Inspired by the 1941 children’s book Paddle-to-the-Sea, Brock Scheifele made a small canoe and released it into the Grand River. The canoe, which features a small treasure chest and an Indigenous man, had his phone number engraved on the bottom. Never did he expect to receive a phone call eight years later being greeted with, “I think I found your boat.”
In Paddle-to-the-Sea by writer and illustrator Holling C. Holling – later made into an acclaimed National Film Board short film in 1966 – a young Aboriginal boy carves a little canoe with a figure inside and names him Paddle-to-the-Sea. Paddle’s journey, in text and pictures, through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean provides a geographic and historical picture of the region.
It was a viewing of the Paddle to the Sea film that stuck with Scheifele, eventually prompting him to release his own little canoe to make a journey down the Grand.
“I used to build canoes, real canoes, out of cedar strips in my late teens. I was always interested in Native culture and building projects, and I came across a video – it was actually a book my dad had read in school – called Paddle to the Sea,” he explained.
“Long story short, it was a young lad many years ago who saw a Native guy in Algonquin Park in a canoe. The young kid always wanted one but he couldn’t afford one, so, he built a little canoe out of wood with a little [figure] in it. And he sent it down the river with the little wooden man on it – on the bottom it says ‘please return me to the river.’”
The film documents the trip the toy boat makes from Lake Superior to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“It runs into the rocks and goes on waterfalls and it freezes. It gets tangled in trees, otters play with it and seagulls [poop] on it. Eventually, people found it, and they noticed a little arm was broken off the [Indigenous man] so they made a new arm and glued it back on, and put it back in the river,” he said.
“I watched the video many years ago when I was building canoes. [Years later], I said, ‘I’m going to watch Paddle to the Sea.’ So, I did and I said, ‘I’m going to do the same thing that kid did, and see where it goes.’ I did, and it made it from here to Cayuga in eight years.”
The boat was found by a man named Richard Vaughn who had been regularly fishing throughout the pandemic in Cayuga as a simple way to pass the time. Having no luck on the water, he spotted something in the bushes, did a double-take, found the native in the canoe and phoned up Scheifele with the news.
Feeling re-inspired by the discovery, Schiefele has decided to once again send a boat out to sea, creating a new watercraft and launching it near Three Bridges in St. Jacobs later this summer.