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Canoodling Canada's original highways

Back Roads Bill interviews Roy MacGregor, one of Canada’s most prolific writers, who examines the historical legacy and future of Canada's greatest rivers through the lens of the canoe

On the rack in the backyard, the little red canoe is withdrawn, overturned and not liking it, and the crest of snow on the canvas is visible along the tumblehome. It yearns for open water now closing in on this writer.

Back in 2007, after much input from listeners and a panel of judges, the CBC Radio show Sounds Like Canada picked the canoe as one of the country's seven wonders. One of those judges was Roy MacGregor.

“It may have been the promise of a railroad to the Pacific that made Canada whole,” writes Roy in his book, Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada, "but it was rivers that carried the people west and made that railroad necessary.”

It is worthy of a Christmas gift.

With those words, one of Canada’s most accomplished raconteurs sets out to tell not only the tale of 16 of our great rivers, he weaves together a story of Canada and its ongoing relationship with its most precious resource and the canoe.

Called a “national treasure” by the Globe and Mail; CBC’s radio book personality Shelagh Rogers says Roy MacGregor “has a sense of Canada like no other.”

In almost fifty years of journalism that has taken him throughout the provinces and territories, he may well have seen more of the country than any living Canadian. His love of the country is at the core of his newspaper columns and 50 books.

He has been called "the Wayne Gretzky of hockey writing.”

He is the acclaimed and bestselling author of The Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey (shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award); A Life in the Bush (winner of the US Rutstrum Award for Best Wilderness Book and the CAA Award for Biography); Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People; Canoe Country: The making of Canada; and Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him; as well as two novels, Canoe Lake and The Last Season, and the popular Screech Owls mystery series for young readers.

MacGregor has been a regular columnist at The Globe and Mail since 2002; his journalism has garnered four National Magazine Awards and two National Newspaper Awards. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was described in the citation as one of Canada’s “most gifted storytellers.”

Books – Christmas

Expanding on his landmark column series in which he documented his travels down 16 of Canada's great rivers, MacGregor tells the story of our country through the stories of its original highways, and how they sustain our spirit, identity and economy - past, present and future. 

“No country is more blessed with fresh water than Canada,” he explains.

“There are more than 8,500 named rivers alone in the country. As a journalist interested in seeing as much as possible of the country I cover, and as a passionate canoeist endlessly intrigued by what lies around that next bend, I had to accept that reality: no book can tell the whole story, no person can journey them all.”

From the publisher, Penguin Random House Canada:

Our beloved chronicler of Canadian life, Roy MacGregor, has paddled, sailed and traversed their lengths, learned their stories and secrets, and the tales of centuries lived on their rapids and riverbanks.

He raises lost tales, like that of the Great Tax Revolt of the Gatineau River, and reconsiders histories like that of the Irish would-be settlers who died on Grosse Ile and the incredible resilience of settlers in the Red River Valley.

Along the Grand, the Ottawa and others, he meets the successful conservationists behind the resuscitation of polluted wetlands, including even Toronto's Don, the most abused river in Canada (where he witnesses families of mink, returned to play on its banks).

Long before our national railroad was built, our rivers held Canada together; in these sixteen portraits, filled with yesterday's adventures and tomorrow's promise, MacGregor weaves together a story of Canada and its ongoing relationship with its most precious resource.

The Ottawa

The Ottawa River is one of the rivers highlighted in the book.

It is in our northeastern Ontario’s backyard, we see the expansive headwaters from the Devil’s Rock vista in Temiskaming Shores (Haileybury). Journey to Témiscaming via Highway 63 through North Bay and you see it narrowing, on the island between two provinces and its presence as a source of community.

In Mattawa, the Ottawa is the foreground for the well-storied three crosses stately and high above the “meeting of the waters.” On the way to Ottawa, it appears and reappears to the east until you peer down upon it from Parliament Hill.

In his book it is highlighted within Chapter Two, ‘Priceless and Precarious'. Here is an excerpt related to our regional heritage.

The Ottawa River – so important to First Nations, to exploration, to the fur and timber trades – was the closest and first river I wrote about.

The others (Saint John, St. Lawrence, Gatineau, Rideau, Dumoine, Muskoka, Don, Grand, Niagara, Red, North Saskatchewan, Bow, Columbia, Fraser and Mackenzie) showed me how deeply those who live along those rivers treasure them and worry about what will become of them.

The Ottawa is also a storied river far beyond the exploits of the early explorers and the coureurs de bois of the fur trade.

It was along the Ottawa that Archibald, the 13th Laird of McNab, established a short-lived feudal system in the 1820s when he brought several dozen clansmen from Scotland to settle new present-day Arnprior.

When Canada experienced its first entry into wold affairs in the mid-110s, it was mostly Ottawa Valley raftsmen, loggers and First Nations who made up the nearly four hundred “voyageurs” requested by Britain to take British troops up the Nile in what would become a failed attempt to rescue General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who was under siege in Khartoum.

One Ottawa Valley logger, Joseph Montferrand, was such a legendary figure that his exploits are captured in the Stompin’ Tom Connors song “Big Joe Mufferaw.”

The Interview

I asked him about the Mattawa River, where I reside, a Canadian Heritage River.

"The Mattawa, I have canoed its length and love it. It's extremely important and I would have included it had the series continued. I had written about the Mattawa more extensively in ‘Canoe Country’ and was trying not to repeat myself," he said.

"The Mattawa was THE link between the Montreal-Ottawa River run and the West, of course, but also the route of the priests who came to Huronia. In terms of fur and timber, it was as important as the Ottawa itself. It's also a beautiful river and one of the great paddles in Canada.”

Canoe Country is his 50th book and it shows the canoe and its derivatives as an icon. It features the Mattawa River in Chapter Four and many references to Grey Owl’s Northern Ontario wilderness beginning. He explains how the canoe has its rightful place next to the maple leaf.

How important is canoeing to our youth and new Canadian? 

"I believe, strongly, that a canoe trip should be part of the Canadian high school curriculum," he said. "It not only teaches about our heritage -- First Nations, the fur trade -- but shows why the landscape of Canada is so revered by people around the world. But that's hardly all. A week-long canoe trip or longer can teach invaluable lessons about sharing, cooperating, getting along, work ethic, achievement, pride and (perhaps as important as anything else) the utter futility of whining."

Another MacGregor book to consider for Christmas is Northern Light

It is a lifelong fascination with Tom Thomson it first led him to write Canoe Lake, a novel inspired by a distant relative's affair with one of Canada's greatest painters. Northern Light examines the mysteries of Thomson's life, loves and violent death in the definitive non-fiction account.

And will there be more canoe stories?

“More canoe stories... I imagine so. Rivers I have paddled but did not write about in this book include the Petawawa, the Mattawa, the Madawaska, the Kootenay," He said. "I did not get to Newfoundland. I did not get to the rivers of Northern Quebec and Northern Ontario I would like to have reached. As Haig-Brown is quoted in this book, no book could do justice to all the rivers of Canada. Ever.”

Value of Water

As for Canada itself, we should not be so smug as to think our supply of water is infinite. Roy reminds readers of our role within the sustainable scheme of things.

“Pollution remains a major concern, as well, whether in waters surrounding major cities or in remote areas," he says. "This matter that sustains us, however, is not infinite. Nor, obviously, is it equally spread throughout this planet. Canada might have 20 per cent of earth's fresh water, but other countries are already suffering desperate shortages. Ironically, water has been part of the problem. The world's population soared in no small part because of hygiene and irrigation. More food meant more people, and healthier humans lived longer. At the turn of the century, the world's population stood around six billion. By 2050, it is estimated that number could reach nine billion, a 50 per cent increase in barely half a century.”

Roy is now working on his memoirs, a collection of humorous stories over a lifetime of writing and journalism.

He was a guest speaker at one of our Canadian Ecology Centre’s featured book talks, our first meeting. When I recently caught up with Roy I was met with the uncomfortable news that his wife Ellen had succumbed to COVID this past spring.

The Christmas card that I have ready for the Mattawa post office, pre conversation, has both their names. The word tandem paddling, during a lifetime together, applies to their canoe trip.

Given climate change, winter canoeing and kayaking are becoming more of an option but there is reading time when water eventually changes its state of matter.

In summary, the little red canvas canoe posted “Likes” for three of his books, Original Highways - Travelling the Great Rivers of CanadaCanoe Country: The making of Canada and Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him; so will you. It has been a good year on the back waters. HO-HO-HO!


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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