At his son's wedding, "Canada's own Mr. Canoehead, Bill Mason," danced with a canoe on his shoulders, "blasé about poise or whom he might hit in the process." He narrowly missed the bride before someone grabbed a dangling line on his boat and led him outside. Bill Mason certainly intended his display as a gesture of affection for his son, and other guests applauded and hooted for what James Raffan, in his excellent biography of Mason, calls "the spirit of the man". But something else was at work here. The young people, the large encompassing quality of the event, and perhaps Mason's premonitions of his mortality-three days after the wedding he was diagnosed with the disease that took his life, at the age of fifty-nine-were moved into the background. All the attention was on Bill Mason; he might not have been conscious of it, but his gesture was powerfully symbolic of one word: me.
To highlight this incident is unfair to Mason's achievement-his films such as Paddle to the Sea, which speak so eloquently about "our place here", and his classic book Path of the Paddle-and it is unfair to James Raffan's compassionate book, but it undeniably emphasizes a tendency, not just of canoeists, or "adventurers", but of humans, to be unwilling to bear a kind of indifference-in events or larger silences that do not seem to celebrate the individual ego. It is intolerable to many people that the music of the spheres, the great song glimpsed in the cosmos, does not contain more about them.
In the case of canoeists, this.not rebellion, but insecurity, is understandable. In remote places such as the taiga, the landscape can seem a paradise one day: a fairyland with its spire-like spruce, vegetation mats, eskers running like rivers of hope across endless distance; and it can seem the end of the habitable world when cold rainy weather hits. The barrenlands is not merely a poetic name for the tundra.
These reflections are not meant to denigrate what Bill Mason accomplished, nor do I mean to criticize the other courageous people who have written books about ambitious canoe trips and personal quests; they are simply a frame to hold the following books within, a frame that reflects a larger tendency.
For all his accomplishments, Mason was not an extreme canoeist: his gift, and legacy, which Raffan captures beautifully, was to share his enthusiasm, joy-awe is not too strong a word-for wild places and for canoeing with many people. Fire in the Bones is a sensitive, thorough, fitting tribute to the man, his contradictions, and his passions.
Don Starkell is an extreme canoeist. His Paddle to the Amazon detailed a twelve-thousand-mile canoe trip from Winnipeg to South America. His new book Paddle to the Arctic tells of his attempt to paddle a kayak through the Northwest Passage. Accom-panying him for part of the journey was Victoria Jason, who has written her own account of that voyage and of a journey alone, in Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak.
Now even the most casual canoe trip can be a crucible of intensity. Some of the earliest writing on canoeing speaks of this: to get along with your companions, Jean de Brébeuf advised, in 1637, in his Instructions for the Fathers of Our Society Who Shall Be Sent to the Hurons by Canoe, "You must bear their imperfections without saying a word, yes, even without seeming to notice them.... Silence is a good equipment at such a time." If a week in Algonquin Park can threaten friendships, how much more difficult then are euphemistically labelled "personality conflicts" when life and death is at stake. Don Starkell and Victoria Jason are very different people, and there was a profound tension between them. It is outlined early in her book when she puts into dialogue a confrontation in which Starkell tells her she is not his "type". Age, looks, and ego are factors, but it is much more complicated than that. What some might call gossip, others can think of as character delineation-regardless, such conflicts can be the stuff of expeditions, and art.
These very different books-Jason's is more expansive, and discursive-are oddly reminiscent of an earlier "point of view" conflict in canoeing literature: Dillon Wallace's The Lure of the Labrador Wild, which outlined his version of the disastrous Hubbard expedition of 1903, in which he took part, and that of Hubbard's widow, Mina, who interpreted events differently, and who made her own expedition across Labrador, in A Woman's Way through Unknown Labrador.
Starkell did not complete his journey. After three Arctic summers he was eventually rescued by helicopter close to his goal near Tuktoyaktuk, suffering from severe frostbite, which required amputations on all his fingers, his thumbs, and some of his toes. During the second year of their attempt, Victoria Jason had been forced to abandon the trip near Gjoa Haven-they were hauling their kayaks by sled-suffering from edema caused by severe fatigue. Jason, however, returned to the North the following two years and travelled alone from west to east, winding up in Gjoa Haven in 1994.
These outlines do not do justice to the complexities of their relationships, let alone their actual travels. Both writers were struggling for insight. The degree of suffering both found necessary can be called into question, but what they were seeking has to be admired.
In a culture of endless growth and potential, where "seniors" routinely run marathons-it seems to have been forgotten that the whole point of the first marathon, run from Marathon to Athens to state, "Rejoice, we conquer," was that the herald dropped dead after running so far-the physical aspects of their journey do not seem the most important thing, harrowing and impressive as these were. Starkell was approaching sixty during their voyaging, and Jason was a grandmother who had suffered two strokes.
What captivated me most is what they were looking for in the North. Though the vision is always elliptical-Starkell briefly refers to the hurts and wants that had bothered him since childhood, and to his self-esteem and sense of achievement at the end of the book-the yearning silences of the North, a beautiful haunting, hover over them both. To get a full view of what they went through, the two books should be read together; judgements can be made, sides taken, but even if one thinks it misguided, the dignity of their search has to be honoured.
Coke Stop in Emo is another journal of discovery, this time by Alec Ross, who started out from Lachine to follow the route of the Voyageurs, finally winding up at the Fraser River. The title is obviously lighthearted, and the book is broken up into breezy sections, "Know Your Dinosaurs", "That Saucy Earl Porton", "Bushcraft 1", "Canada Day"-many, many of them, to make it easy to read. But underlying Ross's long, historically resonant journey is a young man's. not so much coming-of-age, but coming-to-terms-with-himself story. His country and the people he met-trappers, teachers, farmers, loggers, historians, rednecks, pilots, lawyers, beggars, Metis, atheists, etc.-gave Alec Ross many gifts. He appreciates them, and at the end quotes Stan Rogers's wonderful song about seeking the Northwest Passage: "To find there but the road back home again."
The Great Canoes and French River are both hymns to the beauty of canoes and canoe travel, and of the country they were designed to travel through. The Great Canoes, by the Kwagiutl photographer David Neel, pays fitting homage to the cedar canoes of the Northwest Coast. Combined with the photographs are the words of different people whose lives have been affected by the revival of these boats.
Toni Harting is also a photographer. In canoeing circles he is well-known as the editor of Nastawgan, the quarterly journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association. For all his published canoeing photographs, however, he has a special feeling for the ancient, ghost-filled corridor of the French River, and his book is obviously a labour of love. His photographs here are exceptional, but it is in his text (which is organized around historical periods, as well as containing guides to canoe trips) that his feeling for the river that means so much to him comes through.
Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories is much more than simply a collection of route reports on the rivers and lakes of Canada's far north. History, flora and fauna, archaeology-context is the strength of this book. There are eight appendices, including a bibliography. One hesitation: although the book explicitly states that the reports on canoe routes are guides only, and that each of them has been compiled by at least three paddlers who have travelled the route, the variability of conditions in the NWT cannot be overemphasized. Like the perverse satisfaction in discovering "the map was wrong," this unpredictability is a "surprise" that canoeists can do without. Alex Hall, a wildlife biologist who has guided trips in the NWT since 1974, has told me he always displays a "healthy skepticism" about trip reports: "Things vary." Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories does gives this warning, and it is a comprehensive, inclusive, invaluable work. Still, information has its limits, and the point about conditions varying deserves emphasis (mine).
Canoeists approach their voyaging in different ways. Some "bag" rapids, the way certain mountain climbers bag peaks. Others seem not to travel, but to compute mileage and distance: almost as if they didn't want to be distracted, and have to look around and realize where they are. I have met some canoeists who approach canoe travel the way certain trust fund travellers used to approach living in places like Morocco and Peru: if the natives lived on ten cents a day it was a point of pride to live on six cents a day. This makes canoeists less welcome in some communities than hunters and other tourists. One outfitter told me that canoeists either "don't need any help, or if they do, need too much." But for all this no-one who travels in a canoe-it's the very nature of the craft-can do so without a sense of, well, the poetic.
This sense of canoe travel has been captured by Walfried Jansen in Not a Prairie River. There are some luminous poems in this book, as well as a deep feeling for place and for the history of the northern Manitoba Rivers where Jansen paddled. One ironic note: he uses a quote from Kipling as the epigraph to his book, "Something lost behind the ranges,/lost and waiting for you. Go!" This is the very passage that inspired the Hubbard expedition on to failure and death. Yet Jansen has found what he was looking for in the treeline and tundra, and he expresses it with passion and craft.
Canoeing puts those who do it in touch with something very old, in spite of the discomfort and dangers that go with it-dangers can be avoided but not some discomfort-in touch with a sense of something that may seem like fantasy or illusion, which cannot quite be grasped: a sense of an inviolable.not beauty, but peace. Words fail. Canoeing does give one a sense of human limits, and however indifferent seems the northern sky that looks down on canoeists, the same sky that has somehow ignored the destruction of the middle class, the current clearcutting of the rain forest, the latest advances in gene splicing, and the release of dozens of new movies and books, that same sky is guaranteed to look down on the writers of books on canoeing, and their reviewers, with a remote, if splendid, blessing.
M. T. Kelly's latest novel, Out of The Whirlwind, was recently released in paperback. Much of it takes place on a canoe trip.