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Recreating Paddle-to-the-Sea

October 15, 2018 by

“Hey! Did you hear?” “We have a response!”

The excitement was palpable as I walked into my classroom on Monday morning. Several of my students were loudly exclaiming and waving a sheet of paper in front of my face.

This past summer, as a teacher for the third and fourth grades at our school’s summer program, I was excited to use the children’s book, Paddle to the Sea, by Holling C. Holling, as an integrated way to continue our study of U.S. Geography and the Great Lakes. A favorite memory of my childhood was reading this book and I could still picture the wonderful illustrations and feel the thrill of adventure.

The book follows the journey of “Paddle,” a little wooden hand-carved Native American in a canoe. Paddle travels from Lake Nipigon, Canada, through the wildlife of North America, explores the Great Lakes, and eventually travels out to the Atlantic Ocean. As I read the book aloud to my students, they sat captivated, hanging on to each word and living in the adventures of Paddle. It felt as if we were travelling with Paddle – escaping the dangers of a sawmill, caught in a winter storm, passing safely through busy docks, plunging down Niagara Falls, and meeting people of many different nationalities along the way.

There was an audible sigh of disappointment when we reached the last page. Then one child raised a tentative hand. Can we make our own Paddle-to-the-Seas?

two boys playing together in a stream

We enlisted the help of the school’s woodworking instructor who figured out the dimensions and cut out the basic shape of the canoes. The following weeks we chiseled, sanded, painted, and varnished our canoes and the little Native American figures. Despite a few scrapes, bruises, and spilled paint, we finished our Paddle-to-the-Sea canoes by mid-August. A small metal plate, etched with Paddle’s story, an email address, and instructions to place the boat back in the water if found was fastened to the bottom of each canoe. My students proudly displayed their finished canoes in our school.

After a trial run down a local stream, our little wooden canoes were finally ready for their great adventure. We took a day trip to the shores of the mighty Monongahela River. The children waved farewell as their little wooden friends glided quietly down the river and out of sight.

girl with toy canoe in a stream

Monday morning’s excitement was a change from Friday’s subdued return trip from the river. Our Paddle-to-the-Seas had been found! A fisherman came across several floating in the river and rescued more from branches near the beach. He read the canoes’ messages and put them back into the water to continue their journey to the sea.

Who knows when or if we’ll hear from our Paddle-to-the-Sea canoes again. But I marvel how this simple, but beautiful, story continues to captivate and inspire children and adults today. If you’re a teacher or an enterprising parent, get a copy of Holling’s Paddle to the Sea from your local library, and start your own adventure today!


Liz Mow lives at New Meadow Run, a Bruderhof in southwest Pennsylvania, with her husband, Andrew, and their children.

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  • I loved Paddle to the Sea! Every year on the last day of school we were shown the film.

    Susan