Shooting the Rapids, oil on canvas, 1879, by
Frances Anne Hopkins
We were doing farm chores and driving around in truck the other week with the radio set to CBC, as usual, when I caught a bit of music and Shelagh Roger‘s comment that it was based on the Caldecott Honor book by Holling Clancy Holling — long appreciated by homeschoolers as an author of marvelous living geography books — Paddle-to-the-Sea, originally published in 1941, about a young Indian boy from Nipigon, on the shores of Lake Superior, who carves the small figure of a man, named Paddle-to-the-Sea, in a canoe, which begins its journey on a snow bank near a river leading to the Great Lakes and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean, in a journey fraught with danger. Think of it as a North American version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Steadfast Tin Soldier (to which the modern Ratatouille also owes a debt), but less morose and more delightful. Since the CBC website didn’t have the information up right away, I Googled around for a bit and, though I didn’t come across the answer I was looking for (until the next day), I did discover a few interesting things.
First, there’s a National Film Board movie version of the book, directed by the legendary naturalist, canoeist, film maker and author Bill Mason (1929-1988). The movie, made in 1966 and running just under 30 minutes, is available to watch free online at the NFB website. From the website: “For all children and those adults for whom the romance of journeying is still strong. This great NFB children’s classic is adapted from a story by Holling C. Holling. During the long winter night, an Indian boy sets out to carve a man and a canoe. He calls the man “Paddle to the Sea.” The boy sets the carving down on a frozen stream to await the coming of spring. The film charts the adventures that befall the canoe on its long odyssey from Lake Superior to the sea. This delightful story is photographed with great patience and an eye for the beauty of living things, offering vivid impressions of Canada’s varied landscape and waterways.”
Second, celebrated Canadian classical guitarist (and one-time squeeze of late PM Pierre Trudeau, which becomes more interesting shortly) Liona Boyd in 1990 put out a CD of original music along with her reading of the book. The CD is out of print, but I’ve been able to find a copy on audio CD through interlibrary loan. Still in print, though, is a a Boydless unabridged audio CD of the book available from Audio Bookshelf, read by Terry Bregy.
So we’ve begun rereading the book (which Davy barely remembers), listening to the CD, poring over maps, talking about trees, and when we’re all done we’ll watch the movie.
* * *
Holling Clancy Holling, the American author and illustrator, was born in Jackson County, Michigan in 1900. After graduating from the school of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1923, he went to work in the taxidermy department of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and also worked under assistant curator and noted anthropologist Ralph Linton. In 1925 he married Lucille Webster, and they worked together in the writing and illustrating of numerous books. Before turning to writing full-time, Mr. Holling also worked as a teacher at NYU, a freelance designer, an advertising artist, and illustrator for other people’s books.
Mr. Holling’s last books, from Paddle-to-the-Sea onwards, are a masterful blend of history, nature, art, and storytelling (which, yes, sadly, may be too slow-moving for many of today’s high-speed children), and the marginalia is fascinating. Holling Clancy Holling died in 1973.
Holling C. Holling books still in print:
Tree in the Trail (1942); “The story of a cottonwood tree that watched the pageant of history on the Santa Fe Trail where it stood, a landmark to travelers and a peace-medicine tree to Indians, for over 200 years.”
Seabird (1948); a carved ivory gull becomes a mascot for four generations of seafarers aboard first a whaler, then a clipper ship, a steamer, and finally, an airplane.
Minn of the Mississippi (1951); a turtle hatched at the source of the Mississippi is carried through the heart of America to the Gulf of Mexico.
Pagoo (1957), illustrations credited to both Holling C. Holling and Lucille Webster Holling; the study of life in a tide pool through the story the hermit crab, Pagoo.
* * *
For more wonderful movies by Bill Mason, including several with more paddling:
Song of the Paddle (1978); “Outdoorsman Bill Mason, his wife, and two children set out on a wilderness canoe camping holiday. In this film, the art of canoeing is more than technical expertise; it becomes a family experience of shared joy. Along the way there are countless adventures and much lovely scenery, including the Indian rock carvings of Lake Superior.”
The Path of the Paddle series, volumes one, two, three, and four
and two classics about wolves, Cry of the Wild and Death of a Legend
A few extra Canadian canoe resources:
The Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ontario, whose website used to, but sadly apparently no longer, include a page of profiles of patriotic paddlers, including Bill Mason and Pierre Trudeau, who paddled as well as he pirouetted, and who wrote an essay in 1944, when he was 25, “Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe”: “What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other. 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.”
Trudeau’s fringed buckskin jacket and canoe have been on exhibit at the Canadian Canoe Museum since 2002; the canoe was on temporary loan to the ROM in Toronto, through January 2008 as part of the Canada Collects exhibit.
UPDATED to add the Old Curmudgeon’s suggestion, Canoeing with the Cree, the late reporter Eric Sevareid‘s account of the expedition he, then 17, and 19-year-old friend Walter Port embarked upon several days after graduating from high school. The boys paddled 2,250 miles in an 18-foot canvas canoe, from the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling to Hudson Bay.
And a marvelous, though not Canadian, book, John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe
And finally, from the Canadian Poetry Audio Archives,
Said the Canoe
by Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850-1887)
My masters twain made me a bed
Of pine-boughs resinous, and cedar;
Of moss, a soft and gentle breeder
Of dreams of rest; and me they spread
With furry skins and, laughing, said:
“Now she shall lay her polished sides
As queens do rest, or dainty brides,
Our slender lady of the tides!”
My masters twain their camp-soul lit;
Streamed incense from the hissing cones;
Large crimson flashes grew and whirled;
Thin golden nerves of sly light curled
Round the dun camp; and rose faint zones,
Half way about each grim bole knit,
Like a shy child that would bedeck
With its soft clasp a Brave’s red neck,
Yet sees the rough shield on his breast,
The awful plumes shake on his crest,
And, fearful, drops his timid face,
Nor dares complete the sweet embrace.
Into the hollow hearts of brakes–
Yet warm from sides of does and stags
Passed to the crisp, dark river-flags–
Sinuous, red as copper-snakes,
Sharp-headed serpents, made of light,
Glided and hid themselves in night.
My masters twain the slaughtered deer
Hung on forked boughs with thongs of leather:
Bound were his stiff, slim feet together,
His eyes like dead stars cold and drear.
The wandering firelight drew near
And laid its wide palm, red and anxious,
On the sharp splendour of his branches,
On the white foam grown hard and sere
On flank and shoulder.
Death–hard as breast of granite boulder–
Under his lashes
Peered thro’ his eyes at his life’s grey ashes.
My masters twain sang songs that wove–
As they burnished hunting-blade and rifle–
A golden thread with a cobweb trifle,
Loud of the chase and low of love:
“O Love! art thou a silver fish,
Shy of the line and shy of gaffing,
Which we do follow, fierce, yet laughing,
Casting at thee the light-winged wish?
And at the last shall we bring thee up
From the crystal darkness, under the cup
Of lily folden
On broad leaves golden?
“O Love! art thou a silver deer
With feet as swift as wing of swallow,
While we with rushing arrows follow?
And at the last shall we draw near
And o’er thy velvet neck cast thongs
Woven of roses, stars and songs–
New chains all moulden
Of rare gems olden?”
They hung the slaughtered fish like swords
On saplings slender; like scimitars,
Bright, and ruddied from new-dead wars,
Blazed in the light the scaly hordes.
They piled up boughs beneath the trees,
Of cedar web and green fir tassel.
Low did the pointed pine tops rustle,
The camp-fire blushed to the tender breeze.
The hounds laid dewlaps on the ground
With needles of pine, sweet, soft and rusty,
Dreamed of the dead stag stout and lusty;
A bat by the red flames wove its round.
The darkness built its wigwam walls
Close round the camp, and at its curtain
Pressed shapes, thin, woven and uncertain
As white locks of tall waterfalls.
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