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Day 157 – Paddle to the Sea

“The Canadian wilderness was white with snow. From Lake Superior northward the evergreen trees wore hoods and coats of white…There was no sound. Nothing moved.” A young, native American boy sits in a cabin near Lake Nipigon, carving a man in a canoe out of a piece of wood. After painting the canoe and adding some lead for ballast, he inscribes on the bottom: “PLEASE PUT ME BACK IN THE WATER. I AM PADDLE TO THE SEA”. So begins the epic tale of “Paddle-to-the-Sea” by Holling C. Holling, a captivating Caldecott Honor storybook originally published in 1941. This fascinating tale provides a lesson in geography and history through the journey of a little man in a wooden canoe (“Paddle”) who manages to make his way, with a little bit of help, from the side of a snow-covered hill in Ontario, through each of the Great Lakes, up the St. Lawrence River, and all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to France.paddle

In the course of his travels, Paddle spends some time dammed up in a pond with beavers, he narrowly escapes being run through a sawmill, and he sees the great iron freighters being loaded with ore in Duluth, Minnesota. He passes by fishing villages, witnesses a shipwreck in the midst of one of Lake Superior’s legendary storms, and travels the length of Lake Michigan on a freighter, all the way to the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. Making his way back up the coast of Michigan, he watches a forest fire in the Upper Peninsula, and wends his way through Lake Huron, where he is picked up in a motor boat and carried to the entrance of Lake Erie. He passes over Niagara Falls, through Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and out to the Grand Banks – where he is picked up by a French fishing boat for his journey across the ocean.

Along the way, through twenty-seven one-page chapters and several years, Paddle encounters people who pick him up and help him along his way – staying true to the request carved into the bottom of his hull. In nearly every chapter, there are maps in the margins showing Paddle’s progress, as well as beautiful, intricate, full-page illustrations facing each page of text. Mr. Holling also weaves all kinds of nuggets of information into the text – historical and geographical.

This is an amazing book. It may be a little bit long for a single evening’s read-aloud – it’s certainly a bigger bite to swallow that our typical picture book selection so far this year. It’s worth it, though. You may be able to split it over a couple evenings, although I predict that the story will be too compelling to put down. The idea that you can put a little canoe on a snow drift above a little creek and that he will eventually make it all the way to the ocean is sure to capture the wonderment of young and old alike.

As a bonus, I suggest watching this adaptation from 1966┬áby the National Film Board of Canada. I remember watching this film when I was in elementary school (not all the way back in 1966, by the way – how old do you think I am?). The story stuck with me in the back of my mind for years because the concept is so fascinating, but I had forgotten that it came from a picture book. When we discovered “Paddle-to-the-Sea” at the library, it clicked and I was thrilled to have rediscovered it! Needless to say, I had to get my own copy, which I am looking at right now.