Muskoka by Canoe

In his engaging 1997 book entitled The Father Pat Stories, Patrick Gossage, best known as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's press secretary and remembered for his chronicle of those years in his 1986 book Close to the Charisma, draws deeply from Muskoka experiences in his red canoe around the family cottage on Lake of Bays.

These stories are about the priestly and political adventures and missteps of Father Pat Cheyne, a character who blends the life experiences of Gossage himself (who spent a year at a seminary in Massachusetts studying for the priesthood before discovering he was not cut out for organized religion), his time with the PMO, and perhaps the life of Sean O'Sullivan who was both an MP and later a priest. But the key to everything lies in Pat Cheyne's boyhood when, one memorable evening, he "first prayed, eyes open, floating in a silent magic space with stars drenching the sky above and mirror lake below him. Even now, the canoe remains his own vehicle for understanding solitude."

In his quixotic book Beyond Mainland, Nathan Tidridge, explores history and identity in North Muskoka, traveling by canoe around Buck Lake and into regions found as much in his boyish imagination as on any maps of the district. Indeed, Tidridge's 2009 book is replete with a number of maps that re-name water bodies and land forms, and recast their history in a blending of his own research about early Muskoka and his personal experiences with these places. An explorer in his canoe, he not only renames the places but redefines the spaces of Muskoka, just as earlier explorers did when coming for the first time into a land known and differently named by the aboriginal peoples already living here.

In his masterly 2009 book Trails and Tribulations: Confessions of a Wilderness Pathfinder, Hap Wilson, by far the most seasoned woodsman of these three authors, presents a gunnels view of nature that is imaginative woodland romance grounded by uncompromising realism.

From the time Wilson, who now lives near the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Muskoka, finished high school, to the time he became a park technician six years later, he spent six summers from break-up to freeze-up in his canoe. He made a life for himself mapping the regions others would paddle for summer adventure. In contrast to those imaginary places through which Tidridge explores identity, Wilson explored and documented real canoe routes, campsites, and portages – many originally used by First Nations canoeists – to produce the first-ever guides for Temagami and other watercourse districts. Later he was employed to upgrade these same wilderness pathways, and later still, he built a hazard-filled career as guide for other adventurers through these corridors of nature.

Each man would return from his personal encounters with nature to share experiences and lessons with others through these books.

Gossage recounts youthful romance and failed efforts at an embrace in a canoe, then proceeds to speculate at length on what he considers the "absurdity and incongruity of making love" in such a craft with its "enormous technical hurdles" from the impediment of the thwart to the canoe's tippyness, and more. Wilson, on the other hand, whose skills afloat presumably allowed him to long ago overcome the hurdles Gossage figured were insurmountable, proceeds to more fundamental realities in addressing "Six Ways to Die on the Trail" – hypothermia, errant maps, getting lost, animal attack, ineptitude, and bush planes. Hap Wilson's seasoning and pragmatism offer, through his real-life stories from the wilds, a smorgasbord of life-saving tips rarely proffered elsewhere. Who knew the scent of a menstruating woman could attract bears, which is why "some park agencies will not allow female employees to go out into wild bear country during their period."

The Muskoka that emerges from the pages of these three books is as diverse as the three men and the places they paddled, and Wilson's universe is much larger than Muskoka alone.

One common denominator for all, however, is the spiritual nature of encounters only possible in the unique contact by canoe. Each discovered an "opening" they'd never have found on land.

Another shared theme, which seems an especially Canadian characteristic, is finding one's identity through canoeing.

A third idea each book advances is how solitude – getting away from the mainstream, and living outside the box of society's construction – is not only important but can be readily achieved by heading into the wild, risky as it may be.

Gossage actually identifies, in this regard, what he calls "the canoe perspective." His character Pat Cheyne "built a minor theology around the lake and his canoe. It was an unfailing reference point for his life, and became, in the end, a metaphor for his attempt to keep problems on shore where he could observe them calmly and with perspective – the canoe perspective. It was his soul's own private source of serenity."

Tidridge, too, for all his zeal and imagination, offers a deeply moral work in Beyond Mainland. There is "an enduring power in the land to call us back from the brink of forgetting," as Susan Scott of the Religion and Culture Department of Wilfrid Laurier University notes, a land that's not only at the centre of his book, but that asks us to heed the consequences of our actions, and try harder to understand the sweep of political, social and local history from its perspective.

Wilson, who sees much more in Muskoka than its "million-dollar summer homes, voguish shops, executive golf courses, and fractional ownership developments," loves his life as a guide. His remarkable adventure stories about the wilderness trail not only impart lessons about physical realities (because "What we don't know will hurt us."), but also illuminate "a different path of life that leads us away from the familiar."

"When we take time to explore uncharted paths," concludes the veteran of wilderness excursions, "life outside the box becomes more of an enlightening experience and no so much a life and death struggle."

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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