It took Bill Mason a number of tries to sell the National Film Board of Canada on afilmrendition of Holling C. Holling's classic children's picture book Paddle to the Sea. But the filmmaker persisted, and when the 28-minute film was released in 1966, it became an instant classic, garnering an Academy Award nomination and becoming one of Canada's most popular productions.
Paddle to the Sea is the story of a young boy who has a dream of floating a tiny hand-carved canoe from his home at the head of the Great Lakes to the ocean. A gifted artist, Mason recreated Paddle and filmed it bobbing in the long swell of Lake Superior, navigating the hustle and bustle of polluted waters, tumbling over Niagara Falls and eventually washing up on a rocky beach at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Gaspé, Quebec.
The innovative and stunning photography Mason employed in Paddle to the Sea became the hallmark of his 20-year career with the National Film Board, which included his iconic Path of the Paddle series of canoe instruction films and feature-length Waterwalker, which explores Mason's relationship with the environment, among many other productions.
Last spring, Mason's daughter, Becky, was teaching solo canoeing at the Gaspé Outdoor Symposium, when one of her students gave her a carved wooden canoe and made a request. Michele Van de Kaa remembered watching Paddle to the Sea in grade school. The story stuck with Van de Kaa, and just coming off treatment for breast cancer, she attributed a day on the water with Becky as being a key juncture in her recovery. The miniature canoe called "Meet me at the Sea" was Van de Kaa's way of giving thanks to Becky and her family's contributions to canoeing.
"We were instructed to launch her carving in our favourite waterway," recalls Becky.
After carrying "Miss Paddles" on all her canoe journeys last summer, Becky finally set the carving free in October on the Dumoine River in Quebec's Ottawa Valley. She says the Dumoine has long been one of her family's favorite rivers. "It's also the last wild and undammed river in southern Quebec and needs our attention," she adds. "I pitched her into Initiation Rapids and watched her beautiful whitewater run. The Dumoine is a popular canoe route so Miss Paddles will have lots of company and help along the way."
Now, with spring just around the corner, Becky is requesting that any sightings of the tiny canoe be reported on her Classic Solo Canoeing Facebook page—and that the vessel be placed back in the water to continue her journey to the sea. With any luck, Miss Paddleswill arrive in Gaspé in time for the 2015 symposium. "It's wonderful to dream of where our free-flowing waters will take Miss Paddles and to imagine those who may help her along the way," she says.
Paddle to the Sea and all of Bill Mason's films stream free at www.nfb.ca