Canoes are Canada's history

This historic, massive canoe from the days of Canada’s great fur trade is on display at the...

This historic, massive canoe from the days of Canada’s great fur trade is on display at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont.

PERCY ROWE -- Special to Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:26 AM ET

The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough is the largest of its kind in North America, probably the world.

Yet it is unknown. It gets a pitiful 20,000 visitors a year. It should have 200,000. The paddle is at least 1,000 years older than the hockey stick. The canoe is a national icon. Without it, the country would never have been opened up.

The museum is in a building donated by Evinrude, a maker of outboard motors. The building is several times larger than Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. It needs to be. The museum owns 600 canoes, kayaks and dugouts. Only about 50 are displayed.

Those in storage include South Sea island outriggers and other self-propelled boats from many parts of the world.

The collection started when Kurt Wipper, a director of physical education at the University of Toronto, was given a 1890s dugout. Wipper was a canoeist who operated a boys' summer camp at Kandalore, near Dorset.

He received other old canoes as gifts. That's when he decided to start a museum, originally in three buildings at Kandalore. There, he had a young American strip trees for bark and create a canoe for the edification of visitors. He was Rick Nash, who had recently arrived, with a young wife and boy at Kandalore in the heart of the Canadian Shield from -- get this --downtown Manhattan. Nash's canoe is in the Peterborough museum to which all the craft and artifacts were transferred in the '90s -- Peterborugh and nearby Lakefield being the hub of canoe building for over a century.

The museum shows that while the canoe was used for the fur trade and exploring, it was also used for prospecting, policing, proselytizing (by Jesuits from the 1600s and many missionaries afterwards.) It does not mention prostitution, but those tough early voyageurs died young of two causes. One was hernia caused by carrying 40-kilo packs (sometimes two) over the 150 portages between Montreal and Fort Chipewyan in the Far West. The other was syphilis, from dalliances along the way.

The museum does point out that those couriers du bois needed 5,000 calories a day, which meant that half a cargo canoe's load of about 1,600 kilos, loaded to the gunwales, was pemmican, just to feed them. It is a trove of tidbits like that. A large West Coast dugout comes with an explanation that the midships was widened as much as 15% by filling it with steaming rocks, and that dried shark fin was used to sand the craft.

Some of these canoes are not puny. One, The Bluebird, built by a Salish Indian for its speed, is 16 metres long. Such leviathans were used to harpoon grey whales in the Pacific, and there are old black and white photos to prove it. At the other end of the scale, a modern collapsible canoe on display would go in the trunk of a large car.

There are, too, a sailing canoe, racing canoes, and oddest of all, "The Comfort Courting Canoe," complete with drinks cabinet and gramophone for romantic music. However, hanky-panky in the early 1900s was only allowed to go so far. All this paraphernalia was between the bow, where she sat, primly, backwards, to face him, amidships, using up his hormones, paddling.

The museum is as much of Canadian history as of canoes. There are model kayaks, as built from the Bering Sea to Greenland; an actual kayak under construction, an Indian camping ground complete with teepee; a reproduction of a Hudson's Bay Company trading post; decorated paddles, videos, exhibits devoted to William and Mary Commanda, of Quebec's Gatineau Valley, who built at least 100 canoes by hand; and renowned canoeists, like Bill Mason and Eric Morse.

But none of this gets quite the attention as a glass case containing the paddle, photo, gloves and buckskin jacket of that well-known modern canoeist, Pierre Trudeau.

Admission is $6.50 adults, $5 seniors and students, $18, family. Call 1-888-342-2663 for more information.