Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Paddling My Own Canoe . . .

"I am just sitting here filling myself full of happiness." - Esther Sessions Keyser

Today's blog is a plug of sorts for a book about canoeing. But really, it is more a book about growing up female in a time and place when being female didn't typically mean having the freedom to live your dreams.

Having spent a good many of my summers canoeing the Mississauga River in Northern Ontario, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the mother of a dear friend was Esther's closest friend and partner on many of her paddling adventures.

Written when Esther was 86 years old, Paddling My Own Canoe is a beautiful description of her life long love for Algonquin Park in Northern Ontario. First traveling from her home in upper New York State to Algonquin Park (approx. 125 miles north of Toronto), as a child of 12, Esther fell in love. As a young woman, she worked at a tourist lodge, and then as an independent guide (hence the subtitle). She was lucky enough to obtain one of the very few leaseholds in the Park (all on lakes immediately adjacent to the main highway through the Park - the remainder is wilderness). She built a very basic cabin on Smoke Lake, and returned to the Park virtually every summer for 60 years.

Paddling My Own Canoe combines stories of her personal life (marriage, divorce, 2nd marriage, three kids, retirement, death of her husband) with excerpts from diaries she and her husband kept during the innumerable canoe trips they took through the Park in the ensuing 60 years. Her love for the Park - and the beauty of the Park - come through loud and clear.

Reading one almost forgets how remarkable Esther is as a woman. Not only that she was willing to engage in a very personal rebellion (in the 30's it was hardly typical for a young woman to leave "civilization" so she could devote herself to outdoor camping and canoeing - let alone doing so in the midst of wilderness - and then making an actual career (albeit, short lived) from it. Then later on to keep canoe tripping into her late 80's, is truly a testament to a life well lived.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in getting a sense of this magnificent natural resource, planning a trip to Algonquin, or who just loves good nature writing.

*Footnote: Julia Dickerson was Esther's best friend and partner on many paddling adventures. Julia's daughter - Grace - is a dear friend of mine. This summer we hope to retrace one of the orignal routes they explored down the Mississauga River. Neither Grace (now in her 60's) or I have been on the river system in some 20 odd years. It will be a grand adventure for both of us!

To purchase a copy of the book for yourself go to the official Algonquin Park website. The book can be found at this web address:

Esther's Granddaugher has written a children's book in honor of her Grandmother that can also be purchased from the Algonquin Park webstore. A fabulous new book for both young and old on the lure and wonder of a canoe trip in Algonquin Park.

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