Canadian Canoe Museum

by Gary McWilliams (aka Festival Nomad)

It’s About Time…

A number of years ago an artist acquaintance, Neil Broadfoot, told me about this great museum he was affiliated with. It was the Canadian Canoe Museum and they were just about to open their brand-new facility.

He described the museum to me and suggested that I should make sure I visited it. That was back in 1997 and, honestly, I never got around to visiting it! The sad part is that it is only 45 minutes north of Cobourg in the City of Peterborough!

Imagine my surprise and delight when a friend, who was visiting the area from the United States, asked me if I would like to accompany him to the Canoe Museum. I, of course, jumped at the invitation! We arranged a time to meet and then drove north on Hwy #28 to Peterborough. The museum, located just a short distance north of Lansdowne Street (a major east/west road in Peterborough) on Monaghan Road, was easy to find. The museum is housed in a renovated donated to them by the Outboard Marine Corporation of Canada.

The donation consisted of 8 acres of property and two industrial buildings. The building closest to Monaghan Road is used as the museum and the back building for storage and I think restoration. The museum is unimposing from the outside. However, after we had parked our car in their large parking lot and entered the main entrance to the museum, we entered a different spectacular world!

The Passion of Canoeing…

One of the first paintings we came to was of Voyageurs, very fitting for Canada’s Canoe Museum! I little bit further along was a replica of a Hudson’s Bay store, filled with goods and pelts.

The shear size of the building and the number of canoes on display was a bit overwhelming. I tried to take it all in, to remember everything I saw, but that was impossible! When I got home and reviewed all the photographs I had taken, I still couldn’t take it all in. I believe that this is the type of exhibit that needs several visits!

So, my descriptions of the canoes in the photos will be sketchy at best, but I do want to give you at least the feel of this magnificent tribute to Canada’s canoeing past and to the “passion of canoeing”!


The museum is a multi-level building that allows visitors to wander and discover.

The first part of my wanderings took me to a section that showed and described several different types of canoes. There were even a few kayaks thrown in for good measure!

This display certainly brought back memories of my childhood in Haliburton on Little Lake Boskung. My parents use to take the family to Matabanick Inn where we stayed most of the summer.

They had a number of canvas covered canoes (red and green) that Inn guests could use. I can remember that we used them for all types of water sports, even including paddling them!

Probably the best use was for learning how to water-ski. You’d sit on the bow of the canoe, water-skis on and then let the motorboat (with 10 hp Johnson) pull you until you got your balance and were skiing. The tricky part was getting off the canoe without impaling yourself on the sharp bow of the canoe! I remember all the kids encouraging our Dad to try it. He did try; got up on the skis and then fell and was dragged several feet under water. He came to the surface gurgling and spluttering!  We all thought that this was quite funny, but I don’t think Dad was that amused!

I can’t imagine anyone who summered up north not having similar types of memories! All of these canoes on display had a special place in my memory bank. As we moved along through the canoes, we came to a tribute area. I hadn’t realized just how large a part the Peterborough area had played in the history of canoeing!

The area and its storyboards told us about the companies who an integral part of the history, companies such as Rice Lake Canoes, the Canadian Canoe Co. Ltd.,, the Lakefield Canoe Building and Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and, of course, the Peterborough Canoe Co. Ltd. Included in this area was a display of newspaper clippings describing the May 9th, 1892 fire that burned down the Ontario Canoe Company’s factory.

After the fire a group of Peterborough businessmen purchased its assets and re-opened, February 15th, 1893 as the Peterborough Canoe Company. Living so close to Peterborough and having my roots in the area (my great grandfather was a carriage maker in Lakefield) gave me a sense of my own history!

The Royal Canoes…

The Royal family has a close relationship with the Peterborough area. HRH Prince Andrew attended Lakefield College School as an exchange student in 1977.

Lakefield is a scenic town located just a few kilometers north of Peterborough. In May 2006, HRH Prince Andrew, Duke of York, became the museum’s Royal Patron. At the ceremony he donated three significant Royal canoes to the museum. Each canoe represents a different Royal generation. Storyboards tell the history of each canoe. The canoes and their stories are prominently displayed in their own area. Close to the Royal Canoes is a display featuring Bill Mason’s red Chestnut Prospector canoe. Bill was a well known Canadian author, artist and film maker. His films include the “Cry of the Wild”!

Passed the Mason display was the museum’s workshop. The skeleton of a newly started canoe filled part of the shop. The craftsman working in the shop told us that they only worked on the canoe occasionally. I asked him what he was working on and he told me display shelving for the museum. It’s nice to have talented people around helping!

From the workshop we moved on to a “Birch Bark Canoe” display. There was a storyboard that told us how to construct one! Next to the Birch Bark Canoe display was a display “Dugout Canoes”. Here we were told its origins. It never occurred to me that there were so many types of canoes! There was even a canoe made of “Balsam Bark”!

It was truly an amazing experience to view so many canoes! The logistics of displaying so many canoes must have been a design nightmare. However, floor display designers did their job! All of the canoes, paddles and kayaks came together as one! We moved forward to the sound of someone scrapping wood…

More Canoes…

We looked over the edge of the railing to see a man scrapping wood! He was handcrafting a paddle. All around him were wood shavings. The craftsman looked up and acknowledged us. Near him was an unfinished canoe. I asked him if he enjoyed crafting canoes and paddles.

He, of course, said he did. I believe he was one of the many dedicated volunteers who make the Canoe Museum so special! After watching for a while, we moved on to the next exhibit. Here we could learn all about the “Company of Adventurers”, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Their story was told in both words and displays. Voyageur displays came next. It amazing to think that the canoes we were seeing were the “transport trucks” of times gone by! The strength and stamina of the men who took up this dangerous profession is the stuff legends are made of. To think how far these fearless men paddled and portaged is mind boggling!

The Canadian Canoe Museum represents all aspects of this era wonderfully with shelters and encampments! The storyboards along the way fill in the gaps. All too soon we had completed our explorations of the museum! We walked down the stairs to the main foyer. On our left was the museum’s gift shop. We went in to have a look. My friend was hoping to find a “canoeing” book for his son.