by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

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The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) website is a treasure trove of beautiful short films.  Among my personal list of favourites is the Path of the Paddle series by Bill Mason.  Of the four films in the series, Path of the Paddle Solo Whitewater (1977) is the one I tend to watch over and over again.  Not only is the photography outstanding, I get a thrill every time I see a wood-canvas canoe being jockeyed through 3′ (one meter) standing waves in a wild river.

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The canoe featured by Bill Mason in the film is a Chestnut Pal (16′ pleasure canoe).  Its gorgeous lines, distinctive red colour and hand-woven cane seats gives the film a touch of class.

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One of my favourite occupations while watching any film, is looking for and finding continuity glitches.  In this one, Bill navigates his Chestnut Pal through a particular set of rapids.  Meanwhile, the canoe is alternately being paddled empty and then is loaded with canoe packs — switching back and forth as if by magic.

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I enjoy watching the Chestnut Pal handle challenging rapids with grace and style.  For a general-purpose canoe that is 12.5″ (32 cm) deep with a 36″ (92 cm) beam, its ability to handle these conditions is impressive.  That said, I like to keep in mind that Bill was able to run the same section of river many times and select the runs that worked out (the key to good story-telling is good editing).

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For anyone unfamiliar with wood-canvas canoes, this film is an education in just how durable they are.  I love watching Bill bumping and thumping off rocks in his Chestnut Pal.  Especially impressive is one sequence where the canoe hits an exposed boulder broadside in the river and lives to tell the tale.

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Bill plays fast and loose with cinematic continuity during a sequence discussing how to handle the canoe in high-water conditions.  We watch him start into a class 3 rapid in his Chestnut Pal (note the hand-woven cane seat).

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Then, the canoe miraculously survives an near upset.  Indeed, this would have been a miracle if Bill was paddling his Chestnut Pal.  However, a closer look reveals that the canoe capable of handling this situation was not a Chestnut Pal but rather a Chestnut Prospector (16′ wilderness tripping canoe) that is 14.5″ (37 cm) deep — note the all-wood slat seats.

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The Chestnut Prospector is perfectly designed to handle class 3 rapids.  The extra depth keeps the water out of the canoe as does the fact that the hull is flared (V-shaped) about 4′ (1.2 meters) from each end.  Bill painted all of his canoes the same colour in order to allow him to interchange them during filming.

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The photography in these films is absolutely stunning.  The image of a red canoe on the water has become a major part of Canadian iconography due in no small part to Bill Mason and his use of red Chestnut canoes in his films.

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The Chestnut Pal is one of the best general-purpose canoes ever designed.  However, it is not designed to handle class 3 rapids.  Apparently, that did not stop Bill Mason from trying.  I applaud him for showing us the limits of this amazing canoe.

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I encourage you to make your way to the NFB website and check out the Path of the Paddle films by Bill Mason.  They are, for me, well worth the time and effort.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

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I recently came across a short film called The Canoe.  It has just been released (2017) and is written and narrated by James Raffan (author, director emeritus of the Canadian Canoe Museum).  Running 27 minutes, this short film examines the role of the canoe in shaping the lives and life connections of several people.  It opens with a voice-over narration by James Raffan as we watch him paddle a beautiful old Chestnut Pal (Deer) canoe over calm, misty water.

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The Connector – The first profile in the film is of Michelle Savoie. She comes from a long line of canoe people tracing back to the voyageurs.  She and her family see the canoe as the connecting force in their family.

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The Champion – Alexandra McGee is an elite-level competitor in white-water slalom canoeing. The discipline and focus required to become a champion helped her overcome many personal challenges.

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The Explorers – Gary and Joanie McGuffin are authors, photographers, educators and explorers. They have used canoes to create a life together that is full of wonder and beauty.  They find something new  around every bend in the river.

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The Settler – Michael Zhang left a hectic life in China to create a life in Canada full of joy and peace. He and his family find that joy and peace every time they get out on the water in their canoe.

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The Mentor – Gail Bannon helped the young people in the Fort William First Nation reconnect with their culture and heritage by teaching them how to build a birch bark canoe.

I hope you enjoy this film – I certainly did. For me, it brought into sharp focus the truth about canoes.  They are a powerful cultural linchpin in the Canadian Identity.  The canoe is an essential part of our sense of self, sense of family and sense of community.  Enjoy.