Up the river with a paddle

When you think of camps in Canada, you think of canoes

As the sun dips towards Cache Lake, the canoes come gliding around the headland like green water birds. "Trip!" yells someone at the camp, "trip!" And all the girls run down to the dock to greet the campers returning from seven hard days of paddling and portaging in the wilderness.


Like many of the others, Ali Breitman, 15, is covered in mud.

"I feel gross," says the Toronto teenager, who is spending her eighth summer in Algonquin Park at Camp Northway. A friendly mud fight on the last Northway portage has become a tradition.

It's been like this for nearly 100 years at Canada's oldest summer camp for girls. When Fannie Case, a Rochester, New York woman, started Northway by bringing 17 girls by train to camp at a friend's cottage in 1906, canoes and canoeing were what it was all about. Not much has changed: the girls sleep in tents on wooden platforms and camp life revolves around canoe tripping. summer camp girls and a canoe at Northway Camp

"When you think of camps in Canada, you think of canoes," says Graham Donald, director of Camp Temagami, one of several Ontario camps that specialize in canoe tripping.

Kirk Wipper, 80, who created a lot of the interest in modern tripping as director of Camp Kandalore in the postwar years (and had, at one point, a fleet of 135 canoes), goes further: "A camp is not a camp unless it relates seriously to teaching about the natural world."

And the canoe, he insists, is the key to unlocking the secrets of the wilderness.

What is so special about this seemingly frail craft, which dates back to earliest aboriginal times? Canoe lovers seem to spend half their lives trying to define it.

"It has a life, a beauty," says Brookes Prewitt, director at Northway. "It moves with you."

"It paddles like a leaf on the stream," says Wipper, describing the native birchbark canoe, which has the lightest touch of all. And, to a huge extent, Prewitt says, Canada owes its modern-day love affair with the canoe to the exposure thousands of kids get, when they go to a typical summer camp.

The 1970s, he says, saw the arrival of more specialty camps, catering to non-traditional interests like music. Now, says Prewitt, camps are returning to traditional activities like canoeing.

"Our waiting list is longer than ever," he says, and camps offering canoe tripping are attracting applications from around the world.

It's Prewitt's theory that youth camps and canoeing have played a role in forming the Canadian character — producing young men and women with a quiet confidence and self-reliance.

"When you paddle across the wilderness, make camp and cook your own dinner, it teaches you a lot. It's going to have a huge impact on your future," he says.

Donald also has thought a good deal about what kids get from exploring the wilderness by canoe.

"It's about the sense of accomplishment," he says. "Adventure, exploring, a sense of freedom, the ability to sneak up quietly on a moose. When they're paddling, kids have time to reflect, to think about what they miss about home, about the next portage, ‘Am I going to be able to get my load across?' When you are out a week or two, even the littlest guy gets a lot of respect if he carries his load."

It's a chance, Donald says, to experience life just the way it was for the voyageurs.

"A lot of the equipment is much the same — except that the tents are a heck of a lot more waterproof."

At Temagami, where 90 per cent of the canoes are classic cedarstrip, trips range from overnight to a four-week marathon, driving to Thunder Bay then tracing the Albany River 950 kilometres to James Bay (then home by plane, train and bus).

Canoes are familiar, too, in the northern United States, but Canada, says Wipper, "has led the way." Ontario in particular is classic canoe territory, with thousands of lakes linked by streams and rivers that can be portaged.

It was that image of endless lakes that filled the minds of the girls returning to Camp Northway.

"You don't know what to expect," says Oriana Schwartzentruber, 15, of Pembroke, Ontario. "Seven days was really, really hard. We would wake up early and paddle all day. It's fun to see how far you can go. And when you get to the campsite, you are proud of what you have done."

At the dock, following the tradition, the girls sing (to the tune of "Hello Dolly"):
   Well, hello trippers, how've you been, trippers?
   It's so nice to have you back where you belong.
   You look like hell, trippers, and you smell, trippers.
   You're still going, you're still paddling...

Wiping off the mud, Breitman says afterward, "I was really happy coming back. And I was sad, too, because I may not go next year. I have to get a summer job to save for university."

Her dream is one day to buy a cedarstrip of her own made by Jim Spencer, who built the camp's canoes and who every summer lets the 50 girls at the camp help and watch as he builds another by the dock.

The future? A century from now we may have settlements on Mars. But one thing is sure: canoes — probably cedarstrips — will still be cleaving the waves of Cache Lake and, as the sun sets, the cry will go up . . ."Trip!"

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