Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Zen and the Art of Muskoka Wooden Boats


… Chatting with Ron Sclater of the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society

Grace and Speed

As the world gets nervous about “losing it,” governments, non-governmental organizations, community associations of all kinds, tourism authorities, and ordinary citizens have renewed their interest in social history, and all that the discipline implies. In the travel and tourism business it’s called the heritage movement.

More and more we are looking back, with some nostalgia of course, but also with a very keen eye to historical detail, to the meaning and meaningfulness of “the way we were … once upon a time,” and in so doing we are discovering what rich archival materials are still within our reach.

It’s preservation time — before it’s too late.

The world has become highly urbanized. More than half of its population now lives in cities. And according to the UN Population Fund, by 2030 the number of city inhabitants will be over five billion, or 60 per cent of the world’s population. Cities of course have always attracted people in search of work, opportunities, education, cultural life, and infrastructures that fulfill needs that rural areas have not.

How ya’ goin’ to keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?

On the other hand, there has always been a reverse trend — one might refer to it as a seasonal migration — an escape mechanism, a need every now and then to get as far away from the madding crowd as possible. In Europe kings and queens took themselves off regularly to spa towns, to “take the waters,” breathe fresh air, and (even before the word came into the lingua franca) engage in stress reduction.

Eventually such “vacations” came within the reach of other social classes as well; and the leisure industries were born, especially in areas not far from major cities where nature was still in a relatively pristine condition. In Canada many such retreats grew up where that one principal resource was still in abundance — water!

Cottage Country

Welcome to “cottage country,” whether you call your island of tranquillity in a sea of storms the cabin, the camp, the lodge, the cottage, the resort (small, medium, or exclusive), or just “the lake.” For many of course during the early “frontier” days of Canada, there was no cottage. Getting back to nature was truly an outdoors experience: sleeping in tents, cooking on open fires — enduring black flies, mosquitoes, and other non-urban critters and “discomforts” — living a “primitive” Walden Pond-like existence, and loving it — most of the time.

This back to basics getaway social movement, in North America especially was, however, really just the flip side of the urban environment; the habitués of cottage country did not really revert to some primal state of human affairs. Creature comforts did not mean sleeping with bears, although we did play out some of those fantasies in our relatively organized wild life.

And where I come from, the summer home away from home is called Muskoka. This is still very much an area where geography and topography shape culture, although the stealthy reach of megalopolis is not nearly as far away as it used to be.

Caveat cottagers!

So to regain a little perspective and a calm, cool, and contextual frame of reference, I took some time off from relaxing by the lake and explored a wonderful new archival resource called The Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre, in the town of Gravenhurst.

Cottage culture

Perhaps it’s really a sub-culture that I am referring to in terms of Muskoka, but generally speaking culture is considered to have a number of key components or elements amongst which are:

belief systems; rituals and rites (especially rites of passage); customs and traditions (which influence or actually engender specific collective human behaviours); language (to the initiated, the expression “a Muskoka sunset” has Proustian qualities); and cultural objects.

In the case of cultural objects, there are many that are “inventions” of and/or specific to a particular culture. The automobile of course is one of our most obvious cultural objects. Quilts are cultural objects, in which are stitched the social fabric of a community. And the Muskoka classic wooden boat (often made from mahogany from The Philippines or Honduras) is a staunch Muskokan cultural object.

At The Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre, you will find the best and most impressive collection of these boats anywhere to be found. And as the title of this segment suggests, when I spent some quality time with them, I was reminded of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Hands up all those who read the book (probably during the summer), pondered the mysteries of life, and along the way had one or two little epiphanies.

Here’s a quote from the book:

“Not everyone understands what a completely rational process this is, this maintenance of a motorcycle. They think it’s some kind of a “knack” or some kind of “affinity for machines” in operation. They are right, but the knack is almost purely a process of reason, and most of the troubles are caused by what old time radio men called a “short between the earphones,” failures to use the head properly. A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.”

And as the French say, “Le coeur a ses raisons aussi.” (“The heart has its reasons too.”) Cognitive + affective = a balanced brain.

The continuum of art and engineering

When the art-science of engineering (especially of beautiful watercraft) is blended with the art of design, as well as with all the other universal artistic principles, what can emerge is a machine whose functionality, grace, and speed combine in such a way as to embody beauty. (And the central figure in the above-mentioned book would likely also suggest truth.)

For dyed-in-the-wool Muskokans, a single glimpse of a Muskoka Wooden Boat can be the catalyst for a flood of memories, sensations, and cultural reaffirmation.


The Muskoka Boat and Heritage website

Discover Muskoka

For more wooden boat memories, click on the link below:

Wooden Boat Memories

A Grinch Editorial

Who was it who said, “Moderation in all things”? Thucydides? Mae West? Paris Hilton? The “olden days” that the Muskoka wooden boats evoke (and all the other wonderful archival exhibits at the Centre) were in many ways halcyon days. Muskoka was a true wilderness (to a great extent it has retained that state of grace) in which people left the city behind for the peace and quiet of this part of The Canadian Shield.

Boats, steamships, and trains were practical means of accessing Muskoka. And, yes they could be fun. But low density population numbers (which means that the people and their boats were spread out) allowed Muskoka and other such regions to retain the pax muskoka.

However, time passes, populations grow, and technology moves faster than a speeding bullet. And before you know it, you’ve got too many boats. But it isn’t just the number of boats (or … grrrrr.. those flash and trash personal watercraft), it’s the hyperconsumerist human behaviour in the boats that is coming perilously close to spoiling paradise.

So if the boat-excessive family down the bay, whose identity I shall protect, could make an attempt to be socially responsible, reduce their marine carbon emissions and noise pollution to reasonable levels, and their excessive consumerism, it would be much appreciated — especially while I am having my gin and tonic (with a slice of lime please) and a nap in the hammock.



  1. […] Zen and the Art of Muskoka Wooden Boats […]

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