I just returned from my most arduous canoe trip in years [an estimated 65,000 - 75,000 paddle strokes] reminding me that I’m not 20 years old anymore. Four friends and I retraced a trip in the Quetico that Aldo Leopold took in 1922. Tom, one of my canoe mates, was reading Eric Sevareid’s Canoeing with the Cree, which also reminded me that we have not officially placed this classic on our list of best books, so here it is:
Arnold Sevareid. Canoeing with the Cree. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
This is the book most often recommended to me as one of Minnesota’s 150 best books. I couldn’t agree more, but I admit that I am a bit surprised by such wide spread agreement. This true adventure story begins on the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling and ends a harrowing four months and 2,250 miles later in Hudson Bay. I won’t take away any of the pleasure of a full reading, but Tom marked two passages in his copy with campfire charcoal that I’ll share. The first passage comes when the boys, using horrible maps and bad advice, had just come life threateningly close to missing the outlet of the God’s River.
Half a mile westward and suddenly we were in a strong current. Again we had done it! And missed the river by only half a mile!
“Mr. Sevareid,” said Walt pompously, extending his hand like an archduke, “I congratulate you, rawther splendid you know.”
“Sir Port, positively gorgeous. You, my lord, not I, deserve the plaudits of these gaping multitudes.”
But only the spruce and the birch could witness our triumph.
This proved the truth of an earlier passage that Tom had marked…
This was another indication of something we came to realize many times before we reached home, that the God who guides the footsteps of errant fools most certainly was riding on the weathered prow of the Sans Souci [their canoe].
I love the last paragraph of this coming of age story…
We went by the school, sitting on its terraces among the yellow trees. As we drew nearer and nearer to home, high-school boys and girls passed us on their way to classes. We realized that we were looking at them through different eyes. We realized that our shoulders were not tired under the weight of our packs. It was as though we had suddenly become men and were boys no longer.
I recommend collectors find a copy of the first edition. It was published under Eric’s original name, Arnold, and the dust jacket has an image canoeists will find familiar, a photo by Sevareid of Walter Port’s bare back in the bow of Sans Souci. The edition currently in print is, however, the best. It contains an introduction by Ann Bancroft, who wisely sums up the one of the reasons this book is timeless: “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.”
There can’t be any better place to read a book than sitting on jack pine needle covered granite in canoe country. Other books we painfully carried over countless portages? The Secret Life of Lobsters, Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I love the juxtaposition of reading gritty urban novels in the wilderness, so I brought along John Banville’s Dublin in his Christine Falls.