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IntroductionOdysseus ordered his men to plug their ears when they sailed by the island of the Sirens so they would not be lured to their destruction on the offshore rocks by the sea nymphs' irresistible song. In order to hear the song, Odysseus asked his men to lash him to the mast. I know all about this sort of thing because I hear a song like that of the Sirens every spring when the ice on the rivers begins to break up. Years ago in the heart of Winnipeg, Manitoba, I would be working at my desk in a commercial art studio, hear the song, hand in my two weeks' notice and get my outfit ready. My parents thought I would outgrow it but I never did. If anything, the song is becoming louder and more insistent with the passing years.
Some people hear the song in the quiet mist of a cold morning; others hear it in the middle of a roaring rapids. Sometimes the excitement drowns out the song. The thrills become all that matter as we seek one rapid after another. Sleeping, eating and living outdoors become something we do between rapids. But for other people the song is loudest in the evening when they are sifting in front of the tent, basking in the camp fire's warmth. This is when I hear it loudest, after I have paddled and portaged for many miles to some distant, hidden place.
I probably heard the song for the first time as a child playing among the canoes pulled up on the sand at Grand Beach on Lake Winnipeg. My parents tell me that they couldn't get me away from the canoes. I climbed over and in them by the hour. They couldn't have known it but, in my imagination, I was journeying to faroff places where only a canoe could go.
When I was about nine years old, a huge storm broke up the pier at Grand Beach. Everyone thought it was a great disaster, but I knew it for what it really was: a miracle. All my life, as short as it then was, I had been trying to build a canoe by nailing driftwood together. Every time I grabbed my homemade paddle and climbed on board, it sank. I could never find enough wood to make a raft that would float with me on board. And now, as far along the beach as the eye could see, there was wood.
With considerable effort, I nailed together two timbers and set them afloat. A feeling of euphoria came over me as I hopped on and felt myself buoyed up by the water. Paddling away from the beach, I watched fascinated as the ripples in the sand dropped away beneath me. The water gradually darkened until I could no longer see the bottom. I was afloat on water that was deeper than I was tall. I loved the feeling of danger, excitement and adventure. For the first time in my life, I was no longer bound to the land; now I could reach the offshore rocks that had seemed so far away.
Mine was the most beautiful canoe ever made because it was mine. I hated it when people called it a raft, so I hacked away at the ends with my penknife to create some semblance of a bow. I would paddle over to what was left of the pier and tie my canoe to the ladder along with the other canoes. Tying and untying the knot was a wonderful ritual. It was a way of affirming ownership: this was my canoe, and I could paddle it anywhere, anytime I wanted. Just belonging to a canoe is a large part of being a canoeist.
After my journeys, I would sometimes hang around the boat livery at Grand Beach. The owner had a great fleet of canoes and rowboats, and sometimes I would see this kid bailing the rainwater out of them. I figured he must be very rich to own so many canoes. Occasionally my father would rent one for what seemed like the world's shortest hour. I loved being in a real canoe, and yet it wasn't quite the same as paddling my timber canoe alone. Even though Dad let me decide where to go, he did the steering. Already I had fallen in love with solo paddling.
The first thing I ever owned, that was related to a real canoe, was a paddle. On one of our excursions, Dad and I found a paddle floating in the weeds. It had probably belonged to two canoeists who had tipped and drowned in the lagoon a couple of weeks before. I also suspected that their canoe had been rented from the boat livery. My father threw the paddle up on shore. After returning the canoe, we went back to retrieve it. Although I knew at some level that the paddle was tainted, my conscience was clear. Dad did it, not me. Anyway, even if it did belong to the rich kid at the livery, I figured he would never miss it. That paddle became my most cherished possession.
Many years later, I learned that your sins always find you out. Barrie Nelson, a good friend with whom I had worked in an animation studio, and canoed with on many enjoyable trips, picked an old paddle out of my paddle rack. He studied it for a long time, then turned to me and asked, "Where did you get this paddle?" I explained how we had found it in the lagoon at Grand Beach. A smile crossed his face as he looked at me and said, "You crooks! This paddle belonged to my grandmother's boat livery. I used to spend the summers there looking after the canoes." I could hardly believe it. My best friend had spent his childhood wallowing in a canoe mecca and had never invited me to go for a ride! I'd have sold my grandmother just for the privilege of sitting in those canoes, let alone paddling them.
Many people have asked me, "What came first? Your love for the canoe or the land?" It definitely the canoe. The canoe took me away from the crowds and introduced me to places that had remained unchanged for centuries. And in the going I discovered a sense of freedom that has never been equaled in any other way. When I was 11 years old, I began work on what would be my first real canoe. Of course I had no idea how to build a real canoe, so it was built with a kayak construction using formers and stringers. It took a full winter to complete the job. In the spring, we hauled it down to the Red River that flows through Winnipeg and, much to the surprise of my parents, it actually floated upright. I grabbed my ill-gotten, oversized paddle and headed off. I was elated with my new-found freedom. I was no longer just listening to the song. I was singing it!