PATH OF THE PADDLE

THE CONTRARIAN

Have you seen the ad? It’s in all the glossy magazines, even the ones on the airplanes, it’s on all the television networks in Switzerland, Germany, eastern Europe, even France and Italy, and of course Britain.   It runs in Hong Kong and Japan.   It features lots of spectacular colour pictures of our northwestern landscape, water and wildlife.  Its text runs something like this.

 

*   *    *    *

Travel the Path of the Paddle! See Canada as the explorers saw it!  Test yourself against Mother Nature in all her glory!

 

Your voyage starts at Fort William, a fur-trading fort recreated faithfully to its 1812 heyday, near the present day city of Thunder Bay. There you will meet your native guide, and be introduced to your canoe.  Travel on unspoiled rivers and over pristine lakes just as the native people did for centuries, all the way to Lower Fort Garry, another restored fur trader’s fort near the modern city of Winnipeg.

 

Your wilderness adventure can take a month or more, if you paddle all the way. Many people choose to traverse the big lakes by luxury yacht, cutting weeks off the time, without missing any scenery.  Those in a hurry can do the whole route by fast hovercraft, or your travel agent can mix and match the modes of travel to suit your time available and fitness level.

 

Stay each night at a five-star lodge, or rough it and camp under the stars as the voyageurs did.  Interrupt your travel with a stay at a Canadian Fishing Lodge, where guides will make sure you catch trophies, then carry on.  Portage your canoe as a test of your physical condition, or ride an air-conditioned bus to bypass the waterfalls and rapids that were such an obstacle to the voyageurs.  See spectacular northern lights.  See the wildlife in its natural setting.  See ancient native meeting grounds, rock paintings, and modern native life.

 

The whole route is undeveloped wilderness, but modern amenities are never more than a few hours away (a few minutes by helicopter), so that the less fit can enjoy the trip without worrying about medical problems.

 

Daily jet flights to Winnipeg and Thunder Bay’s modern international airports make your travel arrangements easy.   Modern towns with travel facilities are accessible as you go, so the trip can also be done in stages.

 

*   *    *    *

 

You haven’t heard anything about such ads? Of course not, they will be running in 2025.  That is, if we can put aside our petty differences and start developing the Path of the Paddle into the world-class tourist attraction it ought to be.

 

You haven’t heard of Path of the Paddle? That’s disappointing, but not surprising, our leaders, our press; our tourist promotion agencies have done a good job of ignoring it.  The Path of the Paddle is our section of the TransCanada Trail.  The authorities decided a walking path, as in the rest of Canada, would be too difficult, and a canoe ‘trail’ would be more doable and more interesting.  It is still not much more than an idea, maps, a few signs, and volunteers busy improving campsites and portages along the way.  It is high time tourist promotion agencies such as Sunset Country and even municipal agencies and governments started promoting it.  Build some traffic and the 5 star lodges will follow.

 

After all, we have as much to offer as cruises in Russia or up the Amazon, all we need is the leadership.

 

 

PATH OF THE PADDLE PART 2

I occasionally watch ‘Cubbies adventures’ on TV; it is quite entertaining to us old folk who can no longer go adventuring in the woods, and sometimes it’s the best that Shaw cable has to offer. Anyway, one day last winter Cubby gave me quite a surprise. He came across a sign out near Eagle Lake saying ‘Path of the Paddle’, and he seemed completely at a loss as to what it meant.  That is why I commented last column that it is not surprising that most people have never heard of ‘Path of the Paddle’.

Path of the Paddle is the present, not the history I usually write about. But it does have a story that I think is worth telling, and I will try to do that, if I get it wrong, I hope you will write the editor and tell him so.

If you drive the TransCanada at all, you must have noticed folks trekking across the country, walking, bicycling, pulling a wagon, riding a horse or donkey or otherwise unusual vehicle; a great, international- class adventure. Sometimes they travel with a pup tent, which you might see pitched in some very unlikely spots, no doubt where the traveller ran out of wind for the day.  Many of these folks will be community leaders some day, many are international, and admittedly some are more like ‘Knights of the Road’, trying to survive in a world too complex for them.  They all literally have their lives in their hands, especially east of Ignace on that little one foot wide ‘paved shoulder’ the Ministry thinks is enough.  They would be terrified if they knew how sleepy the drivers of the herds of trucks surging within inches of their handlebars or donkey’s ears really are.  I am sure very few go away with positive memories of Northwestern Ontario, so that ought to be a concern to us.

In more densely populated parts of the country, local volunteers have been cleaning up abandoned roads and rail right-of-ways to make Hiking Trails. A great community success story, a walk of say 10 miles to the next town is a great outing in Mother Nature.  Activists have been plumping to expand this success, link these community trails up all across Canada, and capitalize on that Cross-Canada traffic we see on our highway.

Government response was to set up a body to promote a ‘Trans Canada Trail’. A northwestern Ontario committee was struck, and local people did a lot of work, I know that Dryden’s Vicki Kurz and Ignace’s Dennis Smyk were involved, along with many others.  But our communities are too far apart, and our people already have access to miles of wilderness trails, so there aren’t nearly enough local volunteers to create and operate a hiking trail the way they do it in more civilized parts of the country.  Even worse, while there are lots of abandoned roads which could be made into a trail, they do not connect up.  There is a lot of water to cross, and bridges and boardwalks would have to be built (what an opportunity for some truly sensational swinging bridges).  So a hiking trail would involve major construction dollars, and the no-cost, volunteer-driven model will not work.  More next week.

 

PATH OF THE PADDLE, PART 3

We were looking at how the TransCanada Trail in our area was the precarious shoulder of highway 17, and a Northwestern Ontario committee was working on how to fix that. Eureka, they did come up with an idea.

Back in the day, every summer the Department of Lands and Forests would lay on a crew of ‘Junior Rangers’, teenage boys who would work in the bush and get some real life experience and become men. One of the things this crew did was maintain the canoe portages, places where canoes could be transferred from one body of water to another.  And there were lots of portages; we have myriads of lakes, more than anywhere in the world, and canoeists could and did travel all over the district ever since antiquity.  There is a spot on the Turtle River which appears to have been used back in the stone age as a meeting ground for periodic large assemblies of people from as far away as perhaps New Orleans; all came by canoe.

I have an excellent auto-biographical book called “The Trapper”, by Phillip Sawdo, from the Suzanne River band. He matter-of-factly reports his amazing canoe journeys all over our district 80 or so years ago.  If I ever get it back from those I have lent it to, I will donate it to the Dryden Library as it is an important part of our local history.

Junior Rangers are no more, and the canoe is no longer the major means of travel, so no maintenance is being done on the portages. City folk would be surprised at how fast the forest reclaims clearings, and many of these portages are completely regrown and not even visible.

So, the trail committee’s idea was, what if we had a water route for our section of the TransCanada Trail? What if we improve and restore portages from Lake of the Woods through area lakes all the way to Old Fort William, and put up signs so strangers could actually find their way?  Most of the portages would be close to existing communities, so there would be services available to canoe trekkers.  There are lots of local canoe enthusiasts who would work as volunteers to make it happen.

Eventually, the TransCanada Trail body accepted this concept. It wouldn’t be of much help to the guy riding his bicycle or his donkey across Canada, donkeys make poor canoe passengers, but at least it would fit the mould as there were local volunteers and governments would not have to spend very much money. And it adds a distinctly Canadian flavour to our National Trail.  They decided this section of the TransCanada Trail would be called “The Path of the Paddle”.

So now there are groups of volunteers all along the way, quietly working away putting up signs and restoring portages and campsites, unsung heroes. The local group is headed by Jack Harrison, and Garth Gillis is diligently working on an on-line Traveller’s Guide for canoeing in our area which is attracting international attention.  So, Cubbie, the sign you saw was a trail marker so the guy from, say, Germany, paddling across the district, has some hope of finding his way.  I am sure you agree that “Path of the Paddle” is a great choice for a name for this National canoe route.

The Path of the Paddle –  a national treasure, if we can just put aside our petty differences and start developing it into the world-class tourist attraction it ought to be.

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