Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wilderness canoeing before ABS canoes and GPS

     "North American Canoe Country," by Calvin Rutstrum covers the basics of wilderness canoeing in the Canadian wilderness back when having a "wood and canvas canoe, fishline, rifle, two rabbitskin blankets, several pounds of flour, tea and a bag of salt," was considered well equipped.  The book, first published in 1964 and still available, is not a travelogue, though descriptions of route finding, portage trails and choosing a canoe outfitter, are grounded with numerous anecdotes from Rustrums' more than 50 years of paddling in the great north woods.
     When it was published 46 years ago it was a wilderness primer for anyone in the 1960's who was planning an extended journey in the trackless wilderness areas of North America at a time when there was just not that much in print about how to do a trip like that. 
     Today, the book is not much help in choosing and using outdoor gear available to 21st century paddlers.  Rutstrum writes about the simple and dependable gear he used making his way on the lakes and rivers of the Canadian wilderness; ax, knife, a "tent" which is really little more than a glorified tarp and wood and canvas canoes.  Much of the gear considered essential for outings in 2012, Gore Tex, lightweight tents and sleeping bags and GPS navigation, was invented or came into wide use after this book was published.
     He does mention aluminum canoes which he said were lightweight and durable and which in the early 1960's became widely available.
     The book has no photographs. The few illustrations are black and white drawings of wilderness scenes such as paddling on a quiet lake, a campfire scene, an Indian in a birch bark canoe, portaging a rocky trail, running rapids. These romantic and generic scenes of men in plaid shirts and suspenders may make the book seem quaint in our time of feather-light carbon fiber paddles and Kevlar canoes.
      What does make the book useful to today's wilderness travelers is the timeless and practical advice he gives, gleaned from more than 50 years in the Canadian backcountry.  The chapter on finding your way begins by busting the notion that some men have an innate sense of direction.  (There are only two ways to know direction, he says: by observation of the natural directional clues with the five senses and with instruments, he claims.)  Other insights concern portaging, the value of an outboard motor on a canoe and a paddle stroke better than the "J" stroke for moving a canoe.
     The book is an easy read. Descriptions of events and equipment are concrete and to the point.   The advice on choosing an outfitter for a week-long wilderness trek is probably as valid today as it was 50 years ago.  Ditto for info in the chapters on organized youth camp canoeing, and selecting a canoe route.  And his thoughtful and romantic ten-page discussion on why he sometimes, despite the danger and loneliness, goes on his own, alone, is the best justification for solo travel I have ever seen.

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