Is the canoe the ultimate, ahem, pleasure-craft?

Bow of a canoe in a dramatic sunset Photo by anthony heflin / Shutterstock

For as long as couples have paddled together, there has been a bit of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge undercurrent to the fine art of canoeing. It was the late Pierre Berton who was credited with the line—though he later denied it was his—“A true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping.” But it is my friend and master paddler Phil Chester who claims—and would never deny—that “anyone can make love in a canoe. It’s a Canadian who knows enough to take out the centre thwart!” The romantic canoe is really not so much a story of desperation and innovation as it is the result of happy coincidence. The canoe as a recreational vehicle was born in the Victorian era of strict morals and behaviour. But it was also a time in which the concepts of romance and marriage were taking a dramatic shift.

Marriage in Great Britain and much of North America ceased to be as much about necessity, convenience, or arrangement and became, instead—in no small part because of idle time, urbanization, literacy, and the rise of popular, romantic novels—more about two people finding each other and, over time, falling in love.

Courtship became an accepted prelude to marriage, but the Victorian era tended to treat courtship as a potentially wild animal to be caged, or else. Young couples could meet in the parlour under family, usually parental, supervision. They could sit on the front porch so long as a chaperone, often an elderly relative, was included. At later stages, they might even go for a walk in the park—if a guardian accompanied them. Privacy, in those days, was something reserved for marriage.

However, the human condition is such that ways around this restriction were eagerly sought. The bicycle became a wildly popular vehicle for courtship since older chaperones either could not ride or could not keep up. According to Can I Canoe You Up the River?: The Story of Paddling and Romance, a delightful little book by John Summers, published by the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., the canoe was an even better option, with no room for a chaperone, and carrying, for older people, a built-in fear factor of tipping. A bicycle might take a courting couple into a park, but a canoe allowed them to slip into a hidden cove or under the curtain branches of a willow. 

There was, all the same, a strong sense in Victorian society that canoeing, by its very nature, was pretty much guaranteed to be an innocent activity. “If I was a gal,” says the narrator in the 1855 book Nature and Human Nature by Nova Scotian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton, “I’d always be courted in one, for you can’t romp there, or you’d be upset. It’s the safest place I know of.” Many chaperones felt the same. And many young lovers were just as happy to let them think that.

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It became perfectly acceptable for young men and women to spend time together in canoes. Much of this had to do with the rise of canoe clubs in the late 1800s. They were particularly popular in the United States and as much given to social activities as they were to actual paddling. Whole families joined, which brought together unmarried young men and women. There were also fortuitous, and significant, changes in women’s fashion. Split skirts and bloomers gave women far more freedom of movement, as they were no longer forced to sit sidesaddle on horses and were now able to pedal a bicycle and step easily into a canoe.

Canoe manufacturers were quick to move on the possibility that their products could be useful for more than hunting, fishing, and racing in regattas. Sleek vehicles known as “courting canoes” became quite fashionable. The man could paddle and his companion could lounge and relax, taking in the scenery and, of course, avoiding the sun. Some canoes had fixtures in which she could stand her parasol. Others, somewhat later, came with fold-up gramophones capable of playing the popular 78 RPM records of the day. The 1970s may have had their “shaggin’ wagons,” but the 1890s had courting canoes. No records exist of their relative success rates.

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In the spring of 2014, the Canadian Canoe Museum opened a popular and entertaining exhibition, which ran for almost a year, called “Can I Canoe You Up the River?” The title, taken from an old Arthur Godfrey song, is as harmless on one level as it is suggestive on another—as was much of the exhibition itself. One of the fascinating aspects of the show was the collection of illustrations and postcards tied to the phenomenon, with a frisson of risque-ness that increased over the years. The subtext of one postcard portraying a couple paddling below the line “I’d like to paddle your canoe,” is, well, unmistakable.

In the background of the museum’s exhibition, the curators put up a screen to show old clips of romantic movies that featured the canoe, including one with a singing Nelson Eddy as the badpaddling Mountie Sergeant Bruce and Jeanette MacDonald as the damsel in distress in 1936’s Rose-Marie (“Oh sweet Rose-Marie, it’s easy to see / Why all who learn to know you, love you / You’re gentle and kind, divinely designed / As graceful as the pines above you”). There were also photographs of Marilyn Monroe posing with a Mountie and a canoe while filming the movie River of No Return in Banff in 1953.

And then, of course, there are the songs, the canoe once being as familiar in the day’s popular tunes as hurtin’ is to country music, as in this popular tune from 1913: “In my canoe / You’ll find some nice soft pillows / In my canoe / We’ll hide among the willows close by the shore where no one can see / I’ll cuddle you and snuggle you if you’ll cuddle me.”

All that, obviously, is not only corny but also tame. There was a different standard between the safe, innocent songs and the suggestive postcards. There is even one cartoon found in the museum’s collection of a man and a very buxom woman hanging desperately on to the sides of an overturned canoe, with the line “We learned one thing—it can’t be done in a canoe!”

But, of course, it can. Canadians don’t need Pierre Berton or Phil Chester to tell them that it is possible—who knows how many of us were “launched” in a Chestnut or a Peterborough or an Old Town—and is considered, for many North Americans, an important rite of passage among those who know that length and girth are measures in cedar, as well.

It has been more than a century since Queen Victoria’s passing. To say times have changed is an understatement, as a couple of years back Cosmopolitan magazine even offered up specific “Erotic Instructions” for the art of “canoodling” in the very vehicle the act is named after.

No need to go into details here, and perhaps, as well, no real need to pass on the “Cosmo Hint” that went along with the instructions: “To play it supersafe, make sure you only go out on a calm lake where you can swim to shore.”

This story was published as part of “The Original Love Boat” in the Early Summer 2015 issue of Cottage Life. Roy MacGregor had more to say about courting canoes in his book, Canoe Country, published in September 2015 by Random House Canada.

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