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January 27, 2006

Paddling Your Own Canoe – A Midwinter Night’s Dream

In midwinter paddlers thoughts often turn to warm summer days, a canoe, and communing with nature.  You don’t have to think very long about canoes before you recognize their importance as a symbol of Canada’s culture and heritage.  Without the skills developed over thousands of years in building the perfect watercraft - the birch bark canoe – made by our native people, Canada would not be what it is today.  For example, canoes were critical in the fur trade and expansion to the west that kept the Americans out. 

With these thoughts in mind I recently remembered a conversation with the métis craftsman Mike Gauthier from Calvin Township who has crafted many outstanding artifacts for the native display at the Mattawa Museum.  Mike was excited to report that a group of métis in the Mattawa area had formed a group to reinforce their native roots.  He told me the new group, of which he is chief, was building a birch bark canoe.  It is one of the first in the area since Bernard Bastien the well known native personality built one in the 1960’s.  There is a beautiful voyageur canoe at Samuel de Champlain Park made by Andy Green. 

Mike Gauthier finishes the canoe he and his friends built last summer.  Mike Gauthier photo.

I asked Mike to tell me about his canoe building project.  Both of his parents were métis and his dad was a woodsman who taught Mike many skills and a pride in his native ancestry.  Mike followed with interest the Métis Canoe Expedition that went through Mattawa in 2003.  The Mattawa heritage river which I wrote about last week is a magnet to him and he has conducted tours on it. 

There are other active Native groups in the Mattawa area but Mike was drawn to the Ontario Métis and Aboriginal Association which their Zone 4 includes the Mattawa area.  With his leadership the new local group has developed a growing membership and program.  Among their plans was the birch bark canoe built from scratch. 

They worked on the canoe over the summer and completed it except for the spruce gum needed for the final caulking.  It will be used as a part of their future displays.  They will be a part of the celebration of Anahareo’s centennial in Mattawa in June at Explorer’s Point in Mattawa. 

Although not a canoeist I have a longstanding interest and a son who has one and other family members use them regularly.  A friend has one on the back of my property where he does some duck hunting.  Some will remember that I live on Bear Mountain in Chisholm Township near Algonquin Park and in the original home of the Bear Mountain Canoe Co.  The company moved on and has become well known for its high quality cedar strip canoes.  Ted Moores the owner of Bear Mountain Canoes has a book Canoecraft that has sold over 150,000 copies and his new Kayak book (Firefly Books) is selling well.  Ted and his wife Joan and their two children visited a couple of summers back and reminisced about the 18 hour days he worked getting started. 

When thinking about birch bark canoe building I remembered several books in my library on canoeing.  One of my highly recommended favorites if you are interested in building a birch bark canoe or other birch bark articles is The Indian Crafts by Algonquin Craftspeople William and Mary Commanda from the River Desert Band near Manawaki, Quebec.  The book published in 1980 has a 44 page chapter with photographs showing the building of a canoe.  They made and sold several each year for years, taught courses and helped develop a market for other builders.  There are guidelines on the interenet as well. 

The book The Canoe in Canadian Culture that Temagami’s Bruce Hodgins was a part of is a report on a conference connected with the development of Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough.  The Museum has 600 canoes and 1000 artifacts including many native items.  They have demonstrated birch bark canoe making.  Well worth a visit.  The book mentions the famous Bill Reid canoe sculpture that is in the Canadian embassy in Washington (and on the $20 bill). 

Four year old Madeline Katt gets a ride in her grandparents’ birch bark canoe on Lake Temagami in 1912.

I have been researching the life of Archie Belaney who became Grey Owl and his wife Angele Egwana and their offspring from their marriage on Bear Island in 1910.  Archie was an outstanding canoeist and wrote and spoke about it to thousands.  After Archie moved on Angele and their daughter Agnes lived in the bush for extended periods living in wigwams and traveling by canoe.  When necessary Angele built a new canoe to keep herself mobile.  Madeline Katt Theriault a contemporary and friend of Angele in her book Moose to Moccasins talks about her canoeing and there is an excellent picture of her in one.  There are many kinds of canoes now, more competitions like the Mattawa River Canoe Race, and thousands who love the freedom of a good, light, strong, portable canoe like those original native masterpieces. 

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