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Paddling's Top 10 Hit Parade

David Archibald • Credit: James Raffan
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Paddling's Top 10 Hit Parade

Kevin Callan's favourite canoe-inspired songs

There is something magical about paddling in Ontario. Listen carefully to the lyrics of these talented musicians who share what it means to them.

Elton John referenced a blue canoe in his spiritual ditty “Where To Now St. Peter?” The progressive rock group King Crimson made mention of a canoe “without a wheel” in their odd “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” psychedelic jam. Canada’s own Gordon Lightfoot name-checks northern rivers he dreams of paddling in “Canary Yellow Canoe.”

The list of Canadian Canoe Culture-inspired music goes on, but my favourites are the songs written about where I choose to do most of my backcountry paddling, in Northern Ontario. They help me keep time as I paddle, even if I have to only hum some of the lyrics.

Here are my Top 10. I’ll leave the final rankings to you.

“Path of the Paddle” by David Archibald 

There’s canvas and cedar and small bits of brass
A paddle of cherry wood, a lake smooth as glass
and the perfect reflection of what’s gone before
as the mist burns away now and I push off from shore

You might have caught David Archibald during his Ontario Parks tour last summer. He travelled from park to park, performing his tunes about camping and paddling. He even had a new one titled “Happiest Camper in Ontario.” My favourite of his is an older song. He worked together with singer Myrna McBrien and produced “Path of the Paddle,”  on the album, Pukaskwa: Songs of Superior. It’s an absolutely beautiful song that every paddler should hear.

“Shield” By David Hadfield 

David Hadfield                                            Photo Credit: Roger Hadfield

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

David Hadfield is just as passionate about paddling canoes as his more famous brother, Chris, is about flying spaceships. “Shield,” from the album Northern Breeze, is a celebration of the beauty of paddling the Canadian Shield waterways north of Kenora, a region he claims has some of the best wilderness canoeing in the Province. After a careful listen, it will be obvious he spends a lot of time out there.

“Woodsmoke and Oranges” by Ian Tamblyn 

Ian Tamblyn                                                    Photo Credit: Peter Burtch

In the land of the silver birch, cry of the loon
There's something 'bout this country that's a part of me and you

This is an absolute classic from the album Superior: Spirit and Light. One of many of Ian Tamblyn’s impressive body of work. Anyone that paddles along Lake Superior’s northern shoreline will want to have memorized the lyrics so they can sing out while coasting along the rocky cliffs of Pukaskwa, a paddler’s paradise

“The Song My Paddle Singsby Tamarack

We've raced the rapid, we're far ahead
The river slips through its silent bed

“The Song My Paddle Sings” is one of best-known compositions of poet Pauline Johnson, born in 1861 at the Six Nations reserve outside Brantford, Ontario. It’s based on a canoe trip across Canada, including along the French and Mattawa rivers and the north shore of Lake Superior. The best version put to music is by the Ontario-based-band Tamarack, whose work draws heavily on traditional themes.

Learn more about cultural routes to paddle.

“Land of the Silver Birch” by Wakami Wailers 

The Wakami Wailers at Martin River Provincial Park.               Photo Credit: Dave Sproule

Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more

The iconic song “Land of the Silver Birch” is a Canadian folk song that dates from the 1920s. It’s become one of the most popular to be sung around campfires or while trying to keep time paddling a canoe. It’s been recorded by a number of musicians, but my favourite version is definitely by the Wakami Wailers, on their album Waltz With The Woods. They are a band formed in 1981 by four nature interpreters at Wakami Lake Provincial Park, near Chapleau, Ontario.

“Lessons of the Path and the Paddle” by James Gordon 

James Gordon                                                    Photo Credit: Fred Hunsberger

Teach me the lessons of the path and the paddle
and light a spirit fire in my soul

James Gordon, a co-founder of Tamarack, has had a very successful solo career that includes a number of songs based on paddling in the north. But this one really hits the mark. The lyrics speak of canoe tripping the rivers north of Superior. It’s simply an extraordinary song on the album, Canoesongs Vol. 2.

“Canoeing With Daddy” by Jerry Vandiver 

Jerry Vandiver                                      Photo Credit: Nola Risse-Connolly 

He promised that as long as we’re together
every portage would be a piece of cake
yeah right!

Jerry Vandiver is a singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee, who has recorded several albums solely about canoeing. Songs like “Wabakimi,” “Camp Coffee,” and “More than a River” are based on his Ontario canoe trips. “Canoeing With Daddy,” from the album Paddle On, is all about how magical a father and daughter canoe trip can be in Northern Ontario. It might just bring a tear to your eye (though I may be biased, since my daughter helped write it).

“Let Us Go Laughing” by Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn                                              Photo Credit: Kevin Kelly

My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away


Bruce Cockburn learned to canoe at summer camp and went on to do canoe trips with legendary paddler and filmmaker Bill Mason. Cockburn’s music is a centerpiece of one of Mason’s best films, Waterwalker. The guitar virtuoso has had international hits, but canoeists will gravitate to one song in particular. “Let Us Go Laughing” evokes paddling in Ontario’s Northern watersheds and was a highlight of his excellent second album, High Winds, White Sky, released in 1971.

“King of White Otter Lake” by Rodney Brown 

Rodney Brown                                                Photo Credit: Shannon Lepere

Build me a castle she said
Built it three times over my head

Rodney Brown is a proud Thunder Bay local who continues to write and record incredible songs about the North. One canoe classic on the album North Land is “King of White Otter Lake,” written by Bill Houston, about the fabled hermitage along the Turtle River, south of Ignace and north of Atikokan, Ontario. As the song tells, Jimmy McQuat paddled to White Otter Lake in 1914 and began building a log castle for a Scottish mail order bride. It took him 30 years, and the bride never did show up. It’s a classic story and an outstanding ballet.

Learn more about White Otter Castle.

“Untamed” by Adam Ruzzo 

Adam Ruzzo                                                      Photo Credit: Chad Barry

Unnamed, unchanged, untamed
This land long remains

Adam Ruzzo is the real deal. He built a cabin on the eastern border of Algonquin Provincial Park and spends his days working as an interior park ranger and his evenings writing or performing songs of the North. His work creates a musical landscape for wilderness travel, just as Tom Thomson's paintings did in the visual medium, “Untamed,” a song from his soon to be released album Froze In, was inspired during his work as a ranger, spending days on the canoe trials and pondering over the stories held in the wilderness landscape.

Spend a day exploring the paintings of Tom Thomson and paddling Canoe Lake, a place where he lived and died.


If you get familiar enough with these songs, you might find they accompany you on your next canoe trip. Like the best kind of paddling partner, they’ll never weigh you down, only lift you up.

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