- - Tuesday, February 16, 2016



By Roy MacGregor

Random House Canada, $32, 299 pages

Every country has its own set of unique features and distinguishing characteristics. With respect to my country, Canada, the list often includes hockey, back bacon, certain brands of beer, Canadian geese, maple syrup, the CN Tower, the Badlands, Quebec City, prairie skies, Niagara Falls and igloos, among other things.

Yet, if you asked Roy MacGregor: “The canoe made Canada.”

In his new book, “Canoe Country: The Making of Canada,” the award-winning author and Globe and Mail columnist examines the majestic boat’s vital role in building a nation. Mr. MacGregor’s equation is rather straightforward. “No canoe, no exploration of this second-largest country on earth. No canoe, no fur trade to open up the colony-then-country to commerce and settlement.” But it doesn’t stop there. “No dugout, no birchbark canoe, no kayak, no umiak,” he writes, “then perhaps no survival for the various Aboriginal peoples who first inhabited this largely inhospitable and often frozen territory.”

Some of these historical components are even intertwined. Many Aboriginal women, for instance, “had been canoeing rapids — paddle in hand, paddle in water — since long before the first European set foot in North America.” And a young Chipewyan woman, Thanadelthur, “is said to have helped early Hudson’s Bay Company traders by mapping out numerous rivers that she had traveled.”

Mr. MacGregor, a talented writer and engaging storyteller, therefore, weaves an impressive tale about the view from a Canadian canoe.

For example, there was Etienne Brule, who is considered to be “the first white man to paddle these tea-coloured waters” in what we now know as Canada. He served as an interpreter and guide for the great French explorer Samuel de Champlain. During the 17th century, Brule canoed through large swaths of Northern Ontario and crossed paths with the mighty Mattawa River, Trout Lake, Lake Nipissing and the French River.

Another historical figure was 19th-century explorer David Thompson, “who traveled more than eighty thousand kilometres by canoe, foot and dogsled while mapping nearly four million square kilometres of North America.” He worked for the North West Trading Company, discovering new routes to increase travel, trade and financial opportunities. In his journey through the Great White North, Thompson found the Columbia River, navigated through the Pacific Ocean, and devised a trade route for the Rockies that “would be used for decades.”

There were prominent Canadians who lived, breathed and soaked up nature in the canoe. This diverse group included artist Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, who painted great Canadian landscapes during multitudes of paddling expeditions. (Thomson, as fate would have it, died in 1917 under mysterious circumstances during a canoe trip in Algonquin Park.) Another member was the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who wrote in his 1993 memoirs that “[c]anoeing forces you to make a distinction between your needs and your wants.”

At the same time, many average Canadians love the peace and serenity that comes with the canoe, too. Ontario’s Phil Chester, “a retired high school teacher of English,” along with his brother Lorne, regularly paddle Deep River with the author. A wonderful 2010 trip along the Dumoine River in western Quebec with the brothers — and others — is discussed in great detail. We learn about their friendships, interests and squabbles, with a few songs and poems along the way.

This book of canoeing tales even takes an unexpected detour with a chapter about the 1884-85 Nile Expedition. Although it was a British mission, close to 400 Canadian voyageurs (French Canadians in the fur trade) helped navigate the choppy waters in hopes of relieving Maj. Gen. Charles George “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum, Sudan. The mission was unsuccessful, but many voyageurs returned home safely.

Mr. MacGregor also discusses his personal love affair with the canoe.

His mother taught him the fine art of paddling. He writes majestically about canoeing at his grandparents’ home at Lake of Two Rivers, recalling evening paddle sessions as “the feel of that slipping through the water as quietly as if we were gliding on air.” In his view, “[w]hat truly matters is the sense of escape, the camaraderie of family and friends, the laughter, the challenge, the exercise, the relaxation, the routine and the mystery that lies around that next bend in the river.”

There are many tales that the canoe has told us along the Canadian waters. Many more are left to tell, of course. Thanks to Mr. MacGregor’s superb book, he has piqued our curiosity in the heart of canoe country.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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