On The Trail: A good read by local coauthor

  • This is the cover of local coauthor Norman Sims’ recent book, which was published in November. University of Minnesota Press

Published: 1/4/2017 11:23:44 PM

There’s a little something for everyone — be they paddlers, collectors, historians, anthropologists, designers, you name it — in the University of Minnesota Press’ recently published “Canoes: A Natural History in North America,” by Mark Neuzil and retired UMass/Amherst journalism professor Norman Sims, a familiar local whitewater enthusiast.

This nice, sturdy, cloth hardcover — printed on thick, durable glossy pages — is a good coffee-table book that can either be read from beginning to end or by cherry-picking through chapters of personal interest. “Canoes” hit the market in November and can be purchased ($39.95) online directly from the publisher or from several other retailers, and at bookstores.

Just short of 400 pages, the book is liberally illustrated with beautiful historic artwork and photography in vivid color. The cover (below) displays Homer Winslow’s 1897 “Canoe in Rapids,” by permission from Harvard University Museums.

The forward is the work of none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. A Deerfield Academy alum, longtime Princeton University professor, author of more than 30 books, and longtime staff writer for “The New Yorker,” McPhee is a top-shelf non-fiction writer probably best known locally for his 1966 biography “The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden, of Deerfield.” Either that or perhaps his more recent “The Founding Fish (2002),” a book about American shad that partially focuses on the Connecticut River. In that book, McPhee relies heavily on expert input from Dr. Boyd Kynard, known locally as a conservationist committed to saving the endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Why McPhee for the forward? Well, because he’s a lifetime canoeist who’s often written about the activity in many settings over the past 50 years. His book most associated with North America’s indigenous watercraft is “The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975),” followed by “Encounters on the Archdruid (1971).” In “The Founding Fish,” he canoes the Connecticut with Kynard acting as scientific guide and teacher.  

The canoe is generally thought of as a North American invention used by our indigenous tribes from coast to coast in the deepest historical record. Similar styles are found in the Caribbean, South and Central America, the Hawaiian Islands and the Arctic, not to mention Asia and Africa. The best-known North American canoes were made of tree bark, especially white birch and elm supported by ribbed wooden frames, attached by spruce roots and waterproofed along the seams by applying spruce gum or other sticky pine pitches combined with binders such as animal fat. Accompanying birch- and elm-bark canoes in North America’s deep history were larger, sturdier dugout canoes made of straight hardwood tree trunks hollowed out by fire, hot coals and labor-intensive scraping chores employing stone and even ancient Lake Superior copper adzes.

The heavier, studier, larger and more durable dugouts lasted longer and were probably preferred on the ocean and large lakes, such as Champlain or the Great Lakes. But the bark vessels were lighter for cross-country portages and more versatile, though more easily damaged in whitewater. When punctured, birch- and elm-bark canoes were not difficult to repair for quick recovery.

“Canoes” chronicles the versatile North American watercraft’s evolution from prehistoric to modern times, describing not only the people and tribes who built, used and maintained them, but the many different vernacular styles still in use, including Northeastern models associated with indigenous tribes and contemporary makers in Maine and the Great Lakes Region. Historic canoeists readers will recognize begin with Canadian fur trader Alexander Mackenzie, who crossed the northern continent in the late 18th century, a decade before Lewis and Clark’s explorative journey to the West Coast. Also featured are such canoeists as Henry David Thoreau, Eric Sevareid, Edwin Tappin Adney and many more.

Sims, a retired UMass honors professor in literary journalism who was enticed to the Journalism Department by founder Howard Ziff, now lives in southern New Hampshire after several years of Greenfield residence. A devoted whitewater enthusiast and active member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Sims chose his new digs because it included a barn in which to store his small collection of Morris wood-and-canvas canoes featured in the book, his sixth.

Nuezil is professor of communications and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. As the author, coauthor or editor of seven books, he is a frequent writer/lecturer on environmental themes. He is also a past board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Friends of the Mississippi River.

On my daily walks with the dogs through secluded riverside habitat in the fertile Greenfield Meadows, I was been able to monitor the daily travels of three does and a young buck through much of the shotgun and blackpowder deer-hunting seasons, especially with snow on the ground. I grew quite familiar with the tracks of those four deer and often crossed them meandering in, out and through a floodplain Christmas-tree farm that provides hayfield grasses with berries and acorns along the edges. Once deep snow falls, the deer seek out wild rhubarb that they otherwise seem to ignore.

Early last week, a new hoof print made its appearance, that of a familiar fifth deer, this one a buck with a distinctive splayed track I have grown to recognize over the past five or six years. Honestly, I thought that deer was dead but, no sir, he appears to be alive and well … and plenty elusive. He was down where I walk for two days (post deer season) and has since vanished. He’ll be back.

This week, out of nowhere and quite by surprise, the totally unfamiliar track of a monster buck showed up. Inspecting the perfect fresh tracks in wet snow Wednesday morning, I for a moment considered that I may be looking at hoof prints of an immature moose. Yes, they were that large. But upon closer inspection, I knew that a big buck had left them. Although I didn’t have a ruler, I would estimate that the length from hoof to heel measured six inches, with prominent double heel prints on every impression. The hooves at their widest point had to be nearly four inches across.

I have in my neighborhood seen a young 4- or 5-pointer and a nice trophy racker sporting 8 to 10 points this year, but have an idea that this large track was left by a new buck, a corker.

When the shooting started, this dominant animal must have laid low in the bottomlands, maybe on posted land, then come out to play once the gunfire died. Not surprising. Old bucks survive by wisdom ... and good fortune.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com.
Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.


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