I’ve been around canoes for a long time, arguably even in utero. This was courtesy of my parents, who met when they both worked at a YMCA camp in the 1950s. I won’t go as far as Farley Mowat and claim that I was conceived in a canoe, but insofar as the relationship that brought me into the world began and flourished at Camp Widjiwagan on the shore of Burntside Lake, and my father-to-be was in charge of the out-tripping department, I might say I was at least conceived of around canoes.
Like a lot of kids, I went to camp for several summers in my early teens. I knew I was going to camp, but when I arrived I was disappointed to find out that I was also going to church, whether I liked it or not, and that I had to learn to walk like an Indian to get to there. My appreciation of the inevitable lecture about the Great Spirit and the singing of Kum-Ba-Yah was always undercut by a pretty strong feeling, at least in an jumbled, inchoate 12-year old way, that nature, far from enfolding me in her bosom and the oneness of all creation, really didn’t give a damn, and would just as happily have me for lunch as refresh my mind and spirit.
A lot of my discomfort around the rituals and philosophy of camp had to do with Indians. Not real First Nations, mind you, not actual living, breathing people you could talk to, but the Indian that I, the middle class urban white kid, was expected to become while I was at camp. We learned quickly that it wasn’t an option to go into the woods or into a canoe as ourselves, since we were expected to learn Indian “lore” and “ways” as a rite of passage and an introduction to the mystery. I can lay a lot of this at the feet of Ernest Thompson Seton, whose late 19th and early 20th advice on character formation and masturbation avoidance for young men borrowed heavily from a free-floating, heavily-idealized notion of Indian life, outlined in classic works like The Book of Woodcraft (1912, 1921), The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians and (perhaps my favourite title) How Boys Can Form a Band of Indians.
Texts for training the future defenders of the empire, these books combined instructions for parts of your body you were supposed to touch and parts you weren’t with paeans to the Noble Savage and confirmation of the inherent rightness of muscular Christianity. As Seton ever-so-earnestly maintains in The Book of Woodcraft, “. . .more nations have been wiped out by sex abuse than by bloody war. The nation that does not bring up its youth with pure ideals is certainly going to destruction.” (p. 240). If Krupp had manufactured sex toys and dirty magazines instead of artillery, the Germans might have won the war! I can only wonder what became of those lost souls who not only didn’t want to pretend to be an Indian but did want to abuse themselves, and in the woods, no less. They were probably beyond redemption. Imitate the Indians and learn to walk softly on the earth but for goodness’ sake don’t touch yourself because you’ll contribute to the collapse of western civilization.
This philosophy bothered me then and it hasn’t gotten any better in the many years since I last went to summer camp. As an urban white kid, I knew that I couldn’t have become an Indian, or even convincingly acted like one, if I tried for 100 years. Maybe it was just because I suspected that the truth of “the Indian way” wouldn’t manifest itself to non-believers like me, the way only the faithful can see the image of the virgin on the wall of the carwash, or maybe it was because I just didn’t have Grey Owl’s duplicitous sangfroid or his desire to pass in someone else’s culture. I also didn’t want to learn to walk like an Indian in the woods. The woods were fine, to a point, but couldn’t I just learn to walk through them as myself?
The most discomfiting part of the whole experience was unfortunately supposed to be the highlight: the grand council fire. This reminded me of my childhood’s big Sunday roast beef dinners, presented as a treat, and an expensive one at that, for which we were expected to be grateful, but which I usually spent most of the meal trying to re-arrange on my plate to make it look as if I’d eaten some of it. The core of the council fire experience was sitting around a campfire with a bunch of other kids like myself, led through ersatz myth and ritual by a university professor who, for the evening, had turned himself into a great chief who had travelled across the lake in his underwater canoe to lead us in a council fire and tell us legends. This wasn’t my culture, for sure, and it was a little embarrassing to be play-acting at someone else’s, even for an evening. I mean, it wasn’t as if we’d actually sat down and talked about Canada’s First Nations, and who they were, or how they related to canoes and canoeing and the landscape and natural world or, heaven forbid, even had a real Indian come and talk to us directly. This wouldn’t have been possible anyways because there weren’t any Indians around summer camp, at least not the one I went to. This wasn’t thoughtful study, it was a redface minstrel show, and I had to take part whether I liked it or not. It was even worse than skit night.
Much as I enjoyed certain aspects of summer camp (canoes, boats, horses, water, occasionally the dining hall), there were also other parts that were just horrifying. You never knew when you were going to be pounced on and organized into an activity by an overly-cheerful counselor. The most intense of these people were like a combination of the briskly-efficient nurse who tells you, even as she’s pulling on her rubber gloves, that “it won’t hurt a bit and bend over and cough please” and the activity director from a senior citizens’ bus trip. That kind of aggressive cheerfulness, which can’t abide dis-organized, non-group activity, always made me want to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. The fact that the most aggressively-promoted of these activities took place in groups only made it worse. I worked very hard at perfecting my own version of “capture the flag,” which I called “find a place to hide until it’s all over.”
The camp I went to was pretty hard core in its approach and old-school in its methods. The older you got, the more you went out on canoe trips and the less time you spent in camp. Canoe trips were carried out in a fleet of wood-canvas canoes. They were probably Chestnuts, though I don’t recall for sure. Elderly they certainly were, and covered in layers and layers of paint and patches, to a point where a canoe that originally weighed maybe 75 lbs dry was probably up in the 90s by the time it was placed on our shoulders. And these weren’t broad and mighty shoulders, either. These were skinny, 12-year old shoulders, at least in my case attached to a body that had grown up well before it had grown out.
On “out-trips,” as these expeditions were called, these canoes were accompanied by a traditional backpack known as the Trapper Nelson. The Trapper Nelson was technically a pack-board, a wooden frame with vertical uprights covered by green duck canvas. You could lash all sorts of things to it, but we usually used it with a bag that was held on by wire passed through screw-eyes that protruded through eyelets in a flap at each side of the bag. The whole thing was made from pine or spruce and waterproofed green canvas, a big rectangular bag with a top flap and green webbing straps. The tops and bottoms of the posts were covered with aluminum caps stapled on, and the whole thing smelled like insect repellent, woodsmoke, wax and dirt. In the grand tradition of the army, whose equipment this pack resembled, they seemed to come most often in two sizes with respect to our young shoulders: too large and too small. Sometimes, on one of the interminable character-building portages we endured, if the counselors weren’t looking and you edged forward or back to the right spot in the canoe you were carrying on your shoulders, the gunwales could be balanced on the posts to transfer the weight to a different part of your anatomy for a moment.
We cursed them when we carried them on portages, but for me these canoes were also the saving grace of the whole summer camp experience. With my abhorrence of structured recreation, which extends in a long and awkward arc from childhood’s forced participation in baseball to a complete lack of interest in team sports as an adult, my favourite part of the day was after dinner when the waterfront was opened for free time. All of the boats in the camp’s motley fleet were fair game, including the old Chestnuts, a down-at-the-heels Klepper folding kayak and several much-patched, high-mileage fiberglass whitewater boats. Once you had passed the swimming test, you could choose any boat you wanted to take out. Better still, you didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else to use it.
The high-liners of the waterfront were the counselors. One of these young men (old to us, but he might have been all of 17) in particular could heel his canoe so far over, paddling solo from the middle of the boat, that the bottom of the gunwale just brushed the still evening surface of the lake. This was cool, and we all strove mightily to imitate him. The further down you could go, and the steadier the canoe was, the higher your status rose. I learned later that this style of paddling was awkwardly known as “Omering” after 1930s canoe guide Omer Stringer, latterly more famous as the eponym of the Beaver Canoe t-shirt and sweatshirt empire. All I knew at the time was that this was the “proper” way to paddle solo.
Later on, I would find words to describe this experience. At university, I would first read of “the still point of the turning world. . .of the still point there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement” and think of how much Eliot’s meditations on equilibrium, equipoise and the continuum of time reminded me of balancing that canoe on the boundary between air and water. I would also learn about hull forms and the turn of the bilge and tumblehome and the physics of how bodies move through water. I even tried to learn naval architecture until I was defeated by math.
At that moment, though, what was most important about paddling those canoes was that it was worth everything I had to put up with to get there: the Indian play-acting, the forced jollity of organized games and “ice-breaker” activities, the occasional Lord of the Flies-style cruelty inflicted when groups of young boys are brought together in close quarters and the pantheistic moralizing of summer camp. On those summer nights, alone in a big old canoe on a quiet lake, I learned that while I didn’t always like playing with other kids, or playing at being other people, or being told what to do and when, I really, really liked playing with boats. I’m still at it.