Why folks do the things they do

Paul Smith
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

I ended off last week saying something about us needing more politicians that can paddle canoes.

It might sound trivial to many, but I really believe that people who have paddled many miles in a canoe are closer to the pulse of the Earth, more in tune with nature’s rhythms. Politicians who have experienced wild places first hand are far more likely to make greener decisions.

With proposed oil pipelines through salmon headwaters, economic pressure to clear cut old-growth forests, and caribou in a mysterious downward spiral all across North America, we need wise men and women in government. Watching the Discovery Channel and nature documentaries from comfy armchairs doesn’t equal time spent shooting rapids, traversing lakes, and nights under canvas.

Pierre Trudeau was a man devoted to the paddle and it showed in his environmental policies. In a famous 1944 essay entitled “Exhaustion and Fulfilment: The Ascetic in a Canoe,” He had this to say about extended journeys by paddle.

“Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”

He goes on to say: “Canoe and paddle, blanket and knife, salt pork and flour, fishing rod and rifle; that is about the extent of your wealth. To remove all the useless material baggage from a man’s heritage is, at the same time, to free his mind from petty preoccupations, calculations and memories.”


Back to basics

I get the feeling that Trudeau believed the way of the paddle changes people. I think he was absolutely right. Getting back to basics has a way of cementing in your mind and soul what is really important in life.

Communing with water, trees and rapids changes one’s world view and would most certainly affect one’s vote on clear cutting wilderness or putting pristine rivers at risk.

A cabinet minister so smitten might be so bold as to break party ranks and stand on principle — an outlandish notion I know, but don’t underestimate how the river inspires a man, or woman. Self-reliance and independence are lessons not easily learned in classrooms and boardrooms.

During the summer of 1941, Trudeau departed Montreal with five other adventurous fellows to paddle 1,600 kilometres to Hudson Bay. This was a mighty undertaking, an arduous and punishing journey many weeks in duration, one I suspect that either breaks a man or makes him stronger.

It is like climbing high peaks in unforgiving mountain ranges, trekking across vast deserts, or sailing boundless oceans. These are the inspirations of great prose, pure adventure with no purpose but discovering what you are made of.

Although Trudeau’s quest was more transcendental and esoteric, the route they followed up the Ottawa River and northwards was once very pragmatic. They were retracing the Hudson Bay Co. trading route first traversed in the 17th century by the well-known north woodsman, Pierre Esprit Radison, and his brother-in-law, Medart Chouart Desgroseillers, coureurs de bois.

These were men akin in spirit to our own Capt. Bob Bartlett and the likes of Robert Peary, the American polar explorer whose successes Bartlett helped him realize.

Men and women have been driven to test themselves against nature since the beginning of time. It makes no sense to many, but it is a natural instinct, understood fully by those smitten by the wilderness.  

Sometimes hardships and risks taken are for fame, fortune or pursuit of knowledge. Other times it’s just “because it’s there” — that’s how George Mallory responded to an interviewer in 1923 after a failed attempt to summit Everest. He eventually died on the way down the mountain after possibly reaching the summit.

We may never know.

I think Mallory thought that asking why was a very stupid question, although many on Main Street might think it quite reasonable. Eventually, in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary made it all the way to Everest’s 29,029-foot peak and got back down alive. He is quoted as saying, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

People adventure and go in the in the woods for various reasons. My forays into the wilderness have been far less spectacular than those of noted explorers and a few politicians.

My longest-ever canoe route started out as a practical way to access remote salmon pools on Main River. That’s the Main River that meets the sea in the town of Main Brook on the Northern Peninsula, not the one near Sop’s Arm in White Bay.

We suffered excruciating and merciless portages along with many miles of arm-aching flat water to reach amazing salmon fishing. This was before log-cutting roads made the same pools accessible by ATV.

Those were the heydays of Northern Peninsula salmon angling. Where once we camped in isolation after a long affair with the paddle, with only splashing salmon to disturb our sleep, there are now many tents with cases of beer stacked beside each one.

Electronic music distorted by sputtering generators corrupts the silence. The roads have dramatically changed things. The salmon are not as eager to bite the fly. I am not a fan of clear cutting.

Was the fishing worth the pain? It certainly was. But what’s more significant, I think, is that we enjoyed the canoe trip in and out just as much as the crazy fishing. There’s something special about dancing with the paddle.

In 18 or so months I will be retiring from my day job. No more 9-5 routine for me. I will have more time to adventure further from home. Canoe trips will no doubt find a place in my busy retirement schedule.


Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity.

He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: Discovery Channel

Geographic location: North America, Hudson Bay, Montreal Main River Ottawa River Northern Peninsula White Bay.We

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Doug Smith
    May 06, 2013 - 09:48

    Mr. Smith, your column about the joys of paddling a canoe would have been enjoyable reading except for the extolling of Pierre Trudeau’s supposed virtues. Pierre Trudeau, while prime minister, it must be remembered was Newfoundland’s public enemy number one. There is no evidence whatever that Trudeau’s journeys in the wild by canoe ever inspired him to do anything worthwhile for Newfoundland. Quite the contrary, he had it in his power, while prime minister, to grant Newfoundland control and ownership of the offshore oil resources but he freely chose to not do so, thereby relegating Newfoundland to be a perpetually “have not” province. It took the courage and leadership of Brian Mulroney to give Newfoundland full control of the offshore oil resources, even though the Canadian Supreme Court and the Newfoundland Supreme Court ruled that Canada, not Newfoundland had ownership and control of the offshore oil resources. So we had Newfoundlanders on the Newfoundland Supreme Court turning against the people of the province and taking Canada’s side. My suggestion to you Mr. Smith, would be to delete all references to that arrogant, elitist, snob in your column, thereby making your writing pleasant reading. Doug Smith, GFW