Sunday 18 March 2018

Canadian Canoe Museum

I had to make a business trip to Toronto, and since it was March Break for my kids I took the two oldest with me and set them loose on the Toronto subway while I was at the office.  They had a great time exploring the city for the first time and got to visit the CN Tower, Ripley's Aquarium, and the Eaton Center.  We drove down in the family vehicle and part of my plan from the beginning was to drive back through Peterborough so we could visit the Canadian Canoe Museum.  As much as I know the boys love to paddle, I was not sure whether or not they'd really be in to a canoe museum but as it turned out they had as great a time as I did, and I actually had to peel them out of the place so we could get on our way back to Ottawa.

Having never been in the area before we relied on Google Maps to find the museum.  Since we were staying in a hotel in Markham we started out eastbound on Highway 7, and followed Google through highways 3, 20, and finally the 115 which is a modern 4 lane split highway that took us into Peterborough.  The route along highways 7, 3 and 20 was a nice back-country drive which had a few interesting points along the way that would have been worthy of a stop if we'd had more time.  Mainly along the lines of small town restaurants or general stores.  About 90 minutes after our departure we were pulling into the parking lot of the Canoe Museum.

I have to say it was a bit off-putting at this point.  The building itself was painted on the outside with some bright colours and was very obviously the canoe museum.  But as we drew closer it had a very industrial look to it - it was a huge warehouse type building plopped into the middle of a large parking lot, with asphalt pavement going from the edge of the building to the far edge of the property.  Even though it was just a few minutes before noon and the museum was supposed to be open at 10, it really did not give us the feeling it was open.   We drove around to what we thought must have been the entrance, though it was not as obvious as it should have been.  It felt very much like an abandoned building at this point and I feared we were going to discover that it was closed.  Of course that turned out not to be the case, but if there is one piece of advice I can offer to anyone at the museum who is reading this, it would be to spice up the outside of the building and make it more inviting.  Rip up the asphalt along the building and put in some planters.  Make an obvious sign that says "Welcome" or even "Open".  It really had a ghetto feeling as we pulled up.   And even as we walked up onto the steps we were not sure that we were in the right place and were certain it was not going to be open.

Luckily for us it was open, however!

We walked inside and indeed it was open.  We paid the fee and made an extra donation to the museum, and followed the recommended route up the stairs and around the top floor, then down the other set of stairs and around the main floor.

The museum contains quite a variety of canoes and kayaks, and as one would expect this includes a lot of examples of aboriginal craftsmanship.  There were lots of examples of birch bark canoes the sort of which were made by most of the First Nations in Eastern Canada, as well as enormous dugouts from Western Canada, and a number of different sealskin covered kayaks from the North.   As you walk through you move forward in time and are presented with information on European arrival and how Europeans adopted the aboriginal means of transportation to explore the continent, and of course there is a section on the Hudson Bay Company and some of the enormous craft that were used by voyageurs to conduct trade across the continent.

We move forward in time and see examples of canoes perhaps a hundred years old engineered and built from wood strips.  And move forward again to see modern craft designed for Olympic competition.  There are even some Olympic craft including one of gold medalist Adam van Koeverden's.

No Canadian Canoe Museum would be complete without mention of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's love of the canoe, something which he managed to pass along to his son our current Prime Minister.  I still remember the news clip of Justin Trudeau out for an early morning paddle prior to a debate leading up to the last federal election in which he became Prime Minister - I saw that at the time and thought "wow, he sure is a good paddler".  I do not agree with a lot of his politics but he sure as heck is an accomplished paddler!

And of course even moreso than mention of former Prime Minister Trudeau no Canadian Canoe Museum could possibly be complete without a section on Bill Mason, whose series of instructional canoe videos by the National Film Board are truly iconic, and some 40 years after they were originally released are still the best instructional videos you can find online.  The Bill Mason display includes of course the very canoe that he used in those videos - what a treat!

One of the neat parts of the museum that was a bit of a surprise and contrary to what you find in a lot of museums was that there are a lot of "hands on" displays where they encourage you to touch and feel.  There was a birch bark canoe with a taught leather cover over it which served as a drum that you were allowed to play.  In the section about trading and European settlers there were a bunch of examples of period clothing that you were encouraged to try on.  In the section on modern craft there is a kayak simulator with a sit-on component and a computer screen with an avatar that you drive with your paddling on the simulator.  Of course there were also a lot of "hands off" displays so please be careful to read each display!

Another interesting section is the workshop that is run by Russ Parker, paddling enthusiast and volunteer.  I had the pleasure of spending 10 or 15 minutes talking to Mr Parker who answered a lot of questions about the craft he was building.  He builds light-weight wood-frame canoes and kayaks with a thin skin of either polyester or ballistic nylon.  He told me the ballistic nylon is almost indestructible as a skin, and that there is next to nothing you will ever find on flatwater that will puncture it.

For anyone travelling between Ottawa and Toronto, or anywhere in between, I would strongly recommend you take the milk run through Peterborough instead of the quicker route along the 401 corridor.  The drive is a lot more scenic, and the Canoe Museum is definitely worth spending a few hours.  One thing we neglected to do while in town was check out the Peterborough Lift Lock - next time we'll definitely go check it out.


This blog entry was barely up for an hour when it was pointed out that the museum is currently fundraising for a new home next to the Peterborough Lift Lock.  That brings to mind another thought I had about the current museum is that a canoe museum really should be on the water, and this one was not.  To find out more about the proposed new home and how to donate towards it, please visit this link.


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