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Bruce Hodgins, left, with his wife Carol in the Spring of 2013.John Jennings/Supplied

For Bruce Hodgins, a historian, author and master paddler who spent more than half a century canoe-tripping throughout Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, the canoe was far more than a means of transportation. He once wrote that this “almost perfect vessel” represents our country’s heritage and is imbued with symbolic significance.

“To my mind, the portage is a metaphor for Canada and its people," he wrote in The Canoe in Canadian Cultures, a volume he co-edited. "The land with its heritage of great waterways, like the canoe, supports us as we move about upon it. Yet so often we must carry the land, care for it, exhibit it, wear it. For what is the canoe if not a product of the land?”

Dr. Hodgins, a professor emeritus at Trent University, died Aug. 8 at Peterborough Regional Health Centre after what was probably a series of small strokes. He was 88.

He taught many students in the classroom and on canoe trips at Camp Wanapitei, a summer camp near Temagami, Ont., that his family purchased in 1956. The historian also wrote and co-edited a number of books on canoeing and Canadian history, and taught his students and peers to appreciate the environment and understand history from the perspective of Indigenous communities.

Bruce Willard Hodgins had a relationship with Camp Wanapitei that began even before his birth, on Jan. 29, 1931, in Kitchener, Ont. His father, Stanley Hodgins, was a public-school principal and his mother, Laura Belle Hodgins (née Turel) was a registered nurse. In 1930, while his mother was pregnant with him, his parents camped out on the site where Camp Wanapitei would eventually be located.

Growing up, young Bruce regularly went on canoe trips with his parents and younger brother, Larry. He studied at Waterloo College (now the University of Waterloo) and Queen’s University, and launched his teaching career at the former Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. That’s where he would meet Carol Creelman, his future wife.

In 1958, soon after they married, the couple moved to North Carolina, where Dr. Hodgins completed his PhD at Duke University. Four years later, he was hired at the University of Western Ontario along with his close friend Alan Wilson, whom he had met in PEI.

“He was a man of enormous integrity, and he was a person of great intensity in everything he did,” Dr. Wilson said.

In 1965, Dr. Hodgins moved on to the history department at Trent University, with Dr. Wilson as its chair. Together, they started the interdisciplinary Canadian Studies department at the university.

While his academic career blossomed, Dr. Hodgins became president and camp director of Camp Wanapitei. In 1973, Dr. Hodgins and his wife hosted the first Trent Temagami Weekend, an annual event – which continues today – in which students and faculty from Trent University learn about the region and Indigenous issues while camping and canoeing at Wanapitei.

That’s where James Cullingham, a student at the time, first met Dr. Hodgins.

“It was a transformative experience,” Dr. Cullingham said, noting he discovered "a universe of meaning” learning about Canadian history with a focus on Indigenous issues. Thanks in part to Dr. Hodgins’s influence, he went on to obtain his doctorate and become an educator, filmmaker and journalist, and will be teaching a course on Indigenous studies at Trent this fall.

Under Dr. Hodgins’s leadership, Camp Wanapitei began offering canoe trips as far away as British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and parts of Quebec. He had studied the voyages of canoeists before him and travelled along their routes, producing the book Canoeing North Into the Unknown: A Record of River Travel, 1874 to 1974, which he co-wrote with Gwyneth Hoyle.

“He understood the genius of those people who travelled across the country,” said John Wadland, a former colleague of Dr. Hodgins at Trent’s Canadian Studies department. “Bruce could speak of these places from personal experience because his canoeing experiences were so vast.”

He had even led a canoe trip that included Margaret Atwood, former federal cabinet minister Judy Erola and novelist M.T. Kelly. In a 1987 Globe and Mail article, Mr. Kelly wrote that Dr. Hodgins could be hard to keep up with in the wilderness.

“We expected to see [the Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park] and not to travel through it on a forced march,” he wrote, adding Dr. Hodgins – “anxious to show us everything” – took the group on a five-day trip along a route that would normally take a week.

“He was like a giant truck. He just roared along and he overcame any obstacle he needed to,” Dr. Wilson said. On many canoe trips with Dr. Hodgins steering through the rapids, Dr. Wilson said what he thought would be his final prayers.

Dr. Hodgins developed a strong relationship with the Indigenous community around Camp Wanapitei. The camp would be a place where Trent University students and faculty and members of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai would converge.

“He really made that camp a place that had a culture of deep respect for the land, but also for the people in the camp,” said Kirsten Franklin, a former student of Dr. Hodgins who also worked at Camp Wanapitei. “There was a really lovely sense of community.”

In the fall of 1989, when members of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai were protesting the expansion of a road in Temagami, they used Camp Wanapitei as their base.

Dr. Hodgins, his wife and members of Trent University stood with the community, said Gary Potts, then chief of the Teme-Augama Anishnabai. “They sat on the road to block the construction workers from going through.”

Both Dr. Hodgins and his wife were among the more than 300 protesters arrested in the month-long blockade. During that period, the flag representing Teme-Augama Anishnabai flew from the camp’s flagpole.

“My father, as a historian, really supported efforts in that struggle,” his son Geoff Hodgins said.

Dr. Hodgins also explored Indigenous rights in his book about the region’s history, The Temagami Experience.

Despite his vast knowledge about Canada and its history, Dr. Hodgins had a profound love of small things. On canoe trips, he would always want to stop and talk about the beauty of wild places and the peace he found there, Dr. Wadland said.

There was an old atlas Dr. Hodgins was fond of that showed Prince Edward Island and the world.

“The first 90 pages of the atlas were Prince Edward Island and last three pages were the world,” Dr. Wadland said. “That’s a metaphor for Bruce. … However small the thing seemed, he could make it huge.”

Dr. Hodgins would serve as the chair of Trent’s history department and the Frost Centre for Canadian Heritage and Development Studies (now the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies) before retiring in 1996. He also worked with a group to found the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, a non-profit organization that educates people about the history and importance of the canoe in Canadian culture.

In his final years, Dr. Hodgins battled dementia, but continued to enjoy the forests and waterways. He leaves his wife, Carol Hodgins; sons Shawn and Geoff; daughter, Gillian Nesbitt; five grandchildren; and extended family.

He spent his last weeks on the same land he knew his whole life, at Camp Wanapitei.

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