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Bark, Skin and Cedar: Exploring the Canoe in Canadian Experience

by James Raffan

Too often, self-effacing Canadians are content to define ourselves only by what we are not: namely, American. Our country is so large and sparsely populated that we tend to focus on our differences – such as language, race, or situation – rather than the experiences that draw us together.

Time and again, Canadian artists have come to identify geography as our common ground. In Bark, Skin and Cedar: Exploring the Canoe in Canadian Experience, James Raffan reasons that the canoe is the natural human response to this nation of rivers. He, like many writers before him, uses this boat as a way of exploring our country, both in practical and metaphorical terms, arguing that the idea of canoe is at the root of what it means to be Canadian, uniting us from coast to coast.

Drawing from legends, historical anecdotes, personal experience, and even advertising campaigns for beer, Raffan combines the practical knowledge of an avid canoeist with the thorough research and powers of analysis that befit his academic background; he is a professor of outdoor education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Despite variances in size and shape, the great Haida dugouts, the swift Beothuk birchbarks, and the canvas-covered Chestnuts are all built according to the same principles. Each reflects the local materials, the nature of the landscape, and the creators’ needs. And each evokes an image of who we are, of the relationship between people and place, nature and technology.

Occasionally a figure comes along who reminds us of what it means to be Canadian. In his last book, Fire in the Bones, James Raffan painted a portrait of such a figure – canoeing legend, writer, and filmmaker Bill Mason. In his latest book, Raffan is well on his way to becoming such a figure in his own right.