The New Zealand Maori want to know “What is your canoe?” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Upon meeting someone new, we usually try to find out two salient facts about the person within the first 30 seconds of being introduced: his or her name and what he or she does for a living. It hasn’t always been that way, of course. The first things we want to know about people—which tidbits will easily “define” them for us and provide us with a shorthand description—change throughout time and across cultures.

For example, on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago, our travel group met with Maurice and Jasmine, representatives for a company that worked to preserve traditional Maori culture and educate people about it. Maurice and Jasmine taught us that Maori would ask five questions of the people they newly met. While finding out a person’s name was one of the five, asking an individual what his or her occupation was didn’t even number in the count. After your name, the Maori wanted to know what’s your mountain, what’s your river, who is your grandmother and—perhaps most important of all—what is your canoe?

The pride of Wenonah

The importance to the Maori of knowing what canoe a person belonged to probably has its roots in the culture’s creation stories. Maui, a god-like ancestor, traveled by canoe, or waka, from the legendary ancestral homeland of Hawaiki into the Southern Ocean. He fished up the North Island of New Zealand, known as Te Ika-a-Maui, or “the fish of Maui.” His waka became the South Island, called Te Waka-a-Maui, or “Maui’s canoe.” A human ancestor, Kupe, is said to have later discovered New Zealand on a waka voyage. His wife, Kuramarotini, is credited with naming it Aotearoa (long, white cloud), the Maori name now used for the country.

Your canoe might help you harvest wild rice. ©E. Dolf Pfefferkorn

Various Maori tribes recall in many stories the subsequent arrival of their ancestors on numerous waka at specific landing places, which are still important sites. Today’s Maori trace descent from the people on these ancient voyaging waka.

Upon Maurice’s asking our travel group “What is your canoe?,” many interpreted the question in modern terms and answered with the make and model of their cars or trucks, such as a “Toyota Prius” or a “Dodge Ram.” I actually have a canoe. She’s a simple, stripped-down, little green solo made by Wenonah, and I never felt so proud of her as when I was standing in New Zealand in the presence of Maori and could say that I belonged to her.

The canoe connection

I don’t know if it has something to do with the ancient Maoris’ travels or not, but there lingers still today a certain mental connection between paddling and adventure. Perhaps it’s our pop culture, infiltrated with numerous photos of canoes and kayaks in exotic waters; or the many adventure books that have been popular in the past few decades, rife with stories of paddling into remote wilderness areas. Eric Sevareid’s 1935 book Canoeing with the Cree is an eloquent example, and Ted Kerosote’s 2004 book Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age puts a very modern twist on paddling adventures. Or maybe it’s because canoes offer the kind of slow travel meant for introspective reveries and journal writers that we have so many paddling adventure books.

Every push off from shore represents a launching into an adventure yet unknown. ©John T. Andrews

It could be that canoes are associated in our minds with adventure for the simple physical fact that they can get us into some remote corners of the world, anywhere the river bends and the water trickles. And their bodies, like those of rugged and true adventurers themselves, often visually show some battle scars. Canoes should be a bit banged up from running rapids and hitting rocks. Every push off from shore represents a launching into an adventure yet unknown.

Your answer, please

The Maori have another custom. They say things three times to acknowledge the physical, mental and spiritual worlds. In a craft powered by your own arms, equipped with no motors to disturb your thoughts, and made for a solo paddler as a transport into remote nature, it’s clear that an adventure by canoe addresses all three realms.

We all have our conduits into adventure. Sometimes it’s a truck or a tundra buggy or an African safari jeep. But it could also be an armchair in front of the fire and a good adventure book, or even just the knowledge that there’s a little green Wenonah, waiting in the garage.

If you were asked, what would be your canoe?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,