MacGregor's Book is to Canoeing What a Valentine is to Love

Along his meandering route of revelation, similar to a canoe trip itself, MacGregor points out technical details, portrays the canoe’s place in history, and offers dramatic illustrations of just why a savvy canoeist’s skills are life-saving qualities on water and land alike. Yet Canoe Country is far more than a how-to book, or an encyclopedia of technical information.

The author, who grew up in Algonquin Park learning to canoe, is profoundly aware of the inextricable connection between people, canoes, and the vast tracts of geography that make up our country, a riveting saga that produces the book’s apt subtitle, The Making of Canada.

By exploring the human spaces along this route – physical and mental, social and economic, cultural and spiritual, military and sexual – MacGregor reveals how the canoe transformed from physical object into something close to a character with whom we Canadians have a living relationship.

It is a connection both constant and deep-seated, existing through the evolution of uncountable generations. When the fur trade began at James Bay in 1670 and Hudson’s Bay Company canoes, built on a design used by aboriginal peoples since time immemorial, had “HBC” stamped on their high curled sterns, the Cree, says MacGregor, joked that it referred to them: “Here Before Christ.”

Added to this timeless dimension is the canoe’s own unchanging nature. The boat’s essential form has, MacGregor notes, remained the same for four hundred years. From log dugouts to birch bark over wooden ribs, on through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stretched waterproof canvas, through cedar-strip canoes to modern versions in aluminum, fibreglass, rugged ABS and ultra-light Kevlar canoes, the materials changed but the canoe itself remained distinctively the same. Meanwhile, other equipment and tools from days of fur trading and pioneer settlement are today’s museum relics, if they can be found at all.  

The reason is the canoe’s own infinite adaptability. “Over the centuries, it has moved from tool to pastime to icon.”

The canoe is eco-friendly. “It requires no fuel beyond human muscle. It does not pollute. It makes no noise. It takes us to and from familiar places we love the best, introduces us to magical places we would not otherwise experience. When properly conducted, its passage through these fragile, special landscapes leaves no mark.”

To nothing else can the term multi-tasking be more correctly applied than the canoe. Transportation of people, food, and equipment is intrinsic to the nature of human society, and without transport, little really happens. Nothing much would have been possible, given the geographic realities of our half of the North American continent, without it. Expansion in the United States took place on horseback, in Canada, by canoe.

First Nations peoples across Canada developed varieties of canoes, as MacGregor describes, in terms of shape, size, and building materials, to best serve the water and weather conditions of their regions. The voyageurs became legendary, for reasons he makes clear, for human prowess in covering great distances with heavy loads.

Arrival of ever more Europeans to trade, colonize, and settle, brought many changes, but not with transport. The canoe, rather than disappearing, became as indispensible to them as to those who, for thousands of years, had traversed Canada’s rugged landscape on its highways of water. It enabled maps to be made, commerce to take place, war parties to move, and settlers to reach the continent’s interior places, such as Muskoka.

For a national book with global dimensions, Canoe Country carries a rich trove of Muskoka content. The author grew up both in Algonquin Park (“Canada’s top canoeing destination”) and to the east and west sides of it, most particularly Huntsville during his formative years. He recounts stories of legendary explorer David Thompson whose work mapping nearly four million square kilometres of North America included giving accurate definition to Muskoka in 1837. He explains the role of Muskoka’s many innovative canoe-builders, including Huntsville’s Albert Maw of Northland Canoes. He describes mentoring young Huntsville poet Kristina Leidums, possessed by a true voyageur’s spirit and resolve, whose canoe trek from Huntsville to Minnesota required a first-day portage down the main street of Bracebridge, and who in 2006 canoed, much of her trip solo, over 2,400 kilometers from Alberta to Lake Superior.

From far beyond Muskoka, too, MacGregor introduces a diverse company of canoeists: well-known figures from history, prominent personalities from actor Alan Alda to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and a cast of colourful characters and zealous individualists who left indelible marks on the nature of canoeing. In all cases, he brings these individuals and their canoes to life and shows how their legacy still surrounding us, even if unrecognized, today.

The book’s cover features a painting by Ken Danby, a friend of MacGregor’s through hockey and canoeing. As one renowned artist’s homage to another, it shows Tom Thomson crossing an Algonquin Park lake by canoe. Both Thompson and Danby died in the Park, in each case a canoe part of the story.

Of memorable ways to die, for a Canadian, exit by canoe ranks as most poignant, curtained as it so often is by mystery or tragedy. MacGregor weaves these deaths into his book, just as he touches deftly upon the canoe’s gift of freedom to women a century ago, and the arts of “canoodling.” Who among us can say, truly, that we were not conceived in a canoe?

There is much in Canoe Country that explains the emergence of Muskoka District’s unique vacation economy from the late 1800s. The appeal of living and playing “in Nature’s solitudes and recesses,” MacGregor quotes from a 1928 Grand Trunk Railway brochure, is “a human instinct that slumbers deep within the heart of most men and women.” The “lure of primeval spaces” that could be found in our section of the Canadian Shield and Algonquin Park was connected to “a labyrinth of rivers and streams, all unmarred by the inroads of exploration and promotion.”

Steam engine twinned with canoe made it possible for a wide swath of adventuresome and affluent people to “vacate” their minds of city cares – the true meaning of taking a vacation. This has not changed.

“At least once a year,” MacGregor confirms, “I find a disappearance is in order.” He wants to be where phones don’t ring, emails can’t reach, his only deadline the day his vanishing act, with canoe, finishes. What matters is freedom: “the sense of escape, the camaraderie of family and friends, the laughter, the challenge, the exercise, the relaxation, the routine and mystery that lies around that next bend in the river.”

Many Canadians will think, when reading Canoe Country, that someone else has written a memoir about their own life – the summers, thrills, dangers, spectacles of scenery, skills learned, rules needed, and pure joy in simple pleasures connected through space and time by woods and water.

Turning page after page, like taking stroke after stroke as this canoe trip continues, carries a reader further into the flow of our guide’s playful, wise, and engaging canoeing stories.

Roy MacGregor’s engrossing book is, to canoeing, what a valentine is to love.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer


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