The Way of the Canoe
The age-old watercraft has drawn generations to the wilderness and nurtured their love for it.
On a cold, wet August morning in 2014, Dave and Amy Freeman slid their canoe into the clear waters of South Kawishiwi River in the Superior National Forest. It was not the best weather for setting off on a long journey, but the Freemans were on a mission that they didn’t want to put off. They intended to deliver their Kevlar canoe, which had been signed by hundreds of people (including this writer), to lawmakers in Washington, DC urging them to protect Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a 1,700-square-mile wilderness area within the national forest – from sulfide-ore copper mining.
The plan that morning was to have a flotilla of supporters’ canoes join them for the first mile of their 2,000-mile journey to the Potomac River, but the weather was so dismal when they left home that the Freemans doubted anyone would show up. They were in for a surprise. “We had about 100 people in 40-plus canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards send us off in style,” Dave recalls. “There was a lot of excitement, and memories of the laughter, smiles, and hope-filled faces of friends and strangers lifted our spirits many times over the next 101 days.”
The Freemans live in canoe country in Grand Marais, Minnesota, near the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park on the US side and the Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side. The combined 2.4-million-acre wilderness area – most of which is off limits to motors and wheels – is continually threatened by the forces of commerce, including recent proposals by a multinational mining corporation to dig for minerals on 4,800 acres of land along the southwest border of the Boundary Waters. Mining in the area could result in acid damage, which can contaminate land and water for centuries.
The 2014 trip was just the latest adventure for Amy and Dave, who are avid outdoors enthusiasts. From 2010 to 2013 they paddled, dogsledded, and hiked 11,647 miles across North America as part of an online Wilderness Classroom project that allowed some 85,000 schoolchildren to track their trip digitally and learn about the places they visited. That feat earned the Freemans the “National Geographic Adventurers of the Year” title in 2014. So it was only fitting that when they decided to focus attention on the mining issue and other threats to the wilderness, they decided to skip the usual (and boring) paper petitions mailed to disinterested lawmakers and turn their canoe into a floating appeal.
The initial plan for the campaign was developed by volunteers with Sustainable Ely, a community activist and education space in Ely, a small Minnesota town that is best known as a popular entry point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Volunteers had collected a couple hundred signatures on a small canoe – christened Sig for “signature” as well as for renowned wilderness advocate, former Ely resident, and author Sigurd Olson – which they planned to ship to Washington via trailer. “We signed the canoe and a seed was planted,” Dave says. “A few days later we started talking about how canoes are meant to be paddled and the idea to paddle the canoe to Washington, DC, was born.”
That the Freemans and their supporters named their twenty-first-century petition-canoe Sig should come as no surprise. Sigurd Olson was one of the most influential wilderness advocates of his time. A college dean and wilderness outfitter, Olsen helped Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society (another avid canoeist) write The Wilderness Act of 1964, which gave canoe tripping in the US a big boost. He also played an important role in the preservation of a number of national parks, seashores, and wilderness areas, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (The Wilderness Act, incidentally, made specific note of canoes and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.) The original Sig, however, was too small for the excursion, so a donated 20-foot 6-inch Wenonah Minnesota III, which has three seats, was used instead.
The Freeman’s route took them to Lake Superior, portaging Sig over the last few miles of Minnesota turf to a sailboat for the lake crossing to the east. They worked their way through the Great Lakes to Lake Champlain, then south into New York to the Hudson River, and on to the US capital. A good day’s paddle was 40 miles. Most nights they camped by the water with only the local wildlife as companions, but sometimes a friend or supporter offered them a bed for the night. They collected additional signatures along the way. “The boat was covered in thousands of signatures by the time we reached DC,” Dave says.
As they got closer to cities, the landscape as well as water quality changed. The pollution in the Hudson was particularly jarring for Dave and Amy, who were used to the pristine lakes near their home. “We didn’t want to touch the water,” Dave recalls.
Their last day on the canoe, too, ended up being a damp one. “We paddled the final mile down the Potomac River during the height of morning rush hour in a miserable 35-degree soaking rain, but the docks at the Georgetown Canoe Club were overflowing with people awaiting our arrival and cheering for us,” Dave recalls.
The Freemans’ expedition and the popular support it received represent how canoes, North America’s most historically significant form of water transportation, can be deployed to make a political statement. Indeed, many others have used canoes in similar ways. The most iconic such protest by watercraft in recent times, one that made headlines across the world, took place in the Pacific Northwest some five months after the Freemans concluded their journey. In May 2015, around 200 activists, local Native Americans, and concerned citizens took to kayak and canoe and surrounded a giant, Arctic-bound Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig in the Port of Seattle to protest the company’s plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea. They called themselves “kayaktivists.”
Native Americans, who perfected the basic form of the canoe thousands of years ago, have been frequently involved in political protests such as the Royal Dutch Shell action, as well as environmental education campaigns. In the port of Newcastle, Australia, in 2014, Pacific Islanders protesting fossil fuels paddled kayaks and hand-carved dugout canoes into a fleet of ten coal ships. Similarly, in 2016, a dugout canoe from the Tlingit and Haida clans in Alaska joined others in protesting the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. And last year, a giant Polynesian sailing canoe returned to Hawaiʻi after a three-year trip around the globe, during which the crew passed along knowledge of traditional navigation skills and put out a call for a sustainable future. The ship’s homecoming was greeted by a flotilla of canoes, kayaks, and surfboards. These are but a few examples.
That North Americans often take to the water to voice their protest isn’t surprising. As with many cultures that have developed next to navigable water, canoes and canoeing have been part of this continent’s cultural fabric as far back as memory serves. For many environmentalists, myself included, it was the pull of the oar against water, the hours spent in a watercraft whose basic design has been unchanged for tens of thousands of years, which drew them to the wilderness, nurtured a love for it, and fostered their desire to keep it preserved.
Every culture that has lived or worked near water has created a craft to meet its needs. Native peoples on more than one continent have created boats that were long and skinny and propelled with paddles – boats that might be thought of as canoes. Native Americans, in particular, refined their canoe design over centuries. Archeologists have found dugout canoes in Florida that are around 5,000 years old.
The tools and materials used to build these watercraft may have changed over the centuries, but modern design and materials have not altered their fundamental form. It is one of two transportation inventions of the Native North Americans that was not changed by White settlement; the other is the snowshoe.
Few other watercraft have been put to so many uses. Canoes have been adapted for gathering food, migration of families, transferring freight, and for pure pleasure. The adaptability of this watercraft is one of the reasons for its long-lasting and widely popular use throughout thousands of years of history. The design of the original canoes could vary depending on their use, where they were built, and the natural materials at hand. Variations included the open-decked birch bark canoes made near birch forests in the Northeast and the hollowed-out 1,000-year-old cedar tree canoes in the Pacific Northwest. Along the central coast of California, where native tribes also used boats on inland waters, fishing canoes were often made of tule balsa reeds tied together, sometimes waterproofed with tar, which could be found in vast quantities at pits farther south. Evidence of more reed boats comes from Egypt, where papyrus was used, and South America, where the totora (giant bulrush) plant was used for constructing small rowed or paddled fishing vessels, particularly on Lake Titicaca.
In Siberia and Mongolia, where the trees did not grow very tall, the locals built animal-skin-on-frame canoes. The Inuit peoples of northern Canada also took advantage of the animal skins (usually seal) available to them, with solo decked boats that today would be classified as kayaks. In fact, the word kayak is derived from the Inuit name, qajaq.
In North America, though the basic form of the Native American canoes survived White settlement, Europeans did introduce one feature to canoes that the Natives on the continent did not employ: sails. Elsewhere, Pacific Islanders were canoe sailing masters; the crab-claw sail was in common use, attached to a dugout canoe or two dugout canoes tied together, catamaran-style.
The heart of canoeing, however, is not necessarily the materials used to construct the craft; rather, it is the experience of paddling it. Canoes allow us to engage intimately with our environment. We can drift quietly past a moose in Maine or under an osprey nest on the Selway River in Idaho, or experience the adrenalin rush of hurtling down foaming white rapids in Nahanni River in Canada. Whether it be a dugout, birch-bark, or modern craft made of aluminum, fiberglass, or plastic, the feeling of being on the water, of being part of nature, enriches our lives. In The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee, one of the modern writers most associated with canoeing, wrote: “A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.”
Paddlers have always used the canoe for necessary work and more recently, like the Freemans, for symbolic journeys. Looking for the source of the Mississippi River, or reaching the Pacific Ocean may have been necessary, but there was more to it. The narratives of canoe travel from Alexander Mackenzie, Henry David Thoreau, Edwin Tappan Adney, Eric Sevareid, and McPhee contain personal, symbolic, cultural, and political elements. Their journeys link in important ways with the human-powered movement, with conservation, and with measuring our place in nature. In fact, the modern environmental movement cannot be fully understood without recognizing the role that canoeing and other human-powered activities like bicycling, running, hiking, and skiing had in getting people outside in the 1950s and 60s. As nineteenth-century American author, paddler, and political philosopher Henry David Thoreau, once (perhaps apocryphally) said, “Everyone believes in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”
The thriving economy of the post-World War II period led to an increase in leisure time and disposable income among Americans, and consequently spurred a growing interest in outdoor hobbies of all sorts. Concern about the physical condition of young people also increased and there was a proliferation of programs specifically designed as “experiential education,” which aimed to foster personal growth via challenging expeditions in the outdoors. This in turn led to growing public interest in environmental issues.
Several events in the 1960s and 1970s further heightened public interest in the fate of the country’s land and waters, as well as in public health. The first call to arms, of course, was the 1962 publication of the book Silent Spring by US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rachel Carson. The book’s push for regulating chemicals, specifically DDT, that were being dumped onto the nation’s forests and fields and making their way into waterways, served to define environmentalism as a social movement.
The modern environmental movement cannot be fully understood without recognizing the role canoes have had in getting people outside.
Then there was the Santa Barbara oil spill of January 28, 1969, when a blowout on a Union Oil platform six miles from the California coast spilled at least 80,000 barrels of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel, killing scores of sea birds, and many marine animals, including dolphins, elephant seals, sea lions, and fish. The company’s bumbling response to what was, at the time, the largest oil spill in US history, combined with visuals of struggling birds and Californians shoveling oil-soaked hay off their beaches, stirred citizens into action.
Five months later, just when it seemed the spill was under control (although the beaches were still being mopped up), a river in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire and the nation’s attention. How could a river burn? In fact, the heavily-polluted Cuyahoga had combusted several times before, and in worse ways, but in the aftermath of the oil spill, the flaming Cuyahoga became a symbol of America’s growing environmental problems.
Against this backdrop, Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson, an avid canoeist, applied his staff to the task of creating a national “teach-in” to raise public awareness about environmental issues that came to be called Earth Day. On April 22, 1970, an estimated 22 million Americans took part in some sort of event or demonstration related to the environment. Outdoor adventurers, including canoeists, bikers, hikers, hunters, and anglers, were a key part of the loose coalition that helped organize these events. Congress itself recessed for the day and the bipartisanship was telling.
These incidents helped give politicians support to craft far-reaching environmental legislation. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson signed more than 300 pieces of environmental legislation, by one count. Examples include the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Land and Water Conservation Fund of 1965, the Water Quality Act of 1965, and the Endangered Species Act of 1966. More legislation rolled through Congress in the months and years following that first Earth Day, almost all of it directly or indirectly beneficial to the lovers of the outdoor life, including the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.
But for canoeists, none of these were as important as the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which created a federal bureaucracy to shield rivers from development. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, 12,598 miles of rivers in 38 states and Puerto Rico were protected and government conservation of our waterways had become the norm.
Sadly, that doesn’t hold true in today’s political climate. In the past year, the Trump administration has rolled back many earlier policies that aimed to safeguard our lands and waters – from lifting bans on offshore drilling to opening up formerly protected federal lands for mining and oil exploration. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness hasn’t been spared either. In December, the US Interior Department renewed the mining leases the Freemans were fighting against, allowing the mining company, Twin Metals Minnesota, to explore for copper on the edge of the wilderness area, and continue work on a planned copper mine southeast of Ely. In January, the state of Minnesota released a draft permit for the copper mine. But Twin Metals still needs final permits, and environmentalists have vowed to fight the company every step of the way. Four lawsuits have already been filed to stop the mine and it’s likely there will be more to come.
“The threat to the Boundary Waters, America’s most visited wilderness, and Voyageurs National Park is now more real than ever,” Dave told me when I last spoke with him.
I started canoeing in Iowa when I was about 10, back in the 1960s when the environmental movement was gaining momentum across America. My father had purchased an all-wood, 14-foot Army surplus dinghy for fishing on the lake where we lived, but he, my Uncle Jerry, and I were caught in a bad Midwestern thunderstorm and ran it up on some rocks. The dinghy sank like a stone, and Dad, ever the early adopter, moved on to a fiberglass canoe. That purchase began a lifetime of canoe-based adventures for me, including a stint as a US Forest Service-licensed guide in northern Minnesota.
One of those adventures began in 1999, when a straight-line wind called a derecho blew down as many as 25 million trees in the Boundary Water Canoe Area and on nearby lands along the US-Canadian border. Many of them were white cedars; some of them were salvaged from private property and left outside to dry. A few of those were straight enough and long enough to make a cedar-strip canoe. Eleven years after the blowdown, I took my own cedar-strip craft back to the Boundary Waters, completing the circle back home for the trees.
The best relationships with canoes can be deeply personal, connected to a time or a place, or a friend. Often these begin with a single moment, an event, a day on the water, or even the glimpse of a boat. For me, the act of pushing off in my own handcrafted canoe was, in some ways, the culmination of a lifelong relationship with a host of things – canoes yes, but also the many bodies of water I had paddled on, and the forests and other wild places I had learned to love. As Olson once wrote: “The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten…. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” I believe that as long as people continue to bend their backs to the pleasurable task of cleaving their way through water in this age-old craft, there will also be scores who willingly take up paddles against forces that seek to ravage our wildlands.
Mark Neuil is the co-author, with Norman Sims, of Canoes: A Natural History in North America, and is a professor of journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.