Kevin Callan's Top 15 Songs About Canoeing

There is something magical about paddling in Ontario. Listen carefully to the lyrics of these talented musicians who share what it means to them.

Elton John referenced a blue canoe in his spiritual ditty “Where to Now St. Peter?” The progressive rock group King Crimson made mention of a canoe “without a wheel” in their odd “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” psychedelic jam. Canada’s own Gordon Lightfoot name-checks northern rivers he dreams of paddling in “Canary Yellow Canoe.”

The list of Canadian Canoe Culture-inspired music goes on, but my favourites are the songs written about where I choose to do most of my backcountry paddling, in Northern Ontario. They help me keep time as I paddle, even if I have to only hum some of the lyrics.

Here are my top 15 songs about canoeing. I’ll leave the final rankings to you.

1. “Path of the Paddle” by David Archibald 

"There’s canvas and cedar and small bits of brass
A paddle of cherry wood, a lake smooth as glass
and the perfect reflection of what’s gone before
as the mist burns away now and I push off from shore"

Listen to the song here.

You might have caught David Archibald during his Ontario Parks tour in 2018. He travelled from park to park, performing his tunes about camping and paddling to celebrate Ontario Parks' 125th anniversary. He even had a new one titled “Happiest Camper in Ontario.” My favourite canoe song of his is an older song. He worked together with singer Myrna McBrien and produced “Path of the Paddle” on the album Pukaskwa: Songs of Superior. It’s an absolutely beautiful song that every paddler should hear.

2. “Shield” By David Hadfield 

"It’s just spruce and pine and granite—too strong to ever yield;
Our burden and our blessing, our trial and our shield"

Listen to the song here.

David Hadfield is just as passionate about paddling canoes as his more famous brother, Chris, is about flying spaceships. “Shield,” from the album Northern Breeze, is a celebration of the beauty of paddling the Canadian Shield waterways north of Kenora, a region he claims has some of the best wilderness canoeing in the province. After a careful listen, it will be obvious he spends a lot of time out there.

3. "Canoe Song" by Connie Kaldor

Woman in black sitting on stool
Connie Kaldor. Photo: Courtesy of Connie Kaldor

"Give me a canoe and let me go
Up past Waskesui to the Wabinow
Give me a canoe and let me go"

Listen to the song here.

Canadian folk artist Connie Kaldor has been writing and performing songs for over 45 years, beginning her career alongside other legendary folk musicians like Stan Rogers and Valdy. Most canoeists know Connie for her classic "Canoe Song," from her 2010 album Wood River (Home Is Where The Heart Is). "Canoe Song" strikes a chord with every paddler, especially ones who trip in the backcountry of Western Canada. The song perfectly represents her performance style: wildly funny one moment, deeply personal the next.

4. “Woodsmoke and Oranges” by Ian Tamblyn 

"In the land of the silver birch, cry of the loon
There's something 'bout this country that's a part of me and you"

Listen to the song here.

This is an absolute classic from the album Superior: Spirit and Light. One of many of Ian Tamblyn’s impressive body of work. Anyone that paddles along Lake Superior’s northern shoreline will want to have memorized the lyrics so they can sing out while coasting along the rocky cliffs of Pukaskwa, a paddler’s paradise

5. "Canoe Song at Twilight" by Eileen McGann

Woman standing with guitar
Eileen McGann. Photo: Courtesy of Eileen McGann

"Into the dusk of the night we go."

Listen to the song here.

"Canoe Song at Twilight" is from Eileen McGann’s debut album Elements (1987). So are some other canoe related titles. There's "Temagami" where the chorus goes, “There's nobody here but the bears and the otters/So we're paddling swift and we're paddling strong.” And another titled "Whitewater": “I know that I could founder just around the bend. But I love the water's laughter so I'll see it to the end.” She really likes this canoeing thing. And the bonus is that this Irish-Canadian folk singer's voice is absolutely amazing. Her songs have a Celtic-like, clear and soothing sound. The song "Canoe Song at Twilight" is based on a poem by turn of the century Canadian poet Laura E. McCully.

6. “The Song My Paddle Singsby Tamarack

"We've raced the rapid, we're far ahead
The river slips through its silent bed"

Listen to the song here.

“The Song My Paddle Sings” is one of best-known compositions of poet Pauline Johnson, born in 1861 at the Six Nations reserve outside Brantford, Ontario. It’s based on a canoe trip across Canada, including along the French and Mattawa rivers and the north shore of Lake Superior. The best version put to music is by the Ontario-based-band Tamarack, whose work draws heavily on traditional themes.

7. “Land of the Silver Birch” by Wakami Wailers 

"Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more"

Listen to the song here.

The iconic song “Land of the Silver Birch” is a Canadian folk song that dates from the 1920s. It’s become one of the most popular to be sung around campfires or while trying to keep time paddling a canoe. It’s been recorded by a number of musicians, but my favourite version is definitely by the Wakami Wailers, on their album Waltz With The Woods. They are a band formed in 1981 by four nature interpreters at Wakami Lake Provincial Park, near Chapleau, Ontario.

8. "River Mend My Heart" by Nancy White

"Buckskin jacket and old canoe
Sky and water the same deep blue"

Listen to the song here.

Nancy White’s "River Mend My Heart" is another favourite of mine. The Canadian singer/songwriter is known more for her comical and satirical work. Kind of cabaret-like. Her song "Jesus At Tim’s" is a good example—it’s about Jesus' miraculous appearance at Tim Hortons. However, Nancy always seems to slip some serious stuff into her work, like she does in "River Mend My Heart." To me, the song has a Jonie Mitchell feel to it. And everyone’s gotta love a Jonie Mitchell-like canoe song.

9. “Lessons of the Path and the Paddle” by James Gordon 

"Teach me the lessons of the path and the paddle
and light a spirit fire in my soul"

Listen to the song here.

James Gordon, a cofounder of Tamarack, has had a very successful solo career that includes a number of songs based on paddling in the north. But this one really hits the mark. The lyrics speak of canoe tripping the rivers north of Superior. It’s simply an extraordinary song on the album Canoesongs: Vol. 2.

10. “Canoeing With Daddy” by Jerry Vandiver 

"He promised that as long as we’re together
every portage would be a piece of cakeyeah right!"

Listen to the song here.

Jerry Vandiver is a singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee who has recorded several albums solely about canoeing. Songs like “Wabakimi,” “Camp Coffee” and “More than a River” are based on his Ontario canoe trips. “Canoeing With Daddy,” from the album Paddle On, is all about how magical a father and daughter canoe trip can be in Northern Ontario. It might just bring a tear to your eye (though I may be biased, since my daughter helped write it).

11. "The River Just Flows" by Caitlin Evanson

Woman singing into microphone and playing guitar
Caitlin Evanson. Photo: Sonny Li

"The river just flows
The river just goes
Around every bend, and over again
Through all the highs and lows
The river just flows"

Listen to the song here.

Caitlin Evanson is a classically trained violinist who has travelled the world playing violin and guitar and singing background vocals behind such giants as Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, Stevie Nicks, James Taylor, Jennifer Lopez, Def Leppard, Selena Gomez, and the multi-Grammy-winning superstar Taylor Swift. She also performs with her Nashville neighbour, renowned canoeist, and singer/songwriter Jerry Vandiver. She’s his fiddle player when he performs at outdoor shows like Canoecopia and the Quiet Adventures Symposium. They’re an amazing team. The bonus, however, is that Caitlin has a few of her own songs she sings on Jerry’s latest album Peaceful Waters (2023). My favourite is "The River Just Flows." Only a true paddler can write and perform such a quintessential paddling song that defines the movement one has floating with the current.

12. “Let Us Go Laughing” by Bruce Cockburn

"My canoe lies on the water
Evening holds the bones of day
The sun like gold dust slips away"

Listen to the song here.

Bruce Cockburn learned to canoe at summer camp and went on to do canoe trips with legendary paddler and filmmaker Bill Mason. Cockburn’s music is a centerpiece of one of Mason’s best films, Waterwalker. The guitar virtuoso has had international hits, but canoeists will gravitate to one song in particular. “Let Us Go Laughing” evokes paddling in Ontario’s Northern watersheds and was a highlight of his excellent second album High Winds, White Sky released in 1971.

13. “King of White Otter Lake” by Rodney Brown 

"Build me a castle she said
Build it three times over my head"

Listen to the song here.

Rodney Brown is a proud Thunder Bay local who continues to write and record incredible songs about the North. One canoe classic on the album North Land is “King of White Otter Lake,” written by Bill Houston, about the fabled hermitage along the Turtle River, south of Ignace and north of Atikokan, Ontario. As the song tells, Jimmy McQuat paddled to White Otter Lake in 1914 and began building a log castle for a Scottish mail order bride. It took him 30 years, and the bride never did show up. It’s a classic story and an outstanding ballad.

14. “Untamed” by Adam Ruzzo 

"Unnamed, unchanged, untamed
This land long remains"

Listen to the song here. 

Adam Ruzzo is the real deal. He built a cabin on the eastern border of Algonquin Provincial Park and spent his days working as an interior park ranger and his evenings writing or performing songs of the North. His work creates a musical landscape for wilderness travel, just as Tom Thomson's paintings did in the visual medium. “Untamed,” a song from his album Froze In, was inspired during his work as a ranger, spending days on the canoe trails and pondering over the stories held in the wilderness landscape.

15. "Red Canvas Canoe" by Lorraine McDonald

Guitar resting in bow of canoe on a lake

"An ad in the paper: For sale a canoe,
It’s red and it’s wooden; very well used.
Come by to see it, you may want to call first,
It’s been out in the yard now for better or worse."

Listen to the song here.

I don’t know much about Lorraine McDonald but I do love the storyline that makes up her classic song "Red Canvas Canoe." It has an On Golden Pond —the 1981 movie staring Katharine Hepburn and the aging mother—feel to it. Lorraine’s song is featured on James Raffan’s Canoesongs: Volume 1 CD that was produced by Portage Productions, a venture between Raffan and his university colleague, Paul Mills. Volume I and II raised over $8,000 for the Canadian Canoe Museum and have countless canoe songs to relish. 

Pick Some Songs About Canoeing, Pick a Place and Go Paddling

If you get familiar enough with these songs about canoes, you might find they accompany you on your next canoe trip. Like the best kind of paddling partner, they’ll never weigh you down, only lift you up.

About Kevin Callan

Kevin Callan is the author of fifteen books, including the bestselling The Happy Camper, and a popular series of paddling guides. He has been a key speaker at all the major outdoor events for over 25 years. Callan is also a frequent guest on radio and television and a regular contributor to Explore and CanoeRoots Magazine. He is a winner of several National Magazine Awards and film awards and was listed as one of the top 100 modern-day explorers by the Canadian Geographical Society. He was also made Patron Paddler for Paddle Canada.

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