The versatile canoe, and hats off to paddlers

Canoes, despite their fragility, were for centuries an essential and effective means of transportation for indigenous people throughout North America, including Georgian Bay. Before today’s pace of life with pressures and deadlines, travellers could simply pull into shore to shelter until bad weather let up.

In the early 17th Century, Wendat (Huron) fishing parties would walk from their villages in what is now north Simcoe County to Thunder Beach where their canoes were cached. They then would paddle across open water to Giant’s Tomb Island and beyond to camp among the islands and fish. They also did this farther east around Beausoleil Island.

Then came the Europeans who introduced the fur trade in North America. Also there were the explorers who poked into nooks and crannies all over the continent seeking routes to the Pacific. Their main means of travel were the big freighter canoes associated with the courieur du bois, whose main route in Canada cut across northern Georgian Bay.

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries some individual lumberjacks owned canoes in which they prowled the shores and rivers seeking work at the many logging camps on both Canadian and U.S. sides of the Great Lakes. In his book The Happy Islands, Marlow Shaw describes meeting and briefly travelling with one during his own canoe jaunts on the eastern shore of the Bay.

Early in the 20th Century a courageous housewife on Manitoulin Island left her abusive husband, loaded her young children and possessions into a canoe, and paddled along the north shore, camping where necessary, and then south to Parry Sound. There she started a new life for her little family. Her son, an infant at that time, told me that story many years ago.

From dugouts, birchbark, cedar and canvas, to modern ABS plastic and Kevlar, the versatile canoe lives on at Georgian Bay and throughout the North American wilderness.

YouTube has videos of curious and adventurous men and women using this age-old watercraft (also kayaks) to explore the islands and channels of the Bay. They do so in a very eco-friendly way, striving to leave no footprints behind. They are learning about — and in doing so, greatly appreciate — the real Georgian Bay.

And for that, I salute them.

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