Canoe Country by Roy MacGregor – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

Canoe Country by Roy MacGregor 001Canoe Country is the latest offering by author and columnist Roy MacGregor raised in the heart of canoe country in Algonquin Park and Huntsville, Ontario. I admit to a bias towards the topic of the canoe. As a young woman, I was the camp nurse at Ahmek, a Taylor Statten camp for boys on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Two of the happiest summers of my life. There I was taught to canoe by famed paddler Omer Stringer who used to stop by the camp to give canoeing demonstrations. I have always thought of the canoe as an elegant craft, physically beautiful, simple, silent and able to take you places you cannot reach by road or motorboat – perfect for wildlife watching.

Mr. MacGregor raises the canoe, considered humble by some, to the status of a Canadian icon. So central does he think it to the idea and experience of Canada that he nominated it as one of the seven wonders of Canada in the CBC contest for which he was a judge. The book explores his reasons, jumping from chapter to chapter among historical experience, the pleasures and fear of whitewater canoeing, women who canoe, and an exploration of the craft itself.

Some of the stories are relatively recent. He recounts the tale, which appeared in national newspapers, of the return by Graham Fraser, now Commissioner of Official Languages, to the spot where a memorial had been erected to his father who drowned on the Petawawa River in 1968. The mission was to re establish the small monument which had been torn up and thrown away by a passing visitor.

Other stories are historical – the recruitment of 389 voyageurs to an expeditionary force in 1884 whose goal was rescue General Charles Chinese Gordon from the Mahdi attack in Sudan by paddling down the Nile. The trip was a lesson in poor planning and crisis management by the British officers in charge and the group arrived two days too late to save General Gordon and the city.

Mr. MacGregor revives the names and exploits of some of the great explorers and canoeists in Canada: David Thompson who, in 1811 canoed the length of the  Columbia River to its mouth in the Pacific Northwest, thus opening a trade route from interior Canada to the sea; Bill Mason, iconic canoeist, writer and film maker and canoeing friend of Pierre Elliott Trudeau; Omer Stringer, expert canoeist, canoe maker and teacher who ran a camp in Algonquin Park, and a host of others. He also lionizes some of the great canoe companies and their iconic birchbark, cedar strip or cedar and canvas canoes: Chestnut, Beaver Canoe and Peterborough, as well as canoe makers: William Commanda, Rollin Thurlow, Walter Walker and others.

The canoe was central to the opening of Canada by the great explorers as it was the only mode of transportation that could penetrate the dense forests and rushing rivers  of eastern Canada. In Mr. MacGregor’s view, it is also an essential element of the Canadian rhythm of life – an alternation between civilization and wilderness.

Roy MacGregor is, as he has always been, a compelling story teller. Algonquin Park is central to his sense of life in Canada as he spent much of his childhood there. In Life in the Bush, he recounts the life of his father who spent his entire working life in the Park and in Northern Light he explores the life of Canadian  painter Tom Thomson who drowned in Canoe Lake in 1917. Canoe Country  is really a series of vignettes, each exploring an aspect of the canoe, its history, use, making and the satisfying experience of a canoe trip, particularly through whitewater. This is a book that will appeal to those who love the Canadian wilderness and the canoe, but will also be a bit of an eyeopener to those urbanites who have never experienced either.

Canoe Country is published by Random House of Canada