Over a dozen years ago I received a note from a Toronto film producer asking me to help with a documentary on all the wild places that legendary Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot wrote and sang about. What a cool idea. I quickly answered back.
I can’t remember a canoe trip where Gordon’s songs weren’t dancing around in my head while paddling across a large lake or carrying a canoe across a lengthy portage. “Early Morning Rain” was a given during a damp paddle. And who wouldn't have “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in their thoughts while paddling the expanse of Lake Superior? Even his not-so-famous song “Canary Yellow Canoe” was a favourite of mine to bellow out while J-stroking down some wild river.
“In my canary yellow canoe, my yellow canoe
I want to go tripping in my canary yellow canoe
The Eastmain, Coppermine, Back River too
In my canary yellow canoe…”
Gordon Lightfoot was a canoeist! He preferred the far North, paddling Canada’s wilderness rivers like the Nahanni, Coppermine and Back. He did annual trips throughout the 70s and 80s and his Canary Yellow Canoe he used is now on display at the Canadian Canoe Museum.
The film producer wanted to meet me for coffee in Toronto and browse over maps and such. He said he’d pay for the coffee, so I said yes. I was heading to the city anyway to do my syndicated CBC Radio show at the time, “The Happy Camper,” and the coffee place was just across the street. So, why not. Conversing about canoe tripping and Gordon Lightfoot goes hand in hand for me.
It was 6:30 a.m. when I walked into the coffee place. My CBC show was an early one, so the plan was simple: I would gulp down a decaf and pinpoint places on topographic maps where a film crew could capture Lightfoot moments on camera.
I sauntered in, groggy from the two-hour drive through city traffic, and noticed the producer waving his arm to indicate I was at the right meeting place. Leaving the table where the producer sat was Gordon Downie from The Tragically Hip. He walked past me, said, “Hi Kevin,” and calmly strolled out the front door of the coffee house.
Holy shit! It seemed I was in the big leagues when it comes to Toronto film producers trying to document a Lightfoot history. Gordon Downie also loved the canoe, and Gordon Lightfoot. He believed both were Canadian icons.
I attempted to stay cool about the Gordon Downie encounter during the meeting with the producer. But I failed miserably. I had the jitters the entire time I unrolled maps and showed possible logistics problems for his film crew.
The producer kept up to his promise and paid for the coffee, and then I moved on across the street to the CBC Radio building to do my show. The producer joined me. It seemed he was meeting others to chat about the documentary project. And there, standing in what’s called the “green room”—a meeting place for performers with cozy couches and refreshments—were a few more Gordon Lightfoot fans, all who also happened to be canoeists: Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo, the three members of the classic alternative band The Grapes of Wrath and… Gordon Lightfoot.
Again I tried to keep my cool. It’s not something I do well. I’ve met some legends in my time. Red Green was awesome, Pierre Burton was unforgettable, Farley Mowat was inspirational, Mark Brown from Monty Python was the highlight of my life. They all loved the canoe as well.
Gordon wasn’t saying much. He was just standing there listening to them go over the film project. So, I went over and asked him where his next canoe trip would be. That got his attention. He loved talking about canoe tripping. So did all the others.
What a privilege to have a friendly chat with a group of Canadian legends about the joy of wilderness canoe tripping.
You can’t get more Canadian than that!
Gordon Lightfoot passed away recently. He will be missed by us all. His songs truly characterized the Canadian identity—including his “Canary Yellow Canoe.”