Wandering Around Out There With A Canoe On My Head

International Man of Portaging

paddling the canals of the Netherlands

by Preston
April 10, 2012

One of the greatest things about living in Canada sitting down talking to people and hearing about where their family comes from, and in particular, what brought them here. After all, if you go back far enough, most of us are all immigrants. Why I find that so interesting can be traced from my own family’s story.

On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather, stationed in England during the First World War, somehow convinced a lovely young lady to marry him, leave her family and come with him in Canada. I don’t know whether it was the uniform or that he told her he owned several acres of land back home. In England at the time, that much land meant pretty good wealth. When I think of this, I see the trademarked Pelletier wry smile of this young soldier (which they tell me I’ve inherited), who probably knew of her assumption and chose not to correct her. She’d find out the hard way that wasn’t the case. You can imagine what was going through this proper city lady’s mind as they traveled further and further from the comfort of the city, down smaller and smaller roads – then no roads – only to finally get to the huge acreage, but filled with nothing but trees surrounding a small shack. What had she gotten herself into? He must have been one hell of a charming man, because she stayed with him for 62 years.

My father’s family came over in 1956, when my grandfather was given a simple choice of going to live in South Africa, Australia or Canada. He had met his young bride also during a World War, but the second time the Germans had invaded Holland. Afterwards, he joined the printing trade, and at the time there were programs available to skilled workers that promised good jobs abroad. He knew very little about his choice of country, and finally decided on Canada because he had heard good things. Without knowing a word of English, he traveled with his wife and two kids across the Atlantic, first to Montreal and then eventually to Hamilton. Sadly, he found out shortly after this point that he had a skin condition that would force him out of the printing profession, the very reason he had uprooted his life.

I can’t imagine what my life would be like – if I’d exist at all – had these events not occurred exactly the way they did. What if Art had been less handsome or charming? What if Pieter had flipped a coin and found himself in the Outback? Then again, what if either of their brides had said “Nuts to that! Send me a postcard when you get there, buddy.” I knew both these ladies, and believe me, that wouldn’t have been out of character for either of them. We all have these stories somewhere in our family history. It’s less popular than hockey or maple syrup, but all our stories of how we got here are definitely a part of being Canadian.

My grandfather has been telling me for years that I should go visit Holland and get in touch with my roots. I have to. “Maybe one day,” i’d always reply. There’s many places I’d like to go. Add that to the list. It’s expensive. It means 8 hours on a plane. I like to get out travelling, but there’s so much to see here in Canada. I’ve also never really considered myself “Dutch”. More specifically, it’s just one part of my family history, along with French, English, Scottish, Irish, Cree and Scandinavian. That’s a lot of roots in which to get in touch.

And I’m really more of a travel-by-canoe camper than a run-from-one-landmark-to-another type guy. But then a cousin from Holland mentioned how you can canoe in Holland. “Really, where?” I asked. “Anywhere. Everywhere,” was the response, “we just don’t have the wilderness you guys do.” When my father suggested he wanted to go, that I had the flexibility to do it this year, it seemed the stars aligned for the opportunity. So in June I’ll be taking Portageur on the road to see how things are done on the other side of the pond, and of course I’ll be writing about it all in future posts. For the past few months I’ve been planning, and we’ve finally settled on a pretty good itinerary.

First, we’re going to go on a 3 day canoe trip through the Dutch countryside. We were very lucky to find a few people that helped with the planning, and have even found a local guide to take care of us, not to mention a great spot to go. They keep telling me the bugs are bad in June, so it seems I won’t be escaping them by fleeing the continent.

Next, after a bit of site-seeing and relative visiting, we’ll be doing at least one day trip through city canals. I was told that I must do this in Amsterdam, as it’s a beautiful experience (You can see for yourself by visiting this post by the (Sub)urban Tourist). I may wind up doing this, however I happened upon a canoe route through the old city of Leiden that caught my eye. My father was born there, coming over when he was 7. It was important to both him and I that he show me where he grew up. The canoe route I found just happened to pass right by the area, right up to the house where he used to live. I can’t imagine a more fitting experience for the two of us.

So is it silly of me to travel to Europe because of the chance to canoe? Probably. But I’ve so far had plenty of excuses to stay home. I just needed one to go.

Photos courtesy of Alyssa Van Aken

  • Thanks guys. I’m really excited and think it’s going to be a great trip. @Margaret – from what I’ve read it’s perfectly legal, though I’m not sure what all the rules and restrictions are just yet. Based on what I’ve read so far you can get around pretty good by canal.

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