Review: In Canoe Country, Roy MacGregor pays tribute to Canada’s ‘favourite means for getting around’

Only in Canada could a canoe lead to a death threat. But that’s exactly what happened to Globe and Mail writer Roy MacGregor when he served as a judge for the Seven Wonders of Canada contest on CBC in 2007. Seems the city of Thunder Bay was some peeved that its pride and joy, the Sleeping Giant, was overlooked for greater wonders, such as the lowly canoe. It turns out that the angered contestants didn’t really want to kill Roy, they just wanted to make a point. In his 50th book, it is the national storyteller’s turn to explain his allegiance to and affection for this country’s “first and still favourite means for getting around.” The often surprising tales in this engaging book show that the canoe, as an icon, is more freighted than at first it might appear. In fact, MacGregor asks readers to think of the canoe as “neither artifact nor symbol, but … one of the great Canadian characters.”

Spun as if with twirls of wood smoke around an open fire, there are appearances here by lots of the usual suspects in the Canadian canoe dramatis personae: Bill Mason, Pierre Trudeau, Anahareo and Archie Belaney, Blair Fraser, Esther Keyser, Tom Thomson, Frances Anne Hopkins and Fannie Case, often aligned in new combinations or with an unexpected contextual twist.

But, on MacGregor’s way, travelling the backwaters of the Canadian canoeing experiences, there are new and relatively unknown characters as well, all with great stories, well told.

Particularly luminous in that pantheon of unknown paddlers are brothers Phil and Lorne Chester, with whom MacGregor regularly paddles. If Bob and Doug McKenzie, of SCTV infamy, were canoeists, then the Chester brothers would be their reincarnation, stars of a Mel Brooks-ish tale (think Blazing Paddles), parsed with humour and impeccable timing, that navigates the brink between too corny for words and deeply instructive in their zeal for Canada, canoes and all that melds the two into passion in a country of rivers. Serious stuff in a deceptively breezy package.



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