Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Canoeing A Continent

Illus. Credit: Google Books

“Canoeing A Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie” by Max Finkelstein

(261-pp, four appendices, 2002, by National Heritage, Toronto, Ontario)

Before going to Lake Conewago tomorrow, I’d like to bring you this review. This is another recommended volume from the Paddlers’ Reading List. Alexander Mackenzie was the first European to cross North America, arriving at the Pacific on 22 July 1793. It was word of this trip that reportedly spurred Thomas Jefferson to send out the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition thirteen years later. It is a sore point for the author that even Canadians know Lewis and Clark better than Alexander Mackenzie, even though it was Mackenzie who opened the trade routes that led to the exploration and development of most of Canada. Mackenzie’s book, “Voyages from Montreal”, was published in 1801, and a copy of the book is reputed to have been carried by Lewis and Clark. Jumping forward over two centuries, it was not until 1997 that Canada proclaimed the route the “Alexander Mackenzie Voyageur Route,” “the most significant water trail in North America.” Following the route would take the author six months, 4,423 miles, and 135 portages. Throughout the book, Max compares what he and Mackenzie are experiencing a couple centuries apart as he follows the trail.

It would be hard for any book to not succeed when covering such a venture. It’s captivating, educational, and enjoyable. I found many things of interest, such as the idea of measuring distance in pipes. The canoes used by voyageurs and fur traders were hulking 35-40-foot canoes that would carry four tons of supplies in addition to the paddlers. It wasn’t until they reached the smaller waterways and strong rapids of the West that they would switch to “small” 26-foot canoes. There seemed to be very little difference in the speeds that would be made by different paddlers. The greatest variable in distance made good pertained to the paddling conditions: up stream or down, the difficulty of the rapids, how exposed an area was to wind, etc. The paddling cadence was very consistent, about 50 strokes per minute. Also consistent, was their habit of paddling for 55 minutes of each hour, and then pulling to the side to stuff a small bit of tobacco into a pipe for a short smoke while relaxing their muscles. The only variables were the conditions under which they paddled, so it became more reliable to refer to a portion of a trail or stream by the number of pipes it consumed, than by trying to measure miles, although days were generally assumed to cover roughly 25 miles per day. Another consistent was how a canoe was packed. Whether it was supplies or furs, a canoe was loaded in “pieces”, and each piece was a pack of 90-pounds.

The author includes a nice history of those that have done expedition paddling. It was interesting that he uses a Verlen Kruger Loon on his trip, and considers it ideal for handling big loads and big seas. He is very connected to those that have shared his love of nature, the water, the wilderness, and I was also interested to learn something new from the author about Bill Mason.  Mason's favorite spot on earth was Old Woman Bay, Lake Superior. It was here that his ashes were set to rest after his passing. If anyone is unfamiliar with Bill Mason, reward yourself by correcting that. He was a noted author, filmmaker, painter, and lover of canoeing and the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and these passions come through in all his work.

The author’s appendices include a packing list for such an expedition trip, how to make different styles of bannock, more detailed information on some things mentioned in the text, and how to research further to put such a trip together. It is a personal walk into the wilds of Canada, and into history.

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