Excerpt from Canoeing with the Cree
Return to Canoeing with the Cree.
From the Foreward
Just a few miles from the spot where Canoeing with the Cree begins, and forty years later, I put in on my first Mississippi River canoe trip. Stories of adventure had captivated me for as long as my mother remembers, and several summers earlier, at Camp Widjiwagan, I had been smitten with love for canoes. My dad had given me a copy of Canoeing, which I remember relishing.
It was April when my dad, my brother Hunter, and I set out for several days on the river, which was swollen with spring snowmelt and rain. We put in near our house in Mendota and were due back home several days later in time for my older brother Bill's birthday. A call to my mom at trip's end would summon our pick-up. But we were late, wind-bound and trapped on a muddy island overnight. A search team of tugboats panning the shore with huge spotlights couldn't find us, nor did it occur to us that the light show was on our behalf. The size and challenge of the "mighty" river were legendary in our minds, so we simply resigned ourselves to being among the many who would sleep on its shore and live to tell a story.
Canoeing with the Cree, this remarkable account by two young men, begins as do many youthful dreams. On the cusp of adulthood, with nothing ostensible to lose, Eric Sevareid and his friend Walt Port decide to leave the comforts of their homes to seek adventure in a secondhand, eighteen-foot, voyageur-style canoe. While Minneapolis was already a mature city in 1930, the wilderness of the great north woods was as close as a train stop, or two, away. Early in the boys' trip, just a few hundred into the eventual 2,500 miles, they look out over the Minnesota River from a tower at Fort Ridgely. From this high vantage Sevareid muses that there is much more river ahead! Their long trek north along many rivers, passing early trading posts and eventually reaching the great Hudson Bay and sea beyond, would be the first documented canoe trip along this historic route. There is no question but that the naiveté of youth and the strength of both young men's characters made fate favor their success.
Among the themes that resound in Sevareid's book, the most palpable for me is the power of language and storytelling. With almost no access to the communication wires necessary to send out their stories, the explorer-writers had to thread their news together with great gaps in time and without visuals in order for their readers to "see" and feel their experiences. This also worked to captivate their audience, bringing attention to their efforts and challenging their doubters. In 1930 one waited for news—and waited as long as necessary. The isolation of eastern Manitoba presented readers a contrasting world of indigenous cultures and backcountry men living a largely physical lifestyle that set the stage for a heroic saga. Is it only coincidence that short attention spans and the loss of wilderness characterize our time? We may need to rely on stories such as this one to remind us of what wind in the tree tops sounded like without the roar of a nearby freeway. One can imagine the hushed sounds of the native Cree, the feel of rabbit-fur moccasin liners, the scent of native white pine forests, and the distant whistle of "iron" foreshadowing a noisier, more time-pressed day.
Borealis Books' reissue of Canoeing with the Cree this year is an important statement on behalf of great books. This is a gem of a book, and its relevance today is unquestionable. We in the outdoor community face a tremendous challenge. We must persuade others to preserve wilderness not just to protect the planet's biodiversity, but because wilderness is essential to our spiritual well-being.
I write about my travels to remote places to remind my friends of the importance of preserving wilderness, knowing that this is a bit of a paradox. How will we shape our worldview without a fundamental understanding of our struggle to live vividly as human organisms? The wilderness experience, as Sevareid shows, positions the great questions we face in life within the context of our utter smallness. Only our acceptance, our willingness to go where we are small and where we need to respect the power and objectivity of nature, makes it possible for us to experience a hero's journey. And we are all eager for that journey.
© 2004 Minnesota Historical Society Press