Paddling through a Spirited City

Once upon a time, Peterborough, in the heart of Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes cottage country, was a manufacturing centre, home to General Electric and Evinrude Outboard Engines. It was also “the canoe-building epicentre of the world,” according to Kelly Jessup, Peterborough and the Kawartha’s Economic Development marketing officer. Quaker Oats and tourism are the city’s primary drivers now, but back in the day the Peterborough Canoe Company was one of the biggest players. Today, the canoes built in this small Ontario city surrounded by more than 100 lakes, are by small, hand-crafted operations.

The first thing I spied at the Canadian Canoe Museum (with more than 600 canoes it is the largest collection in the world) was Gordon Lightfoot’s Old Town canoe. In the 1970s, he paddled the Nahanni River and flipped it. You can still see the scars on his beloved “Canary Yellow Canoe.” The second item to catch my attention was Pierre Trudeau’s buckskin jacket that he wore paddling in the Northwest Territories. The museum focuses on an important transportation heritage, from the First Nations peoples who used them to traverse this land’s many waterways thousands of years ago, to today’s recreational paddler. More than 100 canoes and kayaks were on display and the hands-on galleries were captivating for young learners. Adults were encouraged to register for a number of workshops, including paddle carving.

Established in 1997, the museum was founded on a collection of the late Kirk Wipper, a professor of physical and health education at the University of Toronto. The artifacts on display ranged from the great dugouts of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to the singular bark canoes of the Beothuk of Newfoundland. A section was dedicated to skin-on-frame kayaks of northern peoples from Baffin Island in the east to the Mackenzie River Delta in the northwest. Modern hybrids included all-wood and canvas-covered craft manufactured by companies with names such as Herald, Peterborough, Chestnut, Lakefield and Canadian.

Currently housed in an old manufacturing plant, the museum is in the midst of $65 million fundraiser to build a new home by the Peterborough Lift Lock on the Trent Severn Waterway that is scheduled to open 2022.

I signed up for a Voyageur canoe tour and our guide, Jen Burnard (lead animator of the museum’s educational program) showed us on a map of the Great Lakes the routes these 36-foot-long canoes took during the fur trade years.

“They went as far as Fort William on Lake Superior, delivered trade goods and then returned to Montreal laden with furs,” Jen explained.

The canoe could take up to 16 adults with “window seats,” or a total of 22, but we were a much smaller group. More work paddling! Jen had us work at the hard-core pace (just for a few minutes) the voyageurs would have done and it was neat to feel far less drag on our paddles as we glided along the river.

Entering the Peterborough Lift Lock, our canoe ascended quickly. Ed Donald, the lockmaster, told us the structure was built between 1896 and 1904. It took us 90 seconds to rise 20 metres.

Ed, who has done this job for 29 years, told us “this is the highest hydraulic lift in the world.” He sees around 5,000 boats go through a year and most are “transient,” heading from Florida to Georgian Bay, or the other way around. The lock starts operating in May and goes through to Thanksgiving. “That’s when we put the lady to bed,” said Ed. The tour took 90 minutes and cost $20.

Lunch was at Ashburnham Ale House with a variety of local beers on tap. There are many craft breweries in the area due to the fact that the natural PH balance in the water makes for good suds. The rib-sticking items on the menu included thin crust pizza, curries, pastas, pork belly ribs, chicken and fish. I opted for the warm, smoked maple salmon on a bed of salad greens. Delicious!

At an unassuming little strip mall, we came upon the recently opened Black’s Distillery. The gorgeous stills looked like something Captain Nemo would have aboard the Nautilus. Owner and master distiller Robert Black was on hand to offer samples and describe his production. The whiskey, vodka and gin, he told us, was organic. He uses locally grown Red Fife wheat to make his very smooth vodka, 20 times distilled. I had a wee taste and found it to be almost buttery. “That’s due to it containing fat lipids,” Black explained. Another interesting fact I learned was that gin is made from vodka with added herbs and other goodies. Black uses a secret recipe of botanicals with lemon peel, juniper, lavender, sage, coriander, cardamom, cubeb and angelica.

Black, who was formerly a tool and die maker, trained with a master distiller in British Columbia three years ago. Now he is following his dream. “Ten years ago I visited Scotland and I loved the peaty flavours. I thought, this is a really cool job.” A scotch and gin man, he noted, “On a damp day whiskey warms you from the inside out. On a hot day gin refreshes you.” I did a taste comparison with a commercial whiskey (no names to be disclosed) and compared to Black’s brew it tasted artificial and almost soapy. Currently, Black’s Distillery products are available in 25 LCBO locations in the province.

Another interesting alcohol producer I visited was Persian Empire Distillery, with more than 30 alcoholic products, including pomegranate liquor and a coconut rum with actual pieces of coconut floating at the bottom. The operation also specializes in middle eastern favourites such as saggi (made with raisins), fini (made with cashews) and arak, (flavoured with aniseed). The owners, Bruce Khabbazi and his wife Sara, originally came to Canada from Iran. They have been in the business for 20 years and currently have five products in LCBO outlets.

Interestingly, the company is also the world’s biggest producer of yogurt soda, a middle eastern favourite that tastes a bit like butter milk. “We use milk from Kawartha Dairy. Our house brand is Mashky, plus we produce for many other companies. We make a plain, mint and cucumber version,” Lorne, a distillery employee, told us.

Canoes and smooth spirits…who knew Peterborough had so much to offer?

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