The Old Canoe
The canoe is a characteristic and iconic Canadian cultural symbol.
Our inland waterways were our first highways: we travelled by boat and canoe in summer, often by snowshoe or even dogsled over frozen rivers and lakes during winter. In the spring came the dramatic log drives: lumberjacks driving logs and timber rafts downriver to the towns.
First Nations people, early European explorers and French-Canadian Voyageurs travelled our waterways from Atlantic Canada to the shores of the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.
And we loved it.
Grey Owl once wrote, “Give me a good canoe, a pair of Jibway snowshoes, my beaver, my family and 10,000 square miles of wilderness and I am happy.”
Avid canoeist and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote, “Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute — paddle a hundred miles in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.” It’s a quote you’ll often find proudly hanging framed on the wood panelled walls of our nation’s canoe and boating clubs.
As Justin Trudeau has since said, “My Dad taught us Trudeau boys how to paddle a canoe pretty much as soon as we could walk…” 
Although they may never have met, American George Marsh and the young Englishman Archie Belaney both first traveled the forest paths and waterways of the Temiskaming area of Northern Ontario around 1906. They both fell in love with this North Woods land of wildlife, evergreens, lakes and rivers. Both would later spill their love and experiences of this haunting wilderness into the written word. Marsh, as a poet, short story writer and novelist, would catch the rough romance of the Northcountry. And Belaney, known as Grey Owl, would gain worldwide fame as the chronicler of its endangered wildlife.
And both became favourites of mine in boyhood.
George Marsh started by publishing poems in Scribner’s Magazine, like his impassioned IN THE ZOO:
See! there a golden eagle broods
With glazed, unseeing eyes
That never more will sweep the snows
Where blue Sierras rise…
What dreams of silent polar nights
Disturb the white bear’s sleep?
Roams he once more unfettered, where
Eternal ice-floes sweep?
George would go on to write such popular Northwestern novels as FLASH THE LEAD DOG and THE WHELPS OF THE WOLF.
His beloved poem THE OLD CANOE first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine (October 1908) and was reprinted at the beginning of his first book, TOILERS OF THE TRAILS (1921), where I first read it, having found the old book in a little second hand shop. And it became a favourite ballad of mine, along with Frederick George Scott’s THE UNNAMED LAKE and Robert W Service’s CLANCY OF THE MOUNTED POLICE.
We’ve long celebrated the Canoe in artwork, story and song. Listen…
THE OLD CANOE – A Classic Canadian Song by George Marsh
My seams gape wide so I’m tossed aside
To rot on a lonely shore
While the leaves and mould like a shroud enfold,
For the last of my trails are o’er;
But I float in dreams on Northland streams
That never again I’ll see,
As I lie on the marge of the old portage
With grief for company.
When the sunset gilds the timbered hills
That guard Timagami,
And the moonbeams play on far James Bay
By the brink of the frozen sea,
In phantom guise my Spirit flies
As the dream blades dip and swing
Where the waters flow from the Long Ago
In the spell of the beck’ning spring.
Do the cow-moose call on the Montreal
When the first frost bites the air,
And the mists unfold from the red and gold
That the autumn ridges wear?
When the white falls roar as they did of yore
On the Lady Evelyn,
Do the square-tail leap from the black pools deep
Where the pictured rocks begin?
Oh! the fur-fleets sing on Temiskaming
As the ashen paddles bend,
And the crews carouse at Rupert House
At the sullen winter’s end;
But my days are done where the lean wolves run,
And I ripple no more the path
Where the gray geese race cross the red moon’s face
From the white wind’s Arctic wrath.
Tho’ the death fraught way from the Saguenay
To the storied Nipigon
Once knew me well, now a crumbling shell
I watch the years roll on,
While in memory’s haze I live the days
That forever are gone from me,
As I rot on the marge of the old portage
With grief for company.
In 2005, Marsh’s THE OLD CANOE was put to music by D Bain, for the album SONGS FOR WILDERNESS. Adapting the second, fourth and fifth verses, D Bain, A Marcon, Maddog Bob and R Munn have recreated one of the great old Canadian ballads. When asked about “missing a verse,” they replied, “Yep…knew that….couldn’t get past ‘the cow moose’ line without breaking up…so we left it out!”
To hear their rendition, go to THE OLD CANOE… A great Canadian Camp Song! You’ll love it!
To read more about the life and literary works of George Marsh, go to Wolf Whelps & Lead Dogs: Tribute to George Marsh, Wilderness Writer
==>> To see more about my favourite writers of the Wilderness and the Northlands, go to THE LIFE AND WORKS OF BRIAN ALAN BURHOE Right Here, Mon Ami!
NOTE ON ARTWORK: The painting at the top of this page — “On Leapt the Canoe Like a Runaway” — is by Frank E Schoonover, 1924, illustrating a story by George Marsh. The lower painting is by Canadian artist Arthur Heming, capturing voyageurs of the Fur Brigade taking a smoke break in their six fathom canoes after hours of hard paddling. “The soft rich voices of the crews blended as they quietly chatted and joked…”
 From a campaign speech delivered in Vancouver, British Columbia, by Justin Trudeau. Justin went on to say, “And like many Canadians, I’ve spent loads of summer nights out under the stars, beside a campfire, getting eaten alive — my Dad never believed in bug spray. But I’ve always believed that when it comes to our environment, we Canadians get it. We appreciate its beauty, understand its dangers and know its value.”
In an article for Cottage Life, Justin wrote: “When we hit five or six years old, our dad would put us into the canoe and we’d shoot the rapids on the stream that went down into Meech Lake. There’s a little dam there, and in the spring they’d open the dam, and there would be a huge V and a standing wave. With much trepidation, we’d sit in the front and go down the drop. I look back on it now and laugh, because my father was sterning, and there was nothing I could do from the bow to aim it right—but it was very, very important for us to do it. To get into the bow of a canoe with my father for the first time, to be the bowman for the first time, and to go down this big, scary rapid.” Cottage Life: Justin Trudeau reflects on his lifelong love affair with the canoe
The Old Canoe – A Classic Canadian Song by George Marsh
Keywords: George Marsh, Grey Owl, Justin Trudeau quote, Mounted Police, Robert W Service, snowshoes, Temiskaming, The Old Canoe, wooden canoe