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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Forget Winter and Gaze at Lake Nipigon

A great part of our country is locked in cold and often-gray weather. We spend the winter months dreaming of spring, the return of migrating birds, and memories of swimming in warm waters. But remember: Paddle-to-the-Sea was born on a snowy hillside in Ontario.

If it will help you visualize Paddle’s home, take a moment to look at Lake Nipigon (from the Ontario Parks Dept.) and think of the adventurous route Paddle-to-the-Sea took.

This comes alive again in Deborah Cramer’s commentary that “we are connected to the ocean even if we can’t see it.” She writes (at, “In this beloved children’s book, first published in 1941 but still in print, an Indian boy living in the Canadian wilderness near Lake Nipigon carves a canoe and a paddler. When he hears the cry of wild geese returning at the end of winter, he places Paddle-to-the-Sea on a snowy hill behind his home, facing south.”

Ms. Cramer is the author of Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage. Her description of Paddle’s route takes us again through Lake Superior and into Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, dropping hundreds of feet through rough waters and calm eddies. Holling symbolically illustrated this wealth of clean water in his sidebar comparing the Great Lakes to cups pouring into each other.

She warns, however, that the “watery lifeline” between Paddle-to-the-Sea’s Nipigon River and the ocean are in danger. “If the earth continues to warm, water levels in the Great Lakes will drop. Tiny Paddle-to-the-Sea might make the long journey, but the shallower water may inhibit large cargo ships that ply the waters of the Great Lakes today.”

You can choose whether Holling was first an illustrator, a magnificent storyteller or a naturalist. It's practically impossible to put priorities on a man who so artfully wove the three disciplines together. Paddle-to-the-Sea is as indelibly wedded to the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and Atlantic Ocean as Minn was to the Mississippi, Tree in the Trail to the Great Plains, and Seabird to life in the north Atlantic. This is our heritage as much as it is the legacy of these timeless stories.

Deborah Cramer is the author of Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World, the companion to the new Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. She lives by the edge of the sea, is a visiting scholar at the Earth Systems Initiative at MIT, and speaks frequently to educators and the public about the meaning of the sea in our lives. More information about her and her work can be found at