It’s a good time of year to watch some classic canoe films to get you through the winter months between snowshoeing and munching on comfort food. Take some time to download or search YouTube or Vimeo for some quintessential old paddling films. Here are a few of my favourites that are full of canvas packs, wide-brimmed camp hats and plaid shirts.
Across Arctic Ungava
This National Film Board 1949 documentary treads on the heels of four scientists and their Indigenous guides, canoeing into the unmapped wilderness of the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec. Along the way they collect samples of rocks, minerals and rare plant life. It’s a perfect view of early Canadian Arctic exploration and how the canoe was the best mode of transport at the time.
This 1954 film was produced and directed by Roy Dale Sanders for the Minnesota Foundation. It's a classic, and a good reminder of how timeless the messages are about respect for nature and the value of being proficient in wilderness skills. Two paddlers canoe through Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters showing the skills required to travel the interior. It highlights the issues of the day, when campers used spruce boughs for beds and kept orphaned wolf pups for pets. It also shows “new” high-tech gear like a sleeping pad and reflector oven. It’s a must-watch.
Squaretails of Drowning River, Northern Ontario
This ancient “silent film” dates way back to the 1920s. It depicts a group of anglers heading to the Drowning River, a remote waterway draining into Hudson Bay, from northeast of Lake Nipigon. They search out trophy “squaretails,” more commonly known as brook trout. They’re equipped with wood/canvas canoes, bamboo fishing rods, canvas prospector tents and one massive cast iron frying pan. Monster fish are caught, and the rustic northern Ontario landscape is portrayed perfectly. And I must say, I recently paddled this area, and not much has changed since this film was produced.
In 1957, Oscar-winning filmmaker Christopher Chapman headed out on a canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park to work on a film for the Quetico Foundation. It was commissioned by the conservation group to promote the beauty of the park and support the importance to protect it from logging. Bill Mason, who wasn’t yet the iconic Canadian canoeist every paddler grew to love, was Chapman’s “the guy in the red canoe.” The short film follows Mason through Quetico’s rapids and portages, backed by a rich orchestral score—very reminiscent of the 1950s. The film is a true keepsake of this wilderness jewel. It was also on this trip that Mason decided to leave his career as a commercial artist and to become a filmmaker, like Chapman. Quetico can be downloaded off Becky Mason’s (Bill’s daughter) website.
Again The Voyageurs
This old film was a tough one to find but luckily Quirkyfilms recently uploaded it on their YouTube channel in three parts (part 2 here and part 3 here). This footage is of canoeists from a youth camp, paddling voyageur canoes from Thunderbay to Winnipeg in celebration of the 1970 Manitoba Centennial. The recording is poor quality but worth the watch, especially the scenes of the crew portaging heavy loads, wading the giant voyageur canoes up rapids and capsizing in the waves of Lake Winnipeg.
Song of the Paddle
This is one of Bill Mason’s earlier National Film Boards films (1978) where the well-known paddler and filmmaker takes his family on an extended canoe trip in Lake Superior country. The documentary illustrates the pleasures of family time spent out in nature amongst a breathtaking landscape. The end scene of them sailing their canoes across the expanse of water, backdropped by a gorgeous sunset, is mystical and beyond picturesque.
By Pack and Paddle
This gem was recently uploaded to YouTube and remastered for better quality. By Paddle and Pack was produced in 1982 to promote Charles L. Sommers’ National High Adventure Canoe Base. This year marks the Northern Tier High Adventure’s 100th anniversary. The film documents a typical youth canoe trip through Quetico and the Boundary Waters, and along the way it defines the era it was filmed: aluminum canoes, canvas tents… and yes, they even go swimming wearing their combat boots.
The Castle of White Otter Lake
The Castle of White Otter Lake was produced, directed, shot and edited by Peter G. Elliott in 1983 with a meager $12,000 budget. The short documentary tells the true story of Jimmy McOuat who constructed a castle singlehandedly out of red pine logs back in the early 1900s. Countless stories are told of why Jimmy McOuat (pronounced McQuat) built the castle in the first place. The most poetic is that he had mail-ordered a bride from Scotland who cancelled on the deal when she found out he lacked a proper house. So he built her the bizarre monument on the shores of White Otter Lake to prove the marriage was worth the trip from Scotland. As the story goes, however, she never did arrive to marry Jimmy. The film’s success spawned the restoration of the castle, which still stands on the shore of White Otter Lake in the wilderness of northwestern Ontario.
This is a must-watch for paddlers. Legendary canoeist and film maker, Bill Mason, creates a captivating feature-length film on his love of paddling and painting, touching on environmental concerns as well as his faith in God. Mason finished shooting for Waterwalker and resigned from NFB in 1983. He wanted to spend more time painting. Waterwalker was released on August 25, 1984. It got less than a modest response. However, it’s popularity quickly grew, and it was sold to Creswin Films in the fall of 1986. It was then released it in theatres across Canada. It became a major hit, and it was even nominated for best feature documentary at the Genie Awards.
One of the best lines in Bill Mason’s film Waterwalker pretty much sums it all up: “So, there’s no wolf attacks, I don’t get ravaged by wild mountain men or robbed by bandits. In fact, there’s no bad guys at all. Just you and me, paddling the biggest and most spectacular lake in the world—Lake Superior.”
Into the Great Solitude
This 1993 film is Robert Perkins’ best-known work. It follows a 72-day solo canoe trip down the far northern Back River in Canada’s Arctic. Not only is it a physically demanding and remote journey, but Perkins also highlights his challenges waiting for him back home: a demanding father, a broken relationship and his struggles with mental illness.
This is Canoeing
Justine Curgenven’s (Cackle TV) 2010 doc is a stunning celebration of the canoe world. There are 12 short films showcasing individual paddlers and various experiences in a canoe. It ranges from poetic canoe dancing to monumental canoe journeys; and it covers wild areas in Canada, United States, Scotland and Wales. Heck, I’m even in it. Justine filmed me talking about my passion for canoeing and wilderness while we were at Algonquin's Barron Canyon. Beautiful misty morning paddling shots and my good humor made the cut.
Justine just released a 'free' download of my clip to match my new book Another Bend in the River: The Happy Camper’s Memoir. That’s cool. Just go to this link and use the code “happycamper.” For the entire This is Canoeing film, she’s offering 40 per cent off (use the same code).