Wilderness: a beautiful word to describe a beautiful land. Wilderness though is a white man’s concept. To the Native people, the land was not wild. It was home. It provided shelter, clothed and fed them. And echoing through their souls was a song of the land. The singing isn’t as loud as it used to be. But you can still hear it in the wind….in the silence of the misty morning….in the drip of the water from the tip of a paddle. The song is still here if you know how to listen. – Bill Mason, Song Of the Paddle

The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores….There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known. – Sigurd Olson from  The Singing Wilderness

The canoe was drifting off the islands, and the time had come for the calling, that moment of magic in the north when all is quiet and the water still iridescent with the fading glow of sunset. Even the shores seemed hushed and waiting for the first lone call, and when it came, a single long-drawn mournful note, the quiet was deeper than before. – Sigurd Olson, The Singing Wilderness

I paddle a canoe as a past-time. Beyond the simple mechanics of paddling is the actual dance of the canoe. We create the sheer poetry of motion by making a rhythm or even music with the canoe; literally making the canoe dance. Just as there are no wrong notes in making music (at least in the purest sense), even if we don’t know the exact correct paddle strokes, we can move that canoe, creating our own poetry or dance. As we become more proficient in paddling we can create a more intricate dance. But when we come to add emotion to our paddling, we create a vision. Then that canoe dance almost seems to takes on a life of its own. It is more than just mere paddling…almost as if that canoe becomes an extension of ourselves. Freeing ourselves. And the canoe is the vehicle or instrument to such freedom. The freedom found in making beautiful music together with my canoe. – Mike Ormsby

I was listening to CBC Radio’s Vinyl Cafe on Sunday, while I put the finishing touches on my post on the Wilderness Canoe Symposium. It was the usual great show, with Stuart McLean at his best as a storyteller. Here is the link to the podcast of this show Vinyl Cafe Podcasts….I’ve also included below:

February 19th, 2011 “Dave’s Letter”

Join host Stuart McLean and special musical guests Jenny Whitely & Joey Wright from Smiths Falls, Ontario. Every New Year, Dave sits down to write out ‘The Davies’ his annual awards and new years resolutions. This year Dave resolves to clean up the storage space above his record store. When he is up there cleaning up, he finds a letter he wrote thirty years ago. The letter outlines his life goals and when Dave realizes he has contradicted all of them.

Right click to Download February 19th, 2011 “Dave’s Letter”
[mp3 file: runs 54:22]

As was mentioned above, Stuart included musical guests Jenny Whitely and Joey Wright….about the 22nd minute mark of the podcast….just before the story of Dave’s Letter….Joey played an original instrumental Big Baby. This tune caught my attention….I had heard Joey play this tune before….on a few occasions in Toronto….Joey Wright plays what he calls “cinematic quasi bluegrass jazz compositions”, which are what he does when he’s not touring in Sarah Harmer’s band, playing in the now legendary Toronto bluegrass ensemble “Crazy Strings,” and co-writing and playing songs with his Juno Award-winning wife Jenny Whiteley.

Big Baby was one such tune….and it really grabbed me….I have been looking for music to perform a canoe ballet to….and this seems to cover all of the fun and play on water that I hope one gets dancing with a canoe.

I’ve been looking at several appropriate tunes to do a canoe ballet by….music to dance a canoe by….or at least provide background for a demo of basic canoe strokes.

Thinking of John Showman, and of the mandolin mastery of Andrew Collins, I thought of various tunes by Creaking Tree String Quartet:

Big ‘Stache:

Or this instrumental example (unfortunately I’m unsure of the name):

Of course John and Andrew also play with The Foggy Hogtown Boys:

A mandolin instrumental written by Andrew, The Stomp of Approval:

Then there is this instrumental performed by Andrew Collins and Brian Taheny at the Celtic Roots Festival 08:

But when I think of Celtic music for the canoe….then I think especially of Celtic guitarist Tony McManus:


The Accursed Kerryman, Muireann’s Jig:

Kishors Tune:

Bidh Clann Ulaidh:

Another version of Bidh Clann Ullaidh (The Clan of Ulster):

Bag Pipes Tunes:

Hector the Hero:

The Sleeping Tune/ Na Gossidich:

Obviously I have a love for Celtic music….and Tony’s tunes especially seem to speak of a canoe in the water.

I remember the music I heard while at the Wilderness Canoe Symposium. I went through my various CDs….and came up with so many possibilities.

This included songs by artists such as Rodney Brown:

Black Spruce:

The Big Lonely:

There were also music by other performers such as The Gumboots, Stan Rogers, and Tamarack, that was played at the Wilderness Canoe Symposium. Here’s Frobisher Bay by Tamarack:

One musician I heard last year at the Wilderness Canoe Symposium was Dave Hadfield….two of his songs stood out in my mind (see Dave Hadfield for more info on):


“The Canadian Shield  forest north of Kenora contains some of the most beautiful wilderness I know.  This  song is a celebration of its beauty and mystery.” (Dave Hadfield)

You know you haven’t seen this country,
Until you leave the roads behind,
And try turning back the pages, to another place and time.
Park beside a wild river,
Pull the canoe down off the rack,
Dip the paddle in the water,
And know for certain that you’re back.

And the paddle, in  the water, is a long, lost friend.
There are times I’d like to wander down a river without end,
In a hull of flowing cedar, carved by knowing hands,
That sings of rushing water — the spirit of the land.

From Quebec to Athabaska,
Its a land that doesn’t change.
Three thousand miles of forest
That at first seems hard and strange.
And the rivers are the highways,
As they flow from lake to lake,
And as you paddle through the water,
You live for living’s sake.


The rock itself is ancient; it’s been  there since life began,
And the man who says he owns it, well there stands a foolish man.
And you may strip away the forest, and damn the waters still,
Dig the metal from its body; it has a spirit you can’t kill.


Tell the weather by the east wind; tell  direction by the sun.
And the stars that shine at midnight can be touched by anyone.
And you know its not a playground — it can take a heavy toll,
But there are days of quiet glory, that show a window on your soul.


It’s just spruce and pine and granite —  too strong to ever yield;
Our burden and our blessing, our trial and our shield.

Or Wilderness Waltz:

Wilderness Waltz

This, the title track of the CD, is about Bill Mason of course. I devoured his books and films and what I could glean of his thoughts. I read the same authors. I borrowed many of his techniques. I know he influenced many other canoeists as well. His enthusiasm came out very strongly in everything that he did, infecting us all.

I also relished the decidedly retro view he had of camping equipment: his Baker tent, his wood-canvas canoes, his axe and saw and cooking with wood. I used his sewing plan from “Song of the Paddle” and had a campfire tent just like it made up. (It’s a wonderful home in the woods.) His preferences mirrored my own, and I felt a kinship with him.
“For those that he touched, with palette or lens, are partners in all but the name,” (a line from the song), sums it up, I suppose. A tribute.” (Dave Hadfield)

Well I knew a man who danced in the spring,
A wilderness waltz, a paddler’s fling,
And he roamed all alone from break-up ‘til fall,
Heeding a wilderness call.

Learning the notes of the Song of the Land,
Was a lifetime’s adventure reward.
Where the wilder the route, the better the plan,
For a method of living adored.
From a back-country lake in the stillness of dawn,
To Superior’s shore with a storm coming on,
From where in the length and the breadth of the north,
Our wilderness waters have roared.


And no one can say that he passed without friends,
Or lived but a moment of fame,
For those that he touched with palette or lens,
Are partners in all but the name.
And partners we are when out on the land,
Or first see the work that flowed from his hand.
He painted for you, an old red canoe,
Hauled up for the night on the sand

[chorus, and end]

Both of these songs by Dave can be heard on Dave Hadfield: CBC 3.

Then I thought of Ian Tamblyn’s Woodsmoke and Oranges:

Firewood, smoke and oranges, path of old canoe;
I would course the inland ocean to be back to you;
No matter where I go to, it’s always home again;
To the rugged northern shore, and the days of sun and wind;
And the land of the silver birch, cry of the loon;
There’s something ’bout this country, that’s a part of me and you. –
from Woodsmoke and Oranges by Ian Tamblyn.

Here are two YouTube versions:

The first is a very interesting interpretation by the Youth Choir Camp in August 2009:

The second is from an appearance by Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tamblyn on Vision TV’s Listen Up program, circa 1995. In it, he talks about his music, his songwriting and his songs. In this first part, he performs his well-loved song Woodsmoke and Oranges. The opening instrumental was The Chimes, which also would work as a canoe ballet theme.

By the way, Ian did the musical score for Becky Mason’s DVD Classic Solo Canoeing. He also wrote Black Spruce that was featured earlier as performed by Rodney Brown.

Of course I thought of the two Canoesongs (Volumes I and II) created to celebrate the canoe (and generate some funds for the Canadian Canoe Museum)….here are two reviews of these great CDs by Dave Schultz for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange:

Canoesongs Volume 1

If you’re the type of paddler who needs your iPod loaded with inspirational paddling music, Canoesongs Volume 1 is required listening for your music collection. Best-selling outdoor author James Raffan and award-winning record producer Paul Mills team together to compile Canadian singer-songwriters and folk artists who have written songs about canoes and canoeing. All but two of these thirteen songs have been previously released on the artists’ own albums, but have been compiled together for the first time here. Sales of this CD help support the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario.

Many songs on this collection express the serenity that we paddlers experience when canoeing across a still mountain lake in the Canadian Rockies on a warm fall afternoon. Bruce Cockburn contributes Let Us Go Laughing, his dreamy ballad from his second album 1971’s High Winds White Sky. The Path of the Paddle by Myrna McBrien and David Archibald provides a metaphor for life when solo paddling in a tandem canoe. Blue Canoe Lullaby was inspired by Jeff Hale paddling out of Algonquin Park late at night with seven-year-old son asleep in the bow of the canoe.

Not all the songs are peaceful paddling songs. James Gordon’s That Old Cedar Strip is the anthem for any ex-adventurer who has settled down in suburbia with no time to paddle anymore. Tanglefoot’s La v’la m’amie is a traditional Voyageur song sung by the fur traders. The song had a beat to keep the paddlers in rhythm. Children’s performer Fred Penner creates a sing-along round from Land of the Silver Birch” and My Paddle’s Keen and Bright, two of the best-loved campfire songs about paddling.

Like the canoe, which teaches us cooperation and independence, this album is a wonderful collection of paddling songs for your outdoor experience, for the car on the drive home, or for a quiet night at home wishing you were on the river. As Shelley Posen asks “So, asked if you want a Sea-Doo, say thanks but I’d rather canoe.”

Track List:

  • Canoe Song-Connie Kaldor
  • La V’La M’Amie – Tanglefoot
  • River Mend My Heart – Nancy White
  • Land Of The Silver Birch/ My Paddle’s Keen & Bright – Fred Penner
  • That Old Cedar Strip – James Gordon
  • The Path Of The Paddle – Myma McBrien & David Archibald
  • Let Us Go Laughing – Bruce Cockburn
  • Blue Canoe Lullaby – Jeff Hale
  • When I First Stepped In A Canoe – Shelley Posen
  • Canoe Song At Twilight – Eileen McGann
  • Campfire Light – Ian Tamblyn
  • Woodsmoke & Oranges – Three Sheets To The Wind
  • The Song My Paddle Sings – Tamarack

Canoesongs, Volume 2

Following up on the success of Canoesongs, Portage Productions enlisted author/adventurer James Raffan and producer/engineer Paul Mills to create a second volume. The result of this collaboration is another satisfying collection about paddling from the perspective of Canadian folk singers. Of the fourteen tracks, six were recorded especially for this volume.

Opening with the sound of a paddle moving through water, the opening song A Canadian Song features words written by Susanna Moodie in 1852, put to music by Ellen Hamilton, and performed by her band Night Sun. The next song is the a capella “Cry of the Wild” by Dave Hadfield, who is known for his songs about the outdoors.

Mike Ford (of the band Moxy Fruvous) lightens the tone of the album with Les Voyageurs, a song the whole family can join in on during sing-alongs on the drive to the put-in. The other funny song is a 20s-style ditty by Nancy White, proclaiming “the eskimo roll is the downside of boating.” The song evokes Christine Lavin, both in character and literally within the song itself. Another track evoking a lost Vaudeville-era is Ross Douglas’s ukulele-driven Kokanee Canary Canoe.

The most touching song on the album is Lorraine McDonald’s Red Canvas Canoe. The song is told from the perspective of an old woman who places an ad to sell the canoe she and her husband used to paddle while he was still alive.

Shelley Posen is Canada’s answer to Tom Paxton, reminiscient of Paxton’s ability to write a memorable sing-along, as well as his voice. His Canoeing my Troubles Away features a chorus all paddlers can relate to: “Canoeing my troubles away. On a lake or river, I’d paddle all day. I get endless enjoyment and full-time employment. Canoeing my troubles away.”

Like the first volume of Canoesongs, the more you listen, the more the album grows on you. I highly recommend this collection for those who enjoy a more relaxing, acoustic, paddling experience.

Track List:

  • A Canadian Song – Night Sun
  • Cry of the Wild – Dave Hadfield
  • C’est l’aviron/V’la L’bon Vent – Tanglefoot
  • Les Voyageurs – Mike Ford
  • Brush and Paddle – Ian Tamblyn
  • Red Canvas Canoe – Lorraine McDonald
  • Lessons of the Path and Paddle – James Gordon
  • One Stroke – Yael Wand
  • Eskimo Roll – Nancy White
  • Canoeing My Troubles Away – Shelley Posen
  • Class V When You Least Expect It – David Essig
  • Kokanee Canary Canoe – Ross Douglas
  • Blue Mountain Blue – David Archibald
  • Under The Same Sky – Cindy Church

Of the songs on these two CDs , I am particularly fond of the following (I’ve added comments on a few of these):

From Canoesongs 1:

Canoe Song-Connie Kaldor

River Mend My Heart – Nancy White (a most interesting song about a private/public man in a buckskin jacket paddling alone down a northern river)

Blue Canoe Lullaby – Jeff Hale

When I First Stepped In A Canoe – Shelley Posen (Shelley drew on his years at summer camp and wrote this humourous song about the misadventures of a newcomer to the world of paddles and portages…definitely one I can identify with)

Canoe Song At Twilight – Eileen McGann

From Canoesongs 2:

Brush and Paddle – Ian Tamblyn (Ian’s take on the Tom Thomson story)

Red Canvas Canoe – Lorraine McDonald

Lessons of the Path and Paddle – James Gordon

Canoeing My Troubles Away – Shelley Posen (Shelley wrote this slyly serious song about the pleasures someone must have paddling a canoe)

But I think the one song that is on these CDs that speaks to the joy of canoeing….that really talks of the dance one can have in a canoe….a dance of freedom….only one song really does that in my mind:

Let Us Go Laughing by Bruce Cockburn

My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away
One by one antique stars
Herald the arrival of
Their pale protectress moon
Ragged branches vibrate
Strummed by winds from o’er the hill
Singing tales of ancient days
Far and silent lightning
Stirs the cauldron of the sky
I turn my bow towards the shore
As we grow out of stones
On and on and on
So we’ll all go to bones
On and on for many a year
But let us go laughing — O
Let us go
And may the holy hermit’s staff
On and on and on
Guide you to the shortest path
On and on for many a year
And let us go laughing — O
Let us go
Let us go laughing — O
Let us go

Maybe the only other Bruce Cockburn composition that would fit even more so is Waterwalker. Here is the description of the YouTube video of this great tune:

This one was chosen for its obscurity. It’s off the soundtrack of a documentary film, also titled Waterwalker, made by legendary canoeist, painter and filmmaker Bill Mason. View it at the NFB website. Cockburn and Hugh Marsh did the soundtrack– all instrumental apart from this title track. The song is in standard tuning, all harmonics. Weird little composition.

But there is also the instrumental Foxglove by Bruce Cockburn too:

Or even Bruce’s End Of All Rivers:

Well there are a few thoughts on music to dance with your canoe….what would you choose?

Paddles up until later then….and remember the freedom found in making beautiful music together with your canoe.