“Canoes; A Natural History in North America”
By Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims
Foreword by John McPhee
370 pages $39.95
T his book matches the elaborate history of human-powered canoes in North America. Some of the eventual pride and creative care that goes into modern canoe-making must have gone into making this elaborate book of deep history with its commanding format as well as many historical and color photographs, paintings and illustrations, not to mention professional writing and editing.
Canoes were first built with what are called dugouts from tree trunks that could have been made with tools identified as 20,000 years old. Millennia later, Native Americans spent centuries refining the basic design.
In his forward of “Canoes,” artful writer John McPhee whets the appetite of fellow paddlers with charming stories about his summer camps of canoeing, running rapids for fun, fishing, extracting wayward golf balls and saving canoeists trapped in freeze-to-death boulder clusters.
“Canoes: The Natural history of Canoes in North America” is written by Norman Sims, who spent 50 years paddling canoes and 12 years on the board of directors of the Appalachian Mountain Club. He’s a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a resident of Winchester.
Co-author Mark Neuzil, a canoeist since the 1960s, is a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
They are familiar with many wild lands and waters, including the Maine woods, a favorite of Henry David Thoreau. Thus, it’s no surprise they quote Thoreau, who wrote: “Everyone believes in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”
Resist the temptation to merely thumb through this collection of canoe-related riches of all sorts. Make sure to read chapter two, “Birch-bark Canoes,” at canoe speed; that is, leisurely paced.
The book dives into how to construct a canoe through a series of drawings, photos and historical paintings. It also offers demonstrations of how Native Americans removed birch bark and carried the rolls back to camp where the slim boats were built.
In Henniker, canoe builder Tom Seavey restores and constructs wood-and-canvas canoes.
Says Seavey: “Working on them, my daydream becomes: I wish I was in one and off and gone. It’s the closest thing to a drifting, ethereal spirit because you’re not really grounded. And wooden canoes are so beautifully flexible. They’re in touch with the oneness of that water.”
He relates the time an eagle on the Allagash River in northern Maine landed in a tree above him. “That whole aloneness adds a little bit of scariness to it. You really need to pay attention. Everything is careful and thought-out. You are out there alone. My ears get so sensitive. An eagle landed. I was alone and heard the swoosh. From a wooden canoe, you see more than just the world.”
Sims and Neuzil say the products of the Old Town Canoe Co. were built for the 20th century. Old Town canoes became so universal that today when many people see any wood-and-canvas canoes they call it an Old Town as a generic term. The company changed hands but still makes these favorites.
After decades of experimenting, wood-and-canvas canoes evolved through many techniques and materials — canvas between two sides of wood, canvas on the outside, canvas stretched and tacked to the outside shell, the waterproofing a boiled concoction of linseed oil, paint as a binder and other compound mixtures.
As the popularity of canoeing expanded, the Old Town Canoe factory also expanded to 150,000 square feet in a 570-foot long, four-story building. Canoes were loaded onto freight trains straight from the building to the railroad stop.
Wood-and-canvas canoes sold from 1906 into the Great Depression. During this time, Carleton Canoe Co. survived a fire and was rescued by Old Town Canoe Co. Old Town then sold its own Old Town canoes to Macy’s and Carleton Canoes to Abercrombie and Fitch.
After World War I, peace meant time for vacationing, outdoor recreation, river and lake fishing, and family outings on the easy-going rivers. Canoeing adjusted to these new dimensions with redesigned boats and recreation. “Girling,” it was called. These largish “courting canoes” were designed for the man to paddle from the stern with the woman seated in the bow facing forward.
Many fancy courting canoes were built in the Charles River area of Boston. One 16-foot canoe included cabinets built under the deck for a phonograph and record albums. Sims and Neuzil say it was part of “the scandalous canoedling craze.”
Police patrolled the Charles and made arrests for kissing or lying down in a canoe. Some couples refused to stand up on command. Others simply paddled upriver and away to quieter climes.
After World War II, canoes made of aluminum, a natural element extracted from ore and touted as one-third the weight of steel, became prominent. Leroy Grumman was principal owner of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. of Long Island, N.Y., which built fighter planes for the Navy (the F6F Hellcat was one).
Grumman took the advice of his chief tool engineer William Hoffman on a portage fishing trip with a 13-foot wood-and-canvas Old Town canoe weighing 64 pounds, not its advertised 50 pounds.
Right! Hoffman thought. Why not aluminum!
The Grumman took over the canoe fad during the late 1940s and 50s canoe world, as well as providing employment for post-war fighter plane-making workers. The Grumman canoe offered lighter weight and low maintenance despite its clanking noise and plebeian attraction.
The 1960s-70s moved into the next canoe era of Kevlar, a high strength synthetic plastic five times the tensile-weight ratio of steel, an acclaimed improvement for portage-carrying, car-hauling and running-rapids.
“Mike Cichanowski,” say Sims and Neuzil, “is the founder and owner of Wenonah Canoes, which by the early-twentieth century had become the leading manufacturer of Kevlar canoes in the world.”
The first 10 years were slow, Cichanowski said, “but as an entrepreneur, I was too stupid to call it quits.”
He wouldn’t quit his racing hobby either. He’d paddle 1,000 miles during the short Minnesota summers in preparation for the canoe races he couldn’t give up. In their last chapter, “Canoe Tripping, ”Sims and Neuzil write about what basic canoeing reaps for them and others:
“The heart of canoeing is not necessarily the materials used to construct the craft. It is the experience of paddling it. We can drift quietly past a moose in Maine or under an osprey nest on the Selway River in Idaho. We can fish or not, or we can photograph a mother merganser and her brood of ducklings as they work upstream. Perhaps a river otter will suddenly appear ahead of the canoe, backpedaling and inspecting us, or a kingfisher will chatter while flying from tree to tree to keep us company. More important, as many canoeists say, just being on the water is its own reward.”
As one of the drafters of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and past president of the Wilderness Society, Sigurd Olsen says: “When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”