The new Canadian Canoe Museum with Carolyn Hyslop and Jeremy Ward 

Episode 82

The executive director and curator talk about canoes, kayaks and a stunning new location for The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont. 

A rendering of the new museum, located on Little Lake in Peterborough, Ont. The location allows staff to host canoeing and other outdoor programming. (Photo: Lett Architects Inc.)
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To executive director Carolyn Hyslop and curator Jeremy Ward, every canoe and kayak is special —  each has a story worth telling, and a heritage worth preserving. Hyslop and Ward have devoted decades to building up the world’s premier collection of canoes and kayaks at The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont. On May 11, the pair celebrate the opening of a new home for the museum on the shores of Little Lake, Ont., a building worthy of the 500-plus esteemed watercraft it houses. 

Carolyn Hyslop (foreground, left) and Jeremy Ward (foreground, right) work alongside colleagues to move a replica of the fur trade-era “north canoe” crafted by Atikamekw canoe maker César Newashish. (Photo courtesy of The Canadian Canoe Museum)
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On what makes the new museum so special

Carolyn: We’ve been dreaming of putting our museum and collection on the water for so many years. You can now arrive by water — actually paddle over, arrive at our docks, and be greeted by a beautiful willow tree and some wonderful white pines. Then you can walk up through the grounds to arrive at a wood-burning fireplace at the back of the new museum. And then come inside to this beautiful warm wood interior constructed from mass timber and cross-laminated timber columns. There’s a real rich wood feel. And this is the new home; the home of the canoes. It completely transforms our offerings, allowing us to provide outdoor and experiential education, focus on environmental literacy and stewardship, and have the building purpose-built to house this wonderful collection of canoes that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. 

On the standout pieces

Jeremy: One of my favourite parts of this new museum is that the work-shop spaces are right up front in the atrium. So when you walk in, you may actually see a canoe or a kayak being built in our workshop. One of the kayaks that we’re about to bring over to exhibit was just flown down from Iqaluit. It was made by Robert Comeau and Aasivak Arnaquq-Baril of the Qajakkut Society, who’ve been promoting kayak knowledge and Inuit maritime traditions in Nunavut for quite some time. They’ve made a South Baffin-style qajaq that will be their point position in the exhibition hall to tell their stories and knowledge to a wider audience. 

The public atrium of the Canadian Canoe Museum features soaring double-high ceilings and beautiful exposed mass timber elements as well as views into the Museum’s Collection Centre. (Photo: The Canadian Canoe Museum)
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The Collection Hall will house the majority of the collection, 500 canoes, kayaks, and paddled watercraft, and will enable the display of 100 per cent of the Museum’s collection onsite. (Photo: The Canadian Canoe Museum)
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Carolyn: The birchbark canoes have always been an area of the museum people gravitate to. I love, love it when kids realize that all of their parts come from nature, can be found in the forest and are harvested, cared for and put together to make these beautiful, resilient, infinitely repairable, wonderful-to-paddle watercraft.  

Carolyn Hyslop, the Canadian Canoe Museum's executive director. (Photo courtesy Carolyn Hyslop)
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On honouring Indigenous origins

Carolyn: You can’t look at a canoe or kayak without grounding yourself in the knowledge that this is a watercraft of Indigenous origin. For us, it’s about honouring the stories, honouring the communities. We’ve made a great effort in the last number of years to reconnect communities and builders with the watercraft we will be displaying and to build better relationships. We think of it as that we’re currently caring for these watercraft and that we want to do right by that relationship. It’s an open dialogue as to how they should be looked after and what stories should be told.

Jeremy Ward, curator at The Canadian Canoe Museum. (Photo courtesy Jeremy Ward)
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On getting out on the water

Carolyn: We’ll judge how well we’ve done our job by how many people get out onto the water themselves. We’ve built two docks so that we have accessibility for people to get into a canoe or a kayak, regardless of abilities. If they are a paddler, they can rent a canoe or kayak from us and get out onto the lake. If they’re a little more unsure, we’ll be offering voyageur canoe tours on the lake as well. It’s about getting people to slow down and experience this world so that they hopefully then do it again and again until it becomes part of their lives. We’re also offering summer day camp programming and we’re already imagining having trips start and end at the museum. I think that’s going to be a powerful educational experience for a lot of people. 

On the canoe’s enduring appeal

Jeremy: It’s the pace, the exposure, the vulnerability you have when travelling by canoe. You’re exposed to the weather and under your own steam. There’s a lot of time to process, and it takes a lot of exertion; you’re highly attuned and aware. There are so many opportunities to make connections when journeying at that pace — you consider the world around you and your smallness in the midst of it all. There’s the water closing behind you as the canoe passes over it, as if you were never there. It’s not often in our lives that we’re so light on the Earth as we travel. It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time.


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This story is from the May/June 2024 Issue

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