Singing the Song: A Tribute to Bill Mason (1929-1988)

“The singing isn’t as loud as it used to be. But you can still hear it in the wind. In the silence of a misty morning. In the drip of the water from the tip of a paddle. The song is still here if you know how to listen.” — From ‘Song of the Paddle,’ a National Film Board of Canada production by Bill Mason, 1978

Every scene in Bill Mason’s classic family canoe trip film reveals life in accordance with nature: A family jokes and laughs over a campfire breakfast; Great Lake Superior tosses and turns in whitecaps, while the Masons wait patiently on shore; and when it’s time to travel, the paddlers’ humility is palpable—a feeling of sneaking distance in a place where human ambitious are cast aside by the vagaries of nature. It is a testament to his creative genius that at a time of mass online media, Mason’s canon of films remain relevant and entertaining on the 30th anniversary of his death, on October 29, 1988.

Family camping on Lake Superior. Photo courtesy of the Mason family

It was the unspoken theme of escape that drew me to Bill Mason’s National Film Board of Canada (NFB) films—especially his canoeing trilogy, Path of the Paddle, Song of the Paddle and Waterwalker. Mason kindled a passion for paddling. What’s more, he instilled an urge to explore the real world—a dynamic, wondrous and beautiful place of wild rivers and freshwater seas, to be traced slowly, joyously and thoughtfully by canoe. Decades later, Canada’s greatest canoe legend lives on: Mason’s grainy, digitized films have racked up thousands of views on YouTube, inspiring a new generation far beyond the reach of the NFB.

Solo on the French River, Ontario, mid-1970s. Photo courtesy of the Mason family

Mason was working as a commercial artist in the 1960s when Canada’s publicly funded film agency finally agreed to his offer to produce an adaptation of a well-known children’s book by American author Holling C. Holling. Mason’s rendition of Paddle to the Sea received critical acclaim (including a 1968 Oscar nomination) and became one of the film board’s most popular productions. He earned a second Oscar nomination a year later, before directing, filming and editing Cry of the Wild, a feature-length documentary about wolves, that played in over 500 U.S. theaters and brought in upwards of $5 million box office revenues in 1972.

(Related: Becky Mason celebrates 51 years of “Paddle to the Sea”)

Working in the age of film and manual editing, Mason used duct tape, motorcycle helmets and broken hockey sticks to invent unique camera mounts and perspectives long before the time of point-of-view action cameras and drones. A visual thinker, he penned arrays of sketches to plan his sequence of shots. Today, his beat-up 16-mm Ciné-Kodak Special, used in shooting Paddle to the Sea (which included a trip over Niagara Falls in an inner tube and homemade waterproof housing) is kept in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.

The original helmet cam. Photo courtesy of the Mason family

His next project, Path of the Paddle (1977), a four-part instructional series, was as much about the art of paddling a canoe on lakes and rivers as it was a call for wilderness preservation. Throughout his paddling films, Mason went out of the way to demonstrate that without free-flowing rivers and undeveloped shores, canoeing—and its associated benefits of self-discovery and family time—would be less meaningful. In this sense, Mason’s evocative mix of stunning scenery and simple wilderness pleasures echoed the statement of famous American ecologist and author Aldo Leopold: “What avail are 40 freedoms without a blank space on the map?”

Mason’s protege Ken Buck captures the final scenes of Song of the Paddle. Photo courtesy of the Mason family

Like so many great environmental activists, Mason was more motivator than agitator. Through his great vision, and now with the help of YouTube, he is still teaching the world to paddle—and to see.

Watch Bill Mason’s films at the National Film Board of Canada website (Canadian IP addresses only) or on YouTube

More at

— From the Vault: Bill Mason reflects on the state of canoes in the 1988 Canoe & Kayak Buyer’s Guide

— The Mason family discusses the auction sale of the 17-foot Grumman used in Song of the Paddle and Bill Mason’s paddle

— Canoe instruction with C&K Virtual Coach Paul Mason: Tandem basics, portaging, eddy turns

— Check out the entire Virtual Coach series

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!