World's largest museum collection of canoes on the move

It's a portage unlike any other. Hundreds of canoes — some as long as a transport trailer — are being moved from their previous museum home in a former outboard motor factory in Peterborough, Ont., and hoisted into their new waterfront facility three kilometres away.

Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., changing location from former factory to new home on waterfront

How an 8-metre long birchbark canoe gets moved to its new home

2 months ago
Duration 1:27
Kokomis Tchiman, a birchbark canoe built by Métis elder Marcel Labelle, is hoisted by crane to the new location of the Canadian Canoe Museum.

It's a portage unlike any other.

Hundreds of canoes belonging to the Canadian Canoe Museum — some as long as a transport trailer — are being moved from their previous location in a former outboard motor factory in Peterborough, Ont., to a new waterfront home three kilometres away. 

The museum holds the world's largest collection of paddled watercraft, from birchbark canoes handmade by Indigenous craftspeople to a sleek kayak used in the Olympic Games. 

The museum's building for the past 26 years is so cramped that only a portion of the collection could be displayed to the public. That left some 500 canoes languishing in an adjacent warehouse, covered with sheets to protect them from birds that would occasionally fly in through broken windows. 

WATCH | Moving the canoes to their new home: 

The final portage: Hundreds of canoes move to new home

2 months ago
Duration 1:56
Staff with the Canadian Canoe Museum move hundreds of canoes — including Kokomis Tchiman, a birchbark canoe built by Métis elder Marcel Labelle — to the museum's new location.

The collection deserves a new home, says the museum's executive director, Carolyn Hyslop.

"There is no other collection like this in the world," Hyslop said in an interview.

"We've been looking for a waterfront home for this collection and a place where the whole collection can be accessible." 

That new home is under construction on the edge of Little Lake, near the spot where the canal locks of the Trent-Severn Waterway meet the Otonabee River.

Hyslop says it's a much more appropriate spot for a museum of canoes than the landlocked former factory site. It will allow the museum to offer visitors the chance not just to look at the watercraft but to actually use some on the water. 

"They'll be able to canoe right out of the back door of the new museum," said Hyslop.

Portrait of Carolyn Hyslop, wearing a hardhat and safety goggles, standing beside a birchbark canoe.
Carolyn Hyslop is the executive director of the Canadian Canoe Museum. She says the museum's new lakeside location is more appropriate than the old one in a former factory. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The museum has designated some of its collection to create a programming fleet, so people can "experience what a birchbark canoe or wood-canvas canoe actually feels like to paddle." 

The logistics of moving the 600 canoes to the new location, currently an active construction site, are complex and "a lot of work," says museum curator Jeremy Ward. 

An architect's rendering of the new Canadian Canoe Museum.
An architect's rendering of the new Canadian Canoe Museum, currently under construction at a site on the edge of Little Lake in Peterborough. ( Lett Architects Inc./Canadian Canoe Museum)

"This has been several years of preparation behind us to get the canoes and kayaks ready to be brought here," Ward said during an interview inside the second-floor exhibition hall of the new site. 

"Every object has been very carefully inspected, photographed, cleaned and catalogued."

In the past two weeks, staff have moved more than 100 canoes and kayaks. Most were towed on custom-built carriers, hung on straps and lashed down with ropes.   

The biggest challenge is moving the largest canoes in the collection, such as Kokomis Tchiman — an eight-metre-long birchbark canoe — made by Marcel Labelle, a Métis elder from Mattawa, Ont.

This week, a crane operator hoisted Kokomis Tchiman into the exhibition hall, where it will be displayed along with a video of Labelle telling the canoe's story. 

Jeremy Ward poses with a birchbark canoe in the museum's old warehouse.
Jeremy Ward, curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum, built this birchbark 'canot du maître' in 2003 with a group of volunteers. It's a replica of the canoes that could transport up to four tonnes of cargo along the 18th-century fur trade route between Montreal and Lake Superior. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

"Birchbark canoes are, from my perspective, one of the most incredible pieces of engineering," Ward said. 

The crew has yet to move Blue Bird, a wooden racing canoe that's 16 metres long, or roughly the length of the flatbed of an 18-wheeler truck. Ward says the trickiest part will be taking it through the streets of Peterborough, particularly turning corners.

Some highlights from the museum's collection that have already been moved to the new site:

  • A kayak used by Adam van Koeverden during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where he won gold in the K-1 500 metres. 
  • An Old Town canoe donated by the late Gordon Lightfoot. The singer-songwriter was paddling it on the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories in 1980 when it wrapped around a rock, but Lightfoot and his paddling companions recovered it, and the story was later immortalized in the song My Canary Yellow Canoe.
  • A Haida dugout canoe made by Victor Adams in Masset, B.C. Carved from a single cedar log, it took three years to build and was completed in 1971, marking a revival in the canoe-building tradition on Haida Gwaii. 
Rows of canoes and kayaks under plastic sheeting in a warehouse building.
Some 500 of the museum's canoes and kayaks have been stored long-term in this disused factory building, not accessible to the public. The entire collection will be on display in the new location. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

"Objects are at their greatest risk when they're being moved, and we are deciding to move every single piece that we're entrusted to care for, all within a matter of months," said Ward.

"There's been a lot of thought, a lot of care, a lot of consideration, and great people brought on to the project to help us do that." 

The collection includes canoes from other countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Hawaii, some of which have not been exhibited at the previous location due to space constraints and the museum's focus on Canadian items.

"Having the international collection on display at the new museum is a really great way of bringing a broader picture of the context of the canoe," said Hyslop. 

The new building's design is inspired by the canoe: long and narrow, with a curved facade and weathered steel exterior. The interior features exposed timber beams and a wood ceiling in the two-storey atrium that will serve as both the museum's entrance and a venue for special events. 

Former site of the Canadian Canoe Museum.
The museum was housed for 26 years in this former outboard motor factory in Peterborough. The site is currently closed as the collection is being moved to the new location, which is expected to open by summer 2024. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The budget for the new site is $40 million, of which $38 million has been raised. The museum is metaphorically linking the move of its collection to its efforts to reach its fundraising goal, calling the campaign "The Final Portage."   

The move itself "does feel very much like a portage," said Ward. 

"It's been a long journey for us," he said.

"You know that feeling, if you've done [a portage]. It's not always just the fatigue, but sometimes the discomfort of the crossbar, the thwart bearing into your bones and everything else. But then you get that glimpse of the light peeking through the trees." 

The museum is aiming to open in its new location by spring of 2024.


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.