Photo courtesy The Canadian Canoe Museum

By Conor Mihell
Published: March 22, 2011

Kirk Albert Walter Wipper
Born: Grahamdale, Manitoba, December 6, 1923
Died: Peterborough, Ontario, March 18, 2011

For Kirk Wipper, a canoe was a piece of living history. It spoke of aboriginal and European builders, of designs inspired by geography and building materials, and of the movement of people across North American waterways, and, ultimately, the preservation of wild canoe country. A canoe was meant to be paddled—as a means of discovering history firsthand.

Last Friday, the Canadian canoeing community was shocked when Wipper died suddenly. He was 87.

Perhaps Wipper's greatest legacy is the Canadian Canoe Museum, located since 1995 in Peterborough, Ontario. His dream to create a museum dedicated to the history of paddlecraft began at a residential summer camp for boys located on the doorstep of Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park. Wipper, a professor of physical education at the University of Toronto, purchased Camp Kandalore in the late 1950s. His obsession for collecting historic canoes and kayaks began when a friend gave him a 1860s-vintage basswood canoe to display in the camp's dining hall. From then on, "Wipper had a weakness, a passion for canoes," writes James Raffan in Bark, Skin and Cedar, a book exploring the role of the canoe in Canadian culture.

As a camper and councilor at Kandalore from 1959 to 1973, Raffan recalls a childhood, adolescence and young adulthood of paddling ancient, aboriginal-built birchbark canoes, hulking West Coast dugouts, impeccably crafted all-wood Peterboroughs and cedar-canvas workhorses built by the venerable Chestnut Canoe Company. Regardless of their age and historical significance, Wipper was always adamant that to use a canoe was the best way to learn about it.

"For Kirk a canoe was more than a vessel for getting from point A to point B," says Raffan. "The freight that a canoe carried wasn't just what you put in it. It was about all the people who populated North America before any Europeans were here. We were soaking up and learning a tremendous amount about Canada and how the canoe is a mnemonic for a great swath of history."

But for Wipper, celebrating historic canoes was only part of the equation. The other half was preserving the Canadian wilderness that shaped their various forms and functions. In this sense, the canoe played a utilitarian role in conservation. "An interest in the wilderness means getting there, and getting there means canoes," Wipper said in a 2010 interview.

Early on in his career as a canoeing guidebook author, Kevin Callan remembers giving a presentation to a group of canoeing enthusiasts, including Wipper. After the presentation, Wipper took Callan's hand and said, "Focus your gift at keeping them going out there; it's the only way were going to save the wilderness we have left out there." That was enough to inspire Callan, a popular speaker at paddlesports tradeshows who recently released of his 13th book.

Photo courtesy The Canadian Canoe Museum

Becky Mason, a canoeist, artist and environmentalist, met Wipper through her father, the late Canadian canoeing icon, Bill Mason. Wipper, Becky recalls, was always coming by to try to wrangle one of Bill's cherished canoes for his collection. (Upon his death in 1988, Bill Mason's famous Chestnut Prospector was donated to Wipper's collection). But most significant for Becky were Wipper's teachings of "traveling gently on the land," she says. "The enduring memory I hold is that every time we got together, Kirk would tell me, "you know Becky, you youngsters are the future, so keep up the good work."

Over the years, Wipper collected over 600 canoes and kayaks and housed them in various locales until 1995, when the Canadian Canoe Museum was founded. Based in Peterborough—the self-proclaimed "birthplace of the modern canoe"—the museum now shares Wipper's treasures with the world. In a wonderful twist of irony, Raffan, the museum's executive director since 2007, is jointly responsible for many of the historic canoes he paddled decades ago as a youngster. "I believe there was a richness and an intrigue in Kirk's notions that hit me viscerally," says Raffan. "How else could you explain it? Here I am, 50 years later and still preoccupied with canoes. It's like all this stuff crept into my gizzard without me really knowing it."

Besides a passion for canoes and wilderness, Raffan will remember Wipper for his wit, street smarts, and fearlessness in the face of risk. "He was much beguiling as he was appealing and mysterious,” he says. “When it came to selling an idea, he did it with his actions as much as with his words. I'm among those who were swept up his spell. With Kirk you'd find yourself doing the damnedest things at his behalf. You'd think, 'how did I get into this?'"

For Raffan, it was Wipper's willingness to dream, attempt the impossible and inspire others to join the cause that defines his legacy at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Raffan's vision for the museum involves expansion, but he admits his organization lost a huge ally in Wipper. "We've always shared the dream but Kirk always kept an important piece of it for himself," says Raffan. "That's the part I miss. I think just not having him around—that's going to be a challenge for us."

The life of Kirk Wipper will be celebrated in a memorial entitled "Travelling On: Celebrating the Life and Passions of Kirk Wipper" at the Canadian Canoe Museum on Sunday, May 1, at 2 p.m. (Ed’s note, March 23: The date of the memorial service shifted to May 1 after this story was first published.)