The pandemic has been good for canoeing.
Paddling is in the fresh air outside, the stern seat is two meters from the bow seat, healthy exercise and a new or used canoe costs no more than the starting price – even if you can find one in the time of COVID Go.
“Canoeing has gone crazy,” says Jeremy Ward, curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont. “There is a traffic jam at the put-ins.”
Despite the serial lockdown and postlockdown restrictions on the number of visitors, this was going to be the year of the museum. With the museum set to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2022, plans were well in place to make this a very special year in the established, and enduring, relationship between Canada and Canoe.
That is, hit a set of rapids before those careful plans.
A year ago this month, the museum expected to break ground in a spectacular new location right next to the famous Peterborough Lift Lock along Central Ontario’s Trent-Severn Waterway.
For the first time ever, the Canoe Museum will have a home, as it should be on the water. They would eventually move out of the old outboard engine factory on Monaghan Road in the west end of the city. It was a domestic building, but it had a special charm and a lovely irony.
Once, the factory was home to the Outboard Marine Corporation, which manufactured standard outboards such as the Evinrude and Mercury. It was one of a dozen such factories around North America that at its height had 8,000 employees and more than $1 billion in annual sales. This Canadian factory closed in 1990; Shortly thereafter, OMC declared bankruptcy—meaning that the Canadian Canoe Museum found a home in the same building as previously manufactured equipment intended to eliminate the need for paddling.
Today, the original form of transportation is no longer charged with exploration, trade and settlement, yet a pleasure craft remains so beloved that in 2007 a CBC panel declared it the first of the Seven Wonders of Canada, the other six at Pier 21. , Old Quebec. , Niagara Falls, Prairie Skies, Rocky Mountains and Igloos. (Full disclosure: I was on the jury.)
The old OMC factory was destroyed in the early nineties and was largely canoe and kayak for decades by the late Kirk Wipper, who owned Camp Candalore near Halliburton, Ont., one of Canada’s leading canoe “tripping” camps. was reconfigured to hold the archive.
The Canadian Canoe Museum opened in 1997, paying $1 for the old factory. This would work until a proper museum could be built to showcase the more than 600 canoes in the collection.
The new museum by the lock will be on the water, will have a “green” roof and lots of glass, and will be an environmental delight. There will also be a wildflower meadow to depict the many wedding ceremonies the museum hopes to attract.
Parks Canada will allow the museum to be built on federal land. The city was firmly in favour. From large corporations to individuals, donors paid more than 80 percent of the expected cost.
Everything seemed to be in place in the spring of 2020. It was the perfect put-in… until they were unexpectedly dumped in the rapids.
In May, inspectors found traces of various chemicals, including the carcinogenic industrial solvent trichlorethylene, on the property. The contamination came from a nearby property at a slightly higher elevation, which once housed a watch factory. The chemicals were carried into the museum’s new site by moving groundwater downstream.
“It was quite extensive,” says the museum’s executive director, Carolyn Hislop. “It could not have been managed here unless it was first managed at another site, and we did not have sufficient jurisdiction to make the necessary adjustments.”
No surprise, the museum’s deep-pocketed and image-protective sponsors were reluctant to engage in a project that emphasized environmental values but would now be built on deliberately contaminated soil.
The museum board decided there was no choice but to terminate the lease – which they did in the same month that they expected to break ground – and began looking for a new site.
Luckily, there was one. The town had five acres on Little Lake, a widening of the Otonabi River as it passes through Peterborough. The new site was west facing, perfect for sunset viewing and faced a natural property without any development. The Trent-Severn Canal runs just north, and to the south there are various parks, including an ecology park. Better still, the Trans Canada Trail runs along the new site and the museum will have a 300-metre “portage” that connects the trail to the front doors.
“The story of Canada includes the Trans Canada Trail – and its historic routes that include waterways,” says Eleanor McMahon, TCT’s president and chief executive officer. “We are really excited about the Canoe Museum. In fact, we are all about the canoe. Our Lake Superior trail is completely over water – and there are 28,000 kilometers of trail with several sections that are perfect for canoeing are right.”
However, this came very close to not happening. “We had to start all over again,” says Mr. Ward. “Building a museum we can run through in good and bad times – and we’ve had enough experience in bad lately.”
However, the museum got through that unexpected dump, and has continued, with all of its 160 volunteers still eager to help, with all of its main sponsors still on board.
“There was a moment when we had to pivot,” recalls Ms. Hislop. “Do we stay at this location or do we look for another site? We had raised significant money for the new project and the question soon became ‘Can we save this project?’ Our main sponsors said ‘Yes, our commitment to you remains intact – if you find a new place.'”
In January, Peterborough City Council approved the sale of the five-acre Little Lake property for $1.575 million. An important ceremony is to be held this Saturday – a full year beyond the original plan for the now-abandoned Locks property. The new museum is expected to cost between $35- and $40 million, of which more than 80 percent has already been raised. The federal government has pledged $10 million for the project through the Canadian Department of Heritage. The Government of Ontario has committed $9 million and another $7.5 million is coming from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.
“We have been able to keep all of our government funding and almost all of our private funding during the pandemic,” Ms Hislop says. “Some people withdrew, largely because of the COVID impact. But all the major donors have been with us.”
For example, TD has pledged $500,000 over five years so that the museum can hire people from eight Indigenous communities, as well as hire an Indigenous museum professional. The museum is located on the Treaty 20 Michi Saagiig area and the traditional area covered by the Williams Treaties First Nations. The museum will work with adjacent First Nations communities as well as Inuit communities to the north, Mi’kmaq to the east, and the Haida Gwaii Museum on the west coast. Anishinabemovin’s Michi Sagaig dialect will be used throughout the museum, along with English and French.
The new location has been environmentally assessed and found to be free from pollution. “We want to have as little impact on the environment as possible,” says Ms. Hislop. “The museum has a restoration plan in place for the surrounding forest and will reintroduce native species to the grounds. We will make it a more robust habitat.”
Beyond the actual museum will be a “canoe house”, which Ms Hislop sees as “a community centre”. From some angles, the main building bears an interesting resemblance to an inverted canoe, almost as if this huge vessel has been pulled for the night and set up next to the camp.
But what is camp? The locally designed building will have huge stained glass windows and a huge fireplace. It will hold approximately 550 canoes, some 150 of them on display at various times in the second-floor exhibition hall. There will be archives, areas for researchers, tours, canoe- and kayak-building exhibits, a recording room to capture oral histories, a museum shop, and a cafe that will serve coffee during opening hours, but which will be served in a bar. Can be converted private gatherings and weddings.
For Peterborough, a city of 80,000 that lies between Ottawa and Toronto along Highway 7, the museum will bring new life to an area that once boasted industries such as Outboard Marine, General Electric, Quaker Oats and more , only to see some disappear and others reduce their workforce. The construction of the museum is predicted to produce approximately 1,000 jobs and an economic impact of over $100 million by the time it officially opens.
The link between the city and the canoe is strong. Canoe construction was one of the first industries in the region. The ships built by the Peterborough Canoe Company were so popular that the word “Peterborough” often stood for “canoe” in North American paddling circles. The last Peterborough canoe to go out of line was sent to England by the Canadian government in 1947 as a wedding gift for the then Princess Elizabeth and her new husband, Philip. It will be displayed in the new museum.
It’s been a rough paddle over the past year, but as the Canadian Canoe Museum’s latest fundraising campaign states, “We’re on our final portage at the water’s edge.
“Join our journey to build a world-class museum – where visitors walk in the front door and paddle in from the back!”
At last, calm waters, with the current, are going, at last, with them.