Is the canoe the most beloved icon of the cottage?

Beautiful canoe in still lake Photo by Pamela Weston / Shutterstock

As it turned out, the first canoe I looked at was the one I bought. Canvas and cedar, red, double-thwarted, 16 ft.: made in Quebec, so I was informed; built from the mould of the old Chestnut Prospector—the canoe favoured by no less an authority than the author and filmmaker and master canoeist the late Bill Mason….Unquestionably, it has proven to be the best buy I ever made. Beautiful, reliable, a pleasure, always, to paddle. It was that rarest of purchases: a thing that proved to be as wonderful in actual use as it promised to be in the store. 

We paddled everywhere—in part because it was a pleasure to do so, and in part because I quickly discovered that the canoe was always more reliable than the noisy, oil-spewing outboard that came with our rented cottage. I noticed that whenever I used the outboard, I ended up with wet feet, or wet groceries, or soggy cardboard cartons of the bottles and tins we were taking in to the Archipelago township’s recycling depots. There was always, no matter how assiduously, and guiltily, I pumped the filthy bilge into the lake, a pan of oily water in the bottom of the boat that was always just as high as the holes in my running shoes. When I used the canoe—as, increasingly and, eventually, exclusively, I did—there was no bilge to pump, no oil to spew, no spark plugs to curse, and everything stayed miraculously dry, including my sneakers and socks.

Two bandaid fixes for outboard engines

…I also noticed that canoeing made us happier than the outboard ever did…But paddling a canoe did become something of a political gesture. In cottage country there is a feud that goes on, sometimes politely, sometimes angrily, between the noisy and the quiet, between the polluters and the environmentally considerate, between the self-absorbed fun-lover and the attentive observer of nature. It is a feud, so I fear, that the good guys are not going to win. Nonetheless, when you paddle a canoe, you cannot help but take a position, doomed as it may be, on these battle lines. It is impossible to start to pay attention to the subtleties of good soloing, for instance—the variations of stroke, the adjustments of the canoe’s angle, the all-important positioning of weight—without drawing the unhappy comparison to the skill-less twist of a PWC’s throttle. It is impossible to silently explore a marshland without realizing how intrusive the sound of an engine would be amid this breathless magic. It is impossible to paddle out to the open of Georgian Bay after dinner to watch the sunset without realizing that the Prospector’s slow, silent, and graceful movement is what allows us to be there, for such an extraordinary moment, without altering anything by the noise, or the discharge, or the speed of our presence. The canoe perfectly suits our reasons for doing what we do every summer. It fits in.  

This essay was originally published in the July/August 1999 issue of Cottage Life.

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