Bill Mason’s “Path of the Paddle” Films — Homage to Wood-Canvas Canoes

February 26, 2017


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.

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2 Responses to “Bill Mason’s “Path of the Paddle” Films — Homage to Wood-Canvas Canoes”

  1. jazzersten Says:

    Bill Mason was great and his daughter Becky continues the tradition and gives lessons.

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