Continuing her family's canoeing tradition

(This story and photo originally appeared in the May/June 2002 edition of Paddler Magazine)

By John Geary

While Bill Mason has often been called “The Father of Modern Canadian Canoeing,” his daughter Becky continues the tradition of teaching the world about the science and art of canoeing, while imparting the importance of conserving wilderness to those who enjoy its beauty from a canoe seat.

Her most recent effort at continuing this tradition took the form of her very-first video production, Classic Solo Canoeing. Released in 2001, it toured North America as part of the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association’s (CRCA) biennial Waterwalker Film Festival. The video is based on the classic solo canoeing course she has taught for 16 years, a program she developed with her late father. 

Becky laid the foundation for teaching by guiding with the Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company for six years, paddling on the Picanoc (Quebec), Nahanni (Northwest Territories), and Petawawa (Ontario) Rivers. She started teaching her own courses in 1987. 

She teaches from April to October at Meech Lake, in Gatineau Park, Quebec. She also takes her courses on the road, teaching in locations that include Rhinelander, Wisconsin; Duluth, Minnesota; and Bridgton, Maine (site of the Maine Canoe Symposium.) She decided to produce a solo canoeing video to reach out and teach the skills to more people.

"I saw a need to put it down on something, so people who couldn't come to my workshops could access the program," she says.

She would like to produce more videos in the future, including A Magic Paddle, a canoe-ballet film her father started but never completed. As a former whitewater guide, she also sees a need for a women's tripping video.

"I don't desire to take people out on a wilderness trip, but show them in a movie how I would do things. And like my first video, it would be more than just a 'how-to-do-it.' I would try to impart my love of tripping and why I do it.

"Instructing canoeing skills is important, but what's more important to me is to instill the reason why we use the canoe to get where we want to go, without leaving footprints. I want my films to impart that."

Like her father, Becky views canoeing as more than an end in itself; it is also a means to an end. While the act of paddling is very rewarding, using a canoe to connect with nature is just as important.

"Going out in a canoe, even for a short paddle, recharges and nourishes your soul." 

The need for that nourishment motivates her to make strong efforts to help save North America's remaining wilderness. She works with, and supports, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the CRCA and is a board member of the Quetico Foundation, working to protect Ontario's equivalent of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

In 2001, she played a key role in stopping Ontario's Dog River from being dammed. She met with Ministry of Natural Resource personnel, First Nations representatives and a local outfitter; she wrote letters and asked everyone she knew to write letters. 

"I was able to convince them it was such a pristine area that we should save it. I believe it's now going to be a waterway park."

She believes strongly in the power of letter-writing.

"When Dad was alive he wrote a lot of letters to the government and one day I asked him why. And he turned his head and said, 'Becky if one of these letters can make a difference of one less dam, or another park created, then all the letters I've written are worthwhile.' He taught me that hope and action can get results with just a simple letter."

She has also been involved in the Sierra Club's Lands for Life program in Ontario.

"The day we have no wilderness will be a very sad day," she says. "As long as I'm breathing I'll fight as hard as I can to save special areas."

She stresses the fact wilderness can be saved simply for wilderness' sake.

"It irritates me when I hear 'We need to save this area for future generations to use,' " she says. "There are special places in the wilderness that don't need people to visit them in order to make them worthy of being saved."

Her love of wilderness developed during the many canoe trips that highlighted her childhood, trips to Lake Superior, Georgian Bay, the Nahanni and French Rivers. Some trips involved the entire Mason clan; others involved just she and her father. Some involved filming, others simply provided pure paddling pleasure.

"The filming trips were work trips, and one thing that really stands out is the way we'd get to know one particular campsite. We might be at one spot for days, that taught me how to appreciate all the different nuances of an area."

She cherishes the trips she took alone with her father, recognizing them as special moments of sharing.

"We shared our passion for painting and our love of the land. He was a really wonderful person, as well as a very interesting person to canoe with."

Although she may not have thought then about using her childhood

canoeing background to launch an adult career, she never ruled anything out, either. Her parents raised her and her brother Paul with a "you-can-do-anything" attitude.

"Dad encouraged us to seek out creative venues," she says. "If we could turn it into a job, great, but we didn't have to do it just to earn a living. 

"For example, when I was in Grade 11, he told me to decide whether I was going to paint full-time or part-time. If I wanted to paint every day, then I could go to art school. He told me I'd never make much money painting, but I would be very rewarded."

She studied at Toronto's Ontario College of Art. Her art has appeared in several central Canadian exhibitions.

Painting provides a good counterbalance to paddling. At the end of summer, she exchanges her paddle for a set of paintbrushes. Come spring, she packs the brushes away and dusts off her paddle.

She and her husband, Reid McLachlan, do not have any children, and do not plan to have a family. They enjoy paddling with their nieces and nephews, but she does not want to pass on her father's teachings to family members only.

"We're not on this earth to pass on skills only to our own children. It's very important to pass them on to all young people."

There are many places the 38-year-old still wants to paddle.

"From our house, I want to paddle all the lakes, rivers and streams that lie within a radius of a three- to four-hour drive. It will probably take two, three years to do that."

In addition to her paddling, videography and painting, she also writes, having contributed work to several canoe books.

Paddling, filming, painting, writing … she does not prefer one activity to another, as each in its own way provides the one thing she loves most of all.

"What I like best is peace. I've found peace - peace of soul, calm. While I do get riled up like everyone else, the main core of me is peaceful."