I didn’t grow up reading The Hardy Boys. I read books on wilderness canoe tripping. First, Eric Morse’s Freshwater Saga and Calvin Rutstrum’s North American Canoe Country. Then, books like Paddle to the Amazon by Don Starkell, The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee and James Dickey’s classic Deliverance. But there are some real classics that I continually go back to, re-reading repeatedly and gaining motivation between canoe trips. Here are my top ten that seem to have more dog-eared page corners than all the other books on my shelf:
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd Olson
Sigurd Olson wrote a good number of books on canoe tripping and wilderness travel. All of them are exceptional. The Singing Wilderness is said to be his best. The Lonely Land is a book that should be read by all paddlers. But my preference is Reflections from the North Country. It’s more personal and thought provoking, and it’s what he labelled his “Wilderness Theology.”
The Incomplete Anglers by John D. Robins
If you traditionally head out to canoe trip in Algonquin Provincial Park every spring to cast a line for trophy trout, then this is a must read. It’s truly a Canadian classic that many paddling anglers refer to as the bible. It’s a humorous account of a canoe/fishing trip across Algonquin by author John D. Robins and his canoe mate. The book was first published in 1943 and became a runaway best-seller, winning a Governor General's literary award.
Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson and John Rugge
It’s a legendary tale; the story of Leonidas Hubbard’s fatal 1903 attempt, with companion Dillon Wallace and Native guide George Elson, to paddle the remote interior of Labrador and locate the illusive George River. Countless books have been written on this incredible wilderness journey. The best overall, however, is Great Heart. Authors James Davidson and John Rugge reconstruct all three expeditions from past journals: the first where the three men become lost and Leonidas dies of starvation; the second where Wallace returns to repeat the expedition and erase the blame put upon him for Hubbard’s death; and the third of Mina Hubbard, Leonidas’ wife, who put the blame on Wallace, returned with Native guide Elson, became the only one to find the George River and avenge her husband along the way.
The Lure of Faraway Places by Herb Pohl
Herb Pohl drowned at the mouth of the Michipoten River in 2006, just before ending a canoe trip along Lake Superior’s coast. His drowning was hard for paddlers to grasp. He was known for paddling an endless list of epic and remote routes, most while travelling alone. Herb was one of the most remarkable canoeists I’ve ever known, and his death was an absolute tragedy. Author/editor James Raffan gathered up his past trip journals and created the book The Lure of Faraway Places. Trust me, you won’t want to put the book down. It’s a must read.
Into the Great Solitude by Robert Perkins
Robert Perkins is an amazing film maker and has documented many of his canoe journeys. Into the Great Solitude, an extensive solo trip down the Back River in the far north, is my favourite. And so is his book on the same trip. Perkin’s retraces Captain George Back’s 1834 exploratory trip of the river. The read is more mystic and profound then simple bland journal entries about the hazards meet along the way and the endurance needed to finish the trip.
Sleeping Island by P.G Downes
You can almost smell the wood smoke and canvas packs while reading this book. The story is canoe journey back in 1939 through some of the same rugged landscape highlighted by much of Farley Mowat’s work. Author P.G. Downes titled the book Sleeping Island to describe the region's last few years of isolation before resource extraction took over.
Caesars of the Wilderness by Peter C. Newman
You’re not a real Canadian canoeist if you don’t read at least the second volume of Peter C. Newman’s chronicles of the Hudson's Bay Company (and its rival, the North West Company). The first, The Company of Adventurers, is also a good read but I preferred the second. The author highlights the Indigenous people and historic Europeans such as Samuel Hearne, David Thompson, Alexander Mackenzie and George Simpson. You’ll understand Canada a lot more after reading it.
Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni by Raymond M Patterson
In the mid-1920s, Raymond M. Patterson went from a banker in England to a prospector in the wilds of Canada. He wrote about his adventures traveling northern rivers, with his best being an account of his two trips down the majestic Nahanni River in search of gold. Dangerous River is truly an enchanting book.
Water and Sky: Reflections of a Northern Year by Alan S. Kesselheim
What an incredible canoe journey. Author Alana S. Kesselheim and his companion Marypat trekked 2,000 kilometres in 14 months, beginning near Jasper, Alberta and ending in Baker Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Nine weeks into the trip they overwintered in a remote cabin at the eastern end of Lake Athabasca. The next summer they continued north across the Barrenlands.
Going inside: A Couple's Journey of Renewal into the North by Alan S. Kesselheim
This is a follow up book of Water and Sky, and it’s even more captivating than Kesselheim’s first account. It’s not just because of their chosen route, similar to the previous one, but the reason for them to reenact it. Their marriage was falling apart and their anxiety over their inability to have a child exasperated it. They used the trip to see if it would fix their problems. During their overwintering stage in a remote cabin Marypat became pregnant. After spring break up, they continue into the vast wilderness of the Northwest Territories, finishing the journey with Marypat well into her pregnancy. The first book is more on running white water, dealing with the bugs, hauling across portages and dealing with the frigid cold of winter. The second, however, dwells on the deep healing powers of nature.