Heart of the Con­ti­nent

Au­thor and ca­noeist Hap Wilson of Rousseau, Ont., maps a route from Lake Su­pe­rior to Man­i­toba—by ca­noe

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Au­thor and ca­noeist Hap Wilson of Rousseau, Ont., maps a route from Lake Su­pe­rior to Man­i­toba—by ca­noe.

Idraw maps; been draw­ing them since I was a teenager. It’s an ob­ses­sion with me—a way to in­dulge in a pas­sion to pre­serve what I ex­plore. Maps and draw­ings find their col­lec­tive way into jour­nals I’ve kept de­scrib­ing var­i­ous ad­ven­tures and ex­plo­rations, and, later, into the sev­eral guide­books I’ve pro­duced. I stopped cal­cu­lat­ing the dis­tance I’ve trav­elled across Canada, but my jour­nals, and my aching joints, tell me that my ex­plo­rations have gone well beyond the 60,000-kilo­me­tre mark, span­ning al­most half of our great coun­try.

My wilder­ness ex­plo­rations by ca­noe, how­ever, are not founded on dis­tance or per­sonal achieve­ments—the no­to­ri­ety is ac­cepted po­litely— nor do my guide­books fo­cus solely on mak­ing life eas­ier for the ad­ven­tur­ing pad­dler. My work is born out of a love for the pri­mal beauty of this coun­try, which is of­ten taken for granted and can lead to ne­glect, in­dus­trial in­tru­sion and even more re­cently—wilder­ness af­fected by cli­mate change. All of this presents an el­e­ment of ur­gency for me. Canada boasts a healthy por­tion of wilder­ness, and still sports the world’s largest in­tact Abo­rig­i­nal trail sys­tems—ca­noe routes. As a world­wide com­mod­ity, wilder­ness is in­fin­itely more valu­able as it be­comes scarce. This is why my guide­books em­brace the im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions made by our First Peo­ples, as well as mag­nify the sig­nif­i­cance of a sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ment.

When the Trans Canada Trail folks ap­proached me to map out a ca­noe trail from Thun­der Bay to Man­i­toba, my first thought was, an­other guide­book? No way, too much work!

I knew that any guide­book would take at least four years to com­plete and that meant liv­ing on mea­gre funds, weeks alone on the trail, iso­la­tion, hard­ship, months of stu­dio car­tog­ra­phy— but I caved. I gave in to the “call­ing” as I al­ways do, the chal­lenge, in­trigue and time spent in the ca­noe be­came an over­rid­ing res­o­lu­tion. It was a re­gion of the coun­try I had not trav­elled, it was rife with his­tory, pre-his­tory, in­trigue and even ghosts, de­mons and spir­its of ev­ery va­ri­ety.

We can’t build a land trail, they said, as it would be too ex­pen­sive, too hard to main­tain. The de­ci­sion to in­clude the quintessen­tial Cana­dian ca­noe route as part of the “Great Trail” was an ac­ci­den­tally bril­liant ac­cep­tance of the im­por­tance of Canada’s first trails. Time con­straints and the com­plex­ity of con­struct­ing a land-based trail aside, in my opin­ion, a wa­ter trail was a nec­es­sary and crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the Cana­dian iden­tity. Ca­noe trails date back thou­sands of years and still form an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of First Na­tions cos­mo­log­i­cal be­liefs in a con­nec­tive sense. Ca­noe trails lead to vi­sion-quest high­points, in­cred­i­ble pic­to­graph teach­ing rocks, an­cient vil­lage set­tle­ments and tool­ing sites. They formed a travel net­work for trade and ac­cess to tra­di­tional hunt­ing ter­ri­to­ries.

With this in mind, I ac­cepted

the chal­lenge of map­ping out what would amount to five per­cent of the to­tal Great Trail— 1,250 kilo­me­tres.

It took seven years to com­plete, half of which was spent in the stu­dio draw­ing maps and il­lus­tra­tions. The jour­ney, from the first day I put my ca­noe in the wa­ter to the day when I put the fi­nal touches of my pen to the more than 75 hand-drawn maps I created, was noth­ing shy of ex­tra­or­di­nary.

The land across which I trav- elled—le Petit Nord—as it was known to the his­toric in­ter­lop­ers, later named Path of the Pad­dle in hon­our of Bill Ma­son, one of the coun­try’s iconic pad­dlers, could eas­ily be de­scribed as Canada’s heart­land. It’s where for­est meets Prairie, and lakes and rivers flow in op­pos­ing di­rec­tions. To Indige­nous Peo­ples, it is “where land was formed on the back of the great tur­tle.”

For me, ex­plo­ration is not merely an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of ter­res­trial dis­cov­ery, but an ex­am­i­na­tion of the peo­ple who live and have lived there. Path of the Pad­dle is not de­fined sim­ply by its beauty or tracts of un­prece­dented wilder­ness, but by those who have cho­sen to make Le Petit Nord their home. Peo­ple whose pas­sion re­mains em­bla-

zoned in story, tale and his­tor­i­cal chron­i­cle. My own ad­ven­ture in map­ping this route pales in com­par­i­son to the nar­ra­tive of events that have taken place here. What Canada was to be­come would play out here: res­o­lu­tion of bor­der dis­putes, ri­valry be­tween fur-trade com­pa­nies, ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion of re­sources, all be­tween the plains of Man­i­toba and the Great In­land Sea.

Be­fore the Euro­pean in­va­sion, the sum­mer wa­ter trails, known as onigum, and the win­ter trails or bon-ka-naw, were the life ar­ter­ies of travel and trade for Canada’s First Peo­ples.

I met re­gional ar­chae­ol­o­gist Den­nis Smyk from Ig­nace, Ont., at the Drift­wood Diner, very early on in my trav­els. Den­nis had doc­u­mented over 600 habi­ta­tion and pic­to­graph sites within the Path of the Pad­dle cor­ri­dor. Of visi­tors to rock paint­ing sites, Den­nis re­marks that “most are un­able or un­will­ing to in­ter­pret or ac­knowl­edge be­liefs as­so­ci­ated with the paint­ings.” Per­haps a com­mon enough faux pas for those who re­late the sim­plis­tic style in which rock paint­ings are pre­sented to mere graf­fiti, when in fact, the artist- shaman or “teacher of the up­right life” pre- sented them as a mes­sage, a his­tor­i­cal ac­count or teach­ing. Den­nis says the “spir­i­tual teach­ing sites were care­fully cho­sen for their ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion, as­so­ci­ated en­vi­ron­ment and rock type, but also for their spir­i­tual pith or en­ergy.” Leav­ing medicine bun­dles or of­fer­ings were and still are a manda­tory show of re­spect.

Path of the Pad­dle, land of the Anishi­naabe, or Ojibwe Peo­ple, or “be­ings made out of noth­ing,” ac­cord­ing to Ojibwe lin­guist and au­thor Basil John­ston, held do­min­ion over the lands sur­round­ing Lake Su­pe­rior, west to the Prairies. Their tra­di­tional ter­rito- ries sport the heav­i­est con­cen­tra­tion of pic­tographs and spir­i­tual sites in all of Canada.

My book is not just about map­ping one con­tigu­ous lin­ear path, but a col­lec­tion of con­nected ca­noe trails. Al­though a pad­dler could em­brace the no­tion of mak­ing a go of it in one multi-faceted jour­ney, in ei­ther di­rec­tion, my se­lec­tion for the book in­cludes seven very dif­fer­ent wa­ter trails. Each seg­ment for the guide­book was scru­ti­nized for Indige­nous cor­re­la­tion, land­scape anom­alies and the na­ture of con­nec­tive wa­ter con­fig­u­ra­tions. Not an easy task when at­tempt­ing to stick to a

par­tic­u­larly tight set of guide­lines and cri­te­rion.

Be­cause this is not a book that sim­ply de­picts unique Cana­dian land­scapes, it was also prin­ci­pled to in­clude the com­mu­ni­ties along the way—like con­nect­ing the dots on a very large map. The Great Trail was ini­ti­ated to con­nect peo­ple to the Cana­dian land­scape; with that in mind, to con­fig­ure a work­able wa­ter trail, it was nec­es­sary to find a suit­able route within the reach of sev­eral towns, First Na­tions vil­lages and convenient points of ac­cess. Not an easy task when try­ing to blend wilder­ness with set­tle­ment, or ar­eas of in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment. The re­al­ity of the Cana­dian iden­tity is one of many faces. The verac­ity of ex­plo­ration is also obliged to meld hu­man­ity with the en­vi­ron­ment in which said hu­man­ity lives.

The Cana­dian land­scape is chang­ing, and wilder­ness is dwin­dling as the coun­try evolves and the de­mand for re­sources be­comes greater. Lake Su­pe­rior to Man­i­toba by Ca­noe: Map­ping the Route into the Heart of the Con­ti­nent does im­press upon the reader the need to pre­serve and pro­tect, but also to re­spect the con­nec­tion our First Peo­ples have with the land we call Canada. ■

Above: In an age when map­mak­ers rely on dig­i­tal car­tog­ra­phy, Hap‘s maps, like the one shown, ad­here to his­tor­i­cally field-truthed, hand-drawn maps. Left: The camp­fire is a gath­er­ing place for story and re­vi­tal­iza­tion.

Clock­wise from far left: Blind­fold Bay pic­tographs—it’s still a sci­en­tific mys­tery as to how these an­cient teach­ing sites have de­fied the el­e­ments; this shot of a ca­noe, dog and moose per­son­i­fies the Cana­dian ad­ven­ture; White Ot­ter Cas­tle, home to...

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