51 Years of Paddle to the Sea

Paddle to the sea, the film that launched the career of a canoeing legend

It’s been over 50 years since famous Canadian canoeist, filmmaker, artist and author Bill Mason shot Paddle to the Sea—a film version of the classic 1941 children’s story by Holling C. Holling. Mason pitched the idea of a short film unsuccessfully for years before Canada’s National Film Board committed to what would become one of its most popular films. Released in 1966, Paddle to the Sea earned an Oscar nomination for best short film and launched the late Mason’s wildly successful filmmaking career, which included the feature-length documentary Cry of the Wild and his beloved wilderness canoeing trilogy—Path of the Paddle, Song of the Paddle and Waterwalker.

Paddle to the Sea was a staple in Canadian classrooms during the 1970s and 80s. The 28-minute film weaves geography and adventure into an engaging tale. It tells the story of a wooden canoe, carved by a boy in northern Ontario and floated into the Great Lakes watershed in the spring melt. On the bottom of the canoe the boy engraves, “I am Paddle to the Sea. Please put me back in the water.”

On its grand journey, “Paddle” endures many challenges: Oceanic waves and ice on Lake Superior; freighters on the Detroit River; and a memorable tumble over Niagara Falls. (Mason and his friend, Blake James, climbed a fence and rappelled over the brink to get the shot—without permission from authorities.) In one scene, “Paddle” floats placidly in the midst of a wildfire, captured at a pond near Mason’s Quebec home (the bonfire nearly got out of control). Mason employed his carving skills to craft a fleet of miniature canoes, because so many were ultimately lost. Eventually, the hand-carved canoe makes it to the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

These days, Paddle to the Sea is a refreshing counterpoint to modern children stories so far removed from the natural world. In the midst of winter, it’s also a great way to get excited about the upcoming paddling season. Watch it for yourself (or better yet, with your children) and see what you think.

Paddle to the Sea is available to view on the National Film Board of Canada website and on YouTube.

More on C&K

—Watch the next generation of Canadian canoeists in Goh Iromoto’s inspiring documentary, The Canoe.

—Bill Mason’s son, Paul, serves as Canoe & Kayak’s virtual coach in this video