Arts & Culture

Four must-have books to take to the lake

Canoe Country: The Making of Canada by Roy MacGregor

Roy MacGregor spends his winters in Kanata the way others spend winters in Florida, Kanata being a temporary distraction from the really important things in the life of this prolific journalist and author. MacGregor winters in Kanata to work for The Globe and Mail. Among his tasks: informing us what the Senators are really up to, on and off the ice.

MacGregor’s Kanata home, however, is not really where he lives. No, home for much of the year for this native of Huntsville is a cottage near Algonquin Park, a park that was like one big enchanted playground for Roy and his siblings as they grew up in that most quintessential of Canadian landscapes haunted by the ghost of painter Tom Thomson.

Few Canadians have written so passionately about the Canadian wilderness experience as MacGregor. And at the centre of that experience is the canoe, the First Nations invention adapted by European adventurers to amass profits and to settle the land. MacGregor is never far from his own canoe. His latest book is Canoe Country: The Making of Canada and surely nothing played a more important role in making this country than did the canoe.

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In MacGregor’s book, we meet such historically famous canoeists as explorer David Thompson, artist Frances Anne Hopkins, and the 386 latter-day Canadian voyageurs who volunteered in 1884 to paddle down the Nile River in a vain attempt to rescue British Major-General Charles George Gordon, besieged at Khartoum in Sudan. We also encounter such contemporary canoeists as the late Bill Mason, who tried to convince fellow paddler Pierre Trudeau to put the canoe on the national flag.

Canoe Country is essential reading for any cottager. It will help you understand not just the genesis of Canada but why the heck you (and your canoe) are spending your summers at a backwoods cottage, swatting mosquitos, using a smelly outhouse, and loving every minute of the experience. As MacGregor informs us, the true Canadian feels the need from time to time to test his or her mettle, and what better way than by steering your canoe into white water, battling all the forces of nature, and emerging on the other side of the rapids, soaked but thoroughly exhilarated. This is how Canadians commune with their forebears. Our ancestors canoed because they had to; we honour them by paddling for the sheer joy of it.

Being a Bird in North America by Robert Alvo

A strange bird is swimming with ducks in the marsh by your cottage. The kids demand its name. You haven’t a clue. The solution? Hand them this fact-and-fun-filled reference book about 200 bird species by an Ottawa conservation biologist. Let the kids discover the mystery bird’s name, details about its habitat, what it eats for breakfast, and its tricks for survival.

A mixture of science and humour, Being a Bird in North America is filled with photographs, maps, and cartoons suitable for children and adults alike. Consider what Alvo has to say about the American coot (Fulica americana). These birds are supposed to follow aquatic habitats when migrating. But they are known to veer off course, flying over seemingly endless oceans or thick forests that offer no suitable landing spots. One flock of 10,000 birds was once tracked walking north for three days. Talk about birdbrains!

American coots often hang out with ducks. Perhaps it’s because ducks are the party animals of the marsh. One of the cartoons in Alvo’s book shows a group of ducks playing cards and ogling magazines about “macho mallards.” Duck porn? Don’t worry: nothing inappropriate for the kids. The book is sold only online at babina.ca.

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay

Nancy’s marriage is crumbling at the same time as Canada itself could be torn asunder by the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum. It’s a good thing she has the family lakeside cottage in Lanark County. The cottage clears her head and keeps her grounded; it’s where she belongs. Many an experienced real-life cottager can say the same thing — the cottage is where I am at my best and truest.

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Elizabeth Hay’s latest novel, His Whole Life, should be on the bookshelf of every lakeside cottage in Canada. The cottage imagined by the Ottawa-based Hay is almost like a character in this bittersweet story of a family and a country threatening to unravel. This cottage certainly embraces Nancy and her 10-year-old son Jim, keeping them whole, protecting them from outside threats, showing them who they really are.

We all know how the 1995 referendum turned out. You will have to read His Whole Life to discover what happened to Nancy and her New York City husband. And keep your eye on Jim. He’s a boy with a dog at a cottage — an idyllic combination and powerful influence for the rest of His Whole Life.

Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver by Frances Backhouse

Assemble any random group of cottagers in one room, let them start talking, and one of three topics of conversation is bound to dominate: sluggish septic tanks, rotting deck boards, or malevolent beavers.

That toothy rodent officially known as Castor canadensis chews way beyond its weight. In just a few nights, it can fell all those birch trees you so lovingly planted 20 years ago, flood a nearby woodlot, and raise your blood pressure. Beavers and Canadians have had a complicated history, especially since the first Europeans arrived here determined to trap every creature in sight to satisfy the insatiable market for beaver hats back home. By the late 19th century, Canada’s beavers were almost extinct and milliners turned to silk.

Frances Backhouse’s much-praised book will tell you more than you ever imagined about beavers, from their prehistoric past as two-metre-long rodents to their popularity as hat material, their elevation as national symbol, and their huge influence in reshaping the Canadian landscape. Every true-blue cottager should study, if not memorize, Backhouse’s writings. Amaze your neighbours with beaver trivia. Surely you don’t want to discuss just septic tanks and rotting deck boards.

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