Canoes can teach young people as much as any textbook.
That’s the idea behind a recent visit to Digby Regional High School by Bear River canoe collector Duff Wilson.
Wilson brought along seven canoes, set them up on stage in the school auditorium and then, with class after class, he walked among the boats and told stories, waving a paddle around for emphasis.
His son, Nick, teaches at DRHS and invited his father to school for a day.
“Canoes played a big part in the culture and history of this area and all of Canada,” said Nick. “And he has a collection and he has the knowledge – it’s his passion.”
Nick says he would have used pictures and powerpoint to teach the same topics – about the settlement and exploration of Canada, about the history and culture of Canada’s First Nations.
“But this way, they get to see the canoes first-hand,” said Nick. “They get to touch them, pick them up.”
Birch bark canoes
His father brought two birch bark canoes and whacked them hard with his paddle to show the students that birch bark canoes are tough.
His older Algonquin canoe is approximately 50 years old and, remarkably, made from one piece of birch bark—meaning the tree it was taken from, near Elliot Lake in Ontario, must have been four feet in diameter and 14 feet high, with no branches.
On the newer, Huron birch bark canoe, Wilson showed the students where two pieces were sewn together using spruce roots.
That boat was built as a fundraiser by Native students under the guidance of Pinook Smith, who was also the builder of the Pierre Trudeau canoe.
Both boats have spruce gum sealing up the stitches. The Algonquin boat is lighter in colour than the Huron one – that, Wilson says, is the difference between bark harvested in the summer (lighter) and winter (darker).
The rarest canoe in his collection is an eight-foot pack canoe.
He also showed the students how the small boats were made to be attached to a pack.
“This left both hands free to set traps and, if the trapper came to a body of water, he paddled across and continued on his way,” said Wilson.
The oldest canoe in the exhibit was a Mi'kmaw style canoe built in Bear River around 1930.
He told the students how the Mi’kmaw paddled these boats on the ocean and hunted porpoise from them.
They built them with a low rounded bow and stern to keep out of the wind, a high mid-section to keep the boats from taking on water in the big swells and a slight dip near the bow and stern to make it easier to haul porpoise aboard.
Rite of passage
Wilson told the story of Sam Gloade, a well-known Mi’kmaw guide, who made a trip by canoe with his parents from Shelburne to Montreal when he was 12 years old.
They built a canoe in Shelburne and paddled up the Silver River to the Sissiboo, on to Weymouth and across Saint Mary’s Bay to Sandy Cove. They then carried it over to the Bay of Fundy.
“What do you think was the greatest threat on the Bay of Fundy?” Wilson asked the students. “Weather? Tides? Sharks. From underneath a canoe looks like a seal, and a lame seal at that.”
They went up the Saint John River, over to Riviere du Loup and down the Saint Lawrence to Montreal - and then back.
“It was a rite of passage,” said Wilson. “When he was done, he had learned much of what he needed to survive in the wilderness, he could build a boat, and he could go anywhere in the world—if you can paddle across the Bay of Fundy, you can paddle anywhere.”
Duff has shown the boats publicly a few times and says people are always fascinated.
“I’ve run into people who had never been in a canoe, never seen a canoe, never owned a canoe, never wanted a canoe, but when they see these boats, they are just fascinated,” he said. “They love the lines, the simple design and how attractive they are. I had one woman, she just couldn’t keep her hands off the birch bark canoe – ‘Oh my, it is so beautiful,’ she said.”
Wilson, himself, can’t seem to resist canoes either. In all, he has 14 collector canoes and another eight he uses more regularly.
“I always liked canoes and if you have one, why not two?” he said. “I liked the stories behind them. Every canoe has a story. Each one you can point out things that are different about them. But, hey, they all do the same job.”
See additional photos online.