Part of Liquid State: The science, art and wonder of water in Canada, an occasional series about one of the nation's most magnificent resources.
The mission was all but completed – and right up to this moment, just before lunch on this final Sunday of August, it had been a resounding success.
Graham Fraser was on the second-to-last set of rapids in a three-day, 40-kilometre paddle down the Petawawa, a Precambrian Shield river that snakes and bucks its way through Ontario’s vast Algonquin Park before emptying into the much-wider Ottawa River.
At 67, he had never paddled whitewater before. He had approached this deeply personal quest with considerable determination and some understandable fear. He was learning fast when, suddenly, an unseen twist in the surging water sent the canoe carrying him and his son Malcolm into a large boulder, the strong current pinning the vessel fast and instantly dumping the two men.
But his own size-13 feet were caught under the stern seat. With eldest son, paddles and water bottles spilling out and away, he thought for an instant that this was it – that it was all over.
It was not, however, his own life that flashed before his eyes. It was his father’s.
It was not that there was not enough to recall in Graham Fraser’s own lifetime as an accomplished journalist and foreign correspondent for numerous national publications, including The Globe and Mail, and these past seven years as the country’s Official Language Commissioner.
But this trip had never been about him.
Graham – along with his sons Malcolm, a 39-year-old writer and film critic from Montreal; Nick, a 37-year-old professional musician from Toronto; as well as Nick’s 13-year-old son Owen Heathcote-Fraser – had come to the Petawawa during this week of the blue moon to right a wrong, to avenge a misguided insult to the family name and to pay their respects to a grandfather and great-grandfather the younger ones in the family had never known.
Forty-five years earlier, on May 12, 1968, Blair Fraser had died in these same waters – thrown from his canoe on the sometimes-treacherous Rollway Rapids upstream, smashed into rocks and hurtled down the long jumble of rushing water and jagged granite to drown in the deep pool at the end of the run.
He had been 59, eight years younger than his son was this summer on his first-ever paddle on the Petawawa. The elder Mr. Fraser was in the prime of his life and career, the Ottawa editor of Maclean’s Magazine and known throughout the country for his reasoned and rational “Blair Fraser Reports.” He had reported from around the world, and yet felt that the most precious place in that world was the Canadian wilderness. He had interviewed prime ministers and presidents and Maharajas , yet preferred a workplace where the only position worth holding was steady against the current.
In the tribute Maclean’s printed that summer, writer Douglas Marshall called him “a gentleman journalist” and argued: “No individual did more to create and sustain this country’s international reputation for superior journalism than Blair Fraser.”
The magazine quoted from his book (unfortunately his only one), The Search for Identity, which had come out a year earlier during the country’s Centennial celebrations: “ ‘Development’ continues. Canada’s standard of living, second highest in the world, is in no danger of losing that proud position. Washing machines and television sets abound, as in no other nation save one. … Ugly little towns prosper, all calling themselves cities and all looking like faithful copies of Omaha, Nebraska.
This is not a Canada to call forth any man’s love. But just north of it lies a different kind of land – too barren ever to be thickly settled, too bleak to be popular like Blackpool or Miami. There is no reason to doubt it will always be there, and so long as it is there Canada will not die.”
This transplanted easterner had become a great champion of the North. Out of a 1951 Ottawa dinner party, a small group of public servants, diplomats and journalists became a vanguard for what developed into a continuing national passion for summer canoe adventure.