Peterborough, ON

Canadian Museum Celebrates the Canoe in Its Many Guises

A Montreal canoe, used by voyageurs to transport furs and goods, at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario

Used by voyageurs to transport furs and Western goods, an 11-metre Montreal canoe like this would have held up to 3,650 kilograms of freight and had just 15 centimetres of freeboard when fully loaded.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

SAMUEL DE Champlain, “father of New France” and founder of Quebec City, made many discoveries during his early-17th-century explorations of North America. Among them: that European vessels were ill-suited to the turbulent rivers of the New World, but the birch-bark canoe, “light and elegant as a seagull when it skims the summer waves,” he said, was perfect.

The canoe in its many manifestations is celebrated at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. Peterborough (pop. 80,000), 125 kilometres northeast of Toronto, is a good choice for such an exhibition. The region is full of just the sort of lakes and rivers the craft is meant for. For a century, beginning in the 1850s, Peterborough and the surrounding area were home to numerous canoe factories. A few small shops continue the tradition.

On two floors and over 3,700 square metres, the museum displays 120 canoes and tells their stories, beginning with those paddled by indigenous peoples: a 12-metre dugout, hollowed from a red cedar trunk, used to hunt whales off Canada’s west coast; a birch-bark one like those Champlain admired; a seal-skinned kayak from James Bay.

A panel explains that west-coast canoe paddles served many purposes: as weapons (pointed ones), to dig clams, for drinking fresh water from, in signalling (a raised paddle when approaching shore always meant peace and respect) and, when beat against the side of the canoe, to enhance songs.

First Nations (native) peoples also used the canoe for trade, something the Europeans expanded on. The voyageurs, who exchanged furs for Western goods, built sturdy craft 8-17 metres long. An example on display shows an 11-metre-long canot du maître (Montreal canoe) that would carry up to 3,650 kilograms of freight and have just 15 centimetres of freeboard when loaded.

As their boats traversed Great Lakes, wild rivers and as far south as the Mississippi, “voyageurs needed 5,000 calories a day to work efficiently,” we learn. They lived largely on pemmican—dried buffalo meat. Each man ate 0.7 kilos of the leathery stuff a day, which the display helpfully converts for us: “the equivalent of five boxes of Kraft Dinner or eleven ‘Big Macs’.”

The museum also shows off canoes designed for speed, pleasure and sailing, prospectors and police. We learn about courting canoes, specially constructed models that sometimes had a gramophone built in.

Visitors can see boats being made on both floors: a Montreal canoe upstairs, and a modern craft in the Living Tradition Workshop on the main level. Near the workshop is a glass case with the yellow buckskin jacket former Canadian prime minister (and avid outdoorsman) Pierre Trudeau famously wore while paddling a canoe (also on show).

The museum plans to move to new, larger quarters by the Peterborough Lift Locks in 2017 (although that may be optimistic). With luck, the new premises will add information for non-locals about historic Peterborough-area canoe factories, and include—how could they have left it out?—the well-known quote by Canadian author Pierre Berton:

“A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe.”



For more information visit the Canadian Canoe Museum website at

For information on travel in Ontario go to the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership website at