Sunday, April 10, 2011

Paddle To The Sea

One of Canada's cultural treasures, in this Canadian's humble opinion, is the National Film Board (or, for those francophone Canadians out there, the Office National du Film). The NFB/ONF was first established in 1939, its goal being “….to make and distribute films across the country that were designed to help Canadians everywhere in Canada understand the problems and way of life of Canadians in other parts of the country.” Since that time, the NFB/ONF has made over 13,000 films, most of them short (running for 30 minutes or less) including documentaries, educational films, animated shorts and their famous "vignettes". NFB/ONF films tend to have a uniquely Canadian flavour and perspective.

I recently discovered that the NFB/ONF hosts its own web site, where one can view (for free) and download or purchase (relatively cheaply) most of the titles in the prodigious NFB/ONF collection. Among my personal favorites are "The Sweater", Sheldon Cohen's animated version of Roche Carrier's classic short story about his boyhood idolization of the Montreal Canadiens and Maurice "The Rocket" Richard in particular (charmingly narrated by Carrier himself in his heavy francophone accent) and "Paddle To The Sea".

I first saw "Paddle To The Sea" in elementary school, when my teacher played it for the class as an educational film intended to teach us about the great lakes and the St. Lawrence seaway. Paddle To The Sea is the name given to a wooden carving of an aboriginal Canadian in a traditional birch canoe. He is hand-whittled by a young boy who lives in the Nipigon country on the northern shore of Lake Superior. This talented young boy wants to see the ocean, but can't, so he carves "Paddle" to make the journey in his stead. Paddle does eventually reach the ocean, but not before evading or overcoming a number of obstacles, as one might imagine, including being beached, beset by seagulls, a snake and all manner of aquatic wildlife including a young child who fancies him an excellent toy, getting frozen in an ice-covered lake and almost being puréed by the propeller screws of several very large ships.

This film appealed to my boyhood self on several levels and therefore made an indelible impression and sparked a lasting fondness that finally resulted in my happily paying to download it and add it to my personal video collection these many years later. For one thing, I was filled with admiration at the craftsmanship with which Paddle was carved and painted, since making miniatures (albeit plastic model kits in my case) was a favorite hobby of my own in those days. Oh how I would have loved to add something like Paddle to my collection of display pieces! And herein lay the second source of my fascination with the story. Had I actually the talent to create such a carving myself, I'm sure that I could never have parted with it, consigning my long hours of painstaking work to the whims of the currents and the tides, never to know for certain whatever became of it or, indeed, whether it actually reached its destination.

The whole concept of tossing a canoe into the water and then simply following its progress to see what becomes of it without actually intervening in any manner was equally intriguing to me. I've noted before in this blog that I seem to have this unusual fascination with just sitting and watching things unfold of their own accord.

A small creek ran parallel to the street where I lived during my pre-adolescent years and, after watching "Paddle To The Sea", I'd often go there and toss all manner of items into the water, wondering how far or to where they would drift. I'd often see them snag on a tree branch or clump of grass or stone before travelling even ten yards. Oh well. "A thousand mile journey begins with a single step" someone once said. A pity they didn't mention that it often ends there as well.

This leads me to the one thing about this film that really sparked my incredulity. When I tossed things into the creek, I would at least watch the start of their journeys, wanting some idea as to whether they got anywhere at all. However, the young boy who made Paddle To The Sea doesn't do that. He doesn't even put him in the water! He simply perches him at the top of a snow bank, and leaves him to sit there until the spring thaw sends him into the river. In other words, he can't even be sure whether Paddle's journey ever began! Oh, certainly he could return in the springtime to find Paddle gone, but this doesn't necessarily mean that he made it to the river. Some other person or animal might have come upon him and simply carried him away. To summarize, then, this young boy spent countless hours, painstakingly carving and painting this beautiful miniature brave in a birch canoe, then took it to the river bank, set it in the snow and walked away, hoping that it might somehow find its way to the ocean.

And I thought that I was an optimist!


Tubes said...

I remember seeing Paddle to the Sea a couple of times as a kid! On the other hand, I agree; how very inefficient, very un-german, un -austrian!

Martin said...

You may recall that we once built some miniature boats out of wood, and floated them down that creek. Mine featured a railing made out small nails and rope. I really don't understand why the city of Kitchener had to turn that creek into a concrete culvert. Looked much nicer than a creek, and I don't believe it ever over-ran its banks.

Martin said...

Oops. I of course meant that the creek looked much nicer than a culvert, and it never over-ran its banks.