When the canoe went mainstream
For me, canoeing first meant something more than wilderness when I saw a man do a handstand on the water. I was twelve, visiting the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, with my family, and I sat spellbound in front of a short film produced by the provincial government in the 1930s. It featured Reg Blomfield, a legendary early twentieth-century paddler, showing off all the tricks he could do in his skinny racing canoe — including handstands.
Thirteen years later, I remember the clip clearly because the culture it showed was at once familiar and mysterious. As a kid, I associated paddling with windy lakes on the Canadian Shield and remote rivers in the North — the kind of imagery that frequently pops up on my Instagram feed today. Canoes had always meant wilderness to me, not showing off in cottage country. Surely, Blomfield’s stunts wouldn’t be much use in remote places. It turns out the cultural difference between wilderness and cottage country might be smaller than I thought.
Jessica Dunkin’s Canoes and Canvas, a portrait of American and Canadian sport canoeing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, helps brings those two worlds together. The illuminating book details Blomfield’s era, while exposing underlying inequities that continue to shape recreational canoe culture.
Dunkin, a paddler and independent scholar based in Yellowknife, focuses on the annual gatherings of the American Canoe Association from 1880 to 1910. Hundreds from across Canada and the U.S. would come together to camp, play, race, and mingle in recreational hot spots across eastern North America. These meetings played a key role in popularizing canoeing as a respectable leisure activity; previously, the canoe had “remained tethered in the minds of many white, middle-class Americans and Canadians to the Indigenous cultures to which it owed its existence.” The ACA gatherings also anticipated a twenty-first-century phenomenon: the deliberate transformation of local people’s homes and workplaces into places open for consumption through recreation and play by well-heeled travellers.
The ACA was founded in 1880 at Lake George, in the Adirondacks, by a group of canoe enthusiasts based in New York and other eastern cities. It emerged when the canoe was undergoing rapid technological change in design and construction methods, as white boat builders adapted Indigenous canoes, turning to cedar-strip and canvas construction techniques that made mass production possible. By the 1870s, clubs were cropping up as new paddlers looked to gather and race.
The sport’s popularity exploded after the Scotsman John “Rob Roy” McGregor published popular travelogues about his journey through Europe’s inland waterways — in an English-built “canoe” modelled on Inuit qajaqs. McGregor’s work was complemented by enthusiastic marketing by several prominent American newspaper editors and paddlers, all eager to transform canoeing into a sport for respectable society. This “whitening” of the canoe marked the beginning of a process that, as Misao Dean and Bruce Erikson have argued in their respective books, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle and Canoe Nation, eventually helped transform the boat into a symbol of Canadian nationalism and unity.
The ACA set out to support “an interchange of opinion” and to broaden “the range of fraternity and good fellowship amongst the knights of the paddle,” by organizing two-week encampments where paddlers from Canada and the U.S. could share ideas, race, show off, and generally have a good time. At first, these annual gatherings moved around from “the weathered mountains of the Adirondacks to the rocky, wooded shorelines of the Canadian Shield and the deciduous forests of the St. Lawrence Lowlands to the soaring Palisades of the Hudson River and the coastal communities of Cape Cod and Long Island.” Eventually, in 1903, the association bought Sugar Island, in the St. Lawrence near Kingston, for a permanent camp.
Early on, the association had strict membership requirements and a formal constitution; it was managed by a hierarchical governing body. Dunkin’s analysis roughly follows this administrative structure to show how the organization’s upper echelons shaped the association — and the sport. Its leaders decided who would be included on the membership rolls (already a self-selecting group because of the relatively high cost of joining the club and purchasing a boat). They selected encampment locations, planned the logistics, and directed members on where to go. They promoted the idea that ACA gatherings were opportunities for leisure and recreation — different places than the home or workplace. And they established rules regulating alcohol consumption, the presence of women, and visitors, particularly those of a lower class. Dunkin’s analysis shows how, despite their comprehensiveness, the regulations were regularly challenged and unevenly enforced.
It’s this relationship — between the rules and real life — that shows how the ACA reinforced the era’s inequities. The association was never (explicitly) about colonization. Regardless, colonial tendencies “worked to ensure that white folk had places to play that were free of Indigenous peoples.” They also reinforced hierarchies of gender, class, and race.
Specifically, Dunkin picks apart how the ACA framed canoeing as a sport for well-off white men. This image was encouraged both formally and informally, through decisions about who could get away with pranks, drinking, and other violations at the encampments, for example. The organization also celebrated its (questionable) occupation of Indigenous lands by crafting stories that (implicitly) delegitimized competing claims.
As Dunkin also shows, the ACA’s photographic and written record mostly hides the carpenters, farmers, chefs, valets, and performers — all working class, and many black, French Canadian, or Indigenous — whose labour was vital for the camps to operate smoothly. Their visual and textual absence helped craft a specific image of North American paddlers. Indeed, as Dunkin points out in her preface, such erasures remain ingrained in contemporary outdoors culture. Paddling is political, even if many paddlers pretend it isn’t.
That said, the encampments weren’t unequivocally bad. They reinforced inequalities, but they were also full of joy and freedom for ACA members. They offered a reprieve from urban drudgery and were places for rest, growth, play, and community. As Dunkin demonstrates, they were problematic but also helped lay the cultural groundwork that has allowed subsequent generations — from Reg Blomfield to me — to find solace in a canoe.
Canoe and Canvas doesn’t resolve the ethical tension it identifies between an individual paddler’s love of the sport and the systemic inequities that are still repeated in contemporary paddling culture. It is, however, an important invitation for paddlers — and other outdoor recreationists — to dig beneath the stories we tell ourselves about where, why, and how we play. We might not like what we find. But it just might be time to start creating new and more equitable narratives.