Attendees at the Saturday evening portion of the 2013 Wilderness Canoe Symposium in Toronto were treated to a presentation by Madam Zoom, aka Dr. Wendy Cecil, 13th Chancellor of Victoria University and much admired board member of The Canadian Canoe Museum.  Before transforming into character, Dr. Cecil explained that everyone has an alter-ego and that hers is a teacher who headed to the Klondike in the 1890s to take up her position as mistress of the school in Dawson City.  Mightily inspired by the chorus line at Diamond Tooth Gerties, and more inclined—or so it would seem—to boas rather than books, “Madam Zoom,” who comes alive on northern canoe trips, has lived on into the 21st Century.  She has some interesting and inspiring things to say about the value of canoe tripping, particularly for Canada’s youth. The following is a summary of her remarks presented to a packed auditorium in Monarch Park High School on Saturday, February 16th.

My first canoe trip to the Far North triggered a discovery – an unknown character had long lived inside me and was yearning to get out and express herself! My children and friends on that trip named her MADAM ZOOM. Don’t worry. I am not losing my mind. It is just the impact of the Far North on this Canadian’s imagination at work… But, I should tell you that my imaginary alter ego – MADAM ZOOM, loved poetry, lived during the Yukon Gold Rush in the late 1890s, hiked the Chilkoot Trail and found work as an English teacher in Dawson City. In her spare time, she dressed like a dancehall girl and read poetry to the sourdough gold miners at Diamond Lil’s Saloon! Now she comes out on canoe trips.

The FAR NORTH – to me it sounded SO romantic, so very wild, untamed and free! It conjured the exotic. Even as a little girl, I loved the poetry of Robert Service, the Bard of the Yukon. Born in England in 1874, he came to Canada as a young man and was totally smitten with the romance of the Yukon Gold Rush. I read his poetry in my bunkbed at home near Bathurst & Steeles at the far north end of – Toronto. I fell in love with the Canadian FAR NORTH through his poetry – and I was determined that one day, I too would paddle through the wilderness. It took me nearly 45 years to go there, and then I found that the Far North was everything and MORE than I had hoped for, expected or dreamed of. HENCE my determination to get today’s young people to our Northern reaches NOW – preferably in canoes, the way the North is meant to be seen and experienced.

Canadians, even if we live in Southern Ontario, are a Northern people. When you read the papers, listen to the news, follow politics or business or social issues, you cannot escape the fact that the world is watching our Far North – and the riches that can be found there – whether the increasingly attractive sea routes, the oil & gas for export, the minerals to be mined or the gorgeous and unspoiled wilderness landscape to be explored.

How can we or our future leaders, make informed and wise decisions if we’ve never even seen or experienced the places we are entrusted to manage and care for?

How can future leaders know what to do?Who will they listen to?What policies will they create?How will they vote?

My interest is not politics, but education – I believe that experiencing the Canadian Far North – as difficult and expensive as it is to get there, should be part of what our bright young people are exposed to. Soon enough they will need to figure out the answers to some very important questions:

What is Canada’s place in the world?What is this “NORTH” that is ALWAYS there in the Canadian consciousness, but which relatively few Canadians have actually seen or hiked or paddled?

And that is why I believe that we must get young people into canoes, paddling in the Far North. It is a first step to understanding what we have and what is at risk. I believe it will make them better Canadians, better equipped to answer the call and the questions – whether through artistic, literary, academic, social, scientific, political or economic engagement. I believe they NEED this exposure to our land and our people in remote northern regions of Canada to prepare for the issues that they will face.

We are at a critical time in our history – a time when other, powerful nations, seriously and openly covet our riches – and are willing to challenge our sovereignty. Either we will be successful in protecting and husbanding our land and waters with care – or we won’t. Simple as that. It is important now, but will become urgent and critical in the years ahead. We must understand and value ALL aspects of our Far North – and it won’t be easy. Canada is a VERY hard land.

A canoe trip in our Far North provides lessons in freedom, responsibility, teamwork, group dynamics, resilience, fortitude and spirit – all while fostering a very deep and meaningful love of this hard and glorious land we call home. It is ours – whether Canadian by birth or by choice.  Our young people NEED to see and experience this firsthand.

I am hooked -hooked on paddling and campinghooked on the wildernesshooked on the Far North of Canada and our precious heritage…ANDMy experience has taught me that once you go there, you will yearn to return.

And now, MADAM ZOOM would like to close with a quote from one of Robert Service’s lesser known poems, “The Spell of the Yukon”.

It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,

It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.