Today, encompassing some 925 square miles, Temagami is among the world’s largest canoeing areas. But in the early 1970s, when Hap Wilson first started paddling the region’s interconnected lakes and rivers, it was a relatively obscure chunk of rugged boreal forest in northern Ontario. It was not protected in any way and logging companies, with the consent and encouragement of the provincial government, were on the march.
Wilson soon realized that one of the surest ways to keep it wild was to let others know about it. The publication in 1978 of his Temagami Canoe Routes, which he famously (and beautifully) illustrated himself, definitely got the world out. But it also thrust Wilson into the middle of a heated battle for the region’s future.
“It was like the Wild West,” remembers Wilson, a sometimes prankster who relished his role as a rabble-rouser. There were bar-room brawls between pro-logging factions and environmentalist and paddlers. Wilson was robbed more than a dozen times; his wife was threatened; and they painted protest billboards under cover of darkness. At one point, local gas stations refused to serve any vehicle with a canoe on its roof.
Although he made plenty of enemies along the way, Wilson doesn’t regret any of it. “I’m a scrapper,” he admits. “I love this in-your-face stuff.” Now 56 and living in Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes area, Wilson still guides expeditions, runs an eco-lodge, lobbies passionately for Ontario’s wilderness and wildlife, and writes books. Besides Temagami Canoe Routes, which remains the region’s bible, he’s authored five more canoeing guides and is currently at work on his eleventh book. He’s still as cantankerous as ever, of course, and prone to ranting about how canoeists have grown soft—both in terms of protecting the wilderness and what they want out of an adventure. But he hasn’t stopped fighting. “It’s a good fight,” he says, “and it’s not going to stop for me anytime soon.”
This story first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.
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