candace Shaw tells the “royal” canoes are among the most popular with visitors. They include a canoe dedicated to the Queen, one created to commemorate the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, and another built for Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who attended nearby Lakefield College and is now a patron of the museum.  

On the museum website, the duke says he learned to canoe when he attended Lakefield and picked up his “draw” and “backpaddle” expertise dodging ice floes. He said the museum “displays the love Canadians have for the humble vessel without decks.”  

“The canoe is one thing that makes Canada unique,” the duke says.  

Another popular display is one dedicated to former prime minister and avid outdoorsman Pierre Trudeau. His buckskin jacket hangs in a glass case and one of his canoes is part of the exhibit.  

Trudeau once wrote: “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. 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.”  

Shaw says the museum and its curator, Jeremy Ward, are anxiously awaiting the arrival in September of an exciting and worthy addition to the institution’s amazing collection. That’s when the oldest known canoe is due to arrive from Falmouth, in Cornwall, England.  

The canoe, which is in “delicate condition,” is estimated to be more than 250 years old and was discovered on the Enys Estate in Penryn, England, where it had been stored in a barn. It is believed to have been brought to England by Lieut. John Enys as a souvenir of his time fighting for the British in the American War of Independence.  

Classic canoe designed by aboriginal peoples

The birch bark canoe was placed on display at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth and some basic stabilization work is taking place there, says Shaw. This fall, however, it will be sent to the Canadian Canoe Museum where further research will be conducted on its origins and further steps taken to preserve it.  

“I understand it’s in very rough shape,” says Shaw. She says Ward will be reading Enys’s diaries and consulting historians in an attempt to learn more about the relic’s origins.  

The basic canoe design was adopted and adapted by aboriginal people for varying conditions all over North America. Some were carved from massive Pacific coast trees and used for hunting whales. Smaller ones were styled for travelling shallow creeks and streams through the woods.   

The classic woodland canoe of Eastern Canada was created from the bark of the white birch tree. The craft were sturdy, yet light enough to be carried past waterfalls and around rapids.  

Europeans quickly recognized their own boats were poorly suited to North American conditions and borrowed the canoe concept.  

The voyageurs, those hardy backwoodsmen who plied the wilderness in search of furs, constructed immense “Montreal canoes” that measured 36 feet in length and were built to ferry men, their freight and supplies great distances up and down waterways such as the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa River and the Mississippi and its tributaries.  

Shaw says the money raised through the adoption program will go toward operating the museum. She says so far, 16 canoes have been adopted. And while there is still a limited number available for adoption, she expects more will be added.  

“We need your support,” says the museum website. “Much has been done to establish the Canadian Canoe Museum, but we need your support to continue on into the next phase of development.”   

The money will be used to continue to develop state-of-the-art exhibits, curriculum-linked education programs and hands-on adult workshops, as well as bolstering tourism and marketing initiatives.  

What is it about the canoe that so fascinates Canadians? “People become very attached to the tradition of canoeing,” says Shaw. “It’s a very personal thing. You’re close to the environment, to nature, water, fish.  

“The canoe lets you get into places other boats can’t go. There’s a sense of independence when you’re paddling a canoe. Depending on your level of fitness, you can pick up your canoe and portage. You can’t portage a (personal watercraft).”  

The independent spirit that the canoe personifies can also be extended to family and friends, adds Shaw. It can be a solitary activity, or it can be one enjoyed in broader relationships.  

The Canadian Canoe Museum is open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $9.25 adults and $7.25 for students and seniors. Admission is included when you buy a museum membership or adopt a canoe. — March 2011