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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Rev. Young - Again


A couple posts back, I commented on By Canoe and Dog Train Among the Cree and Salteaux Indians, by Rev. Egerton R. Young, saying that there wasn't much on canoe technique in what was mainly a memoir of a missionary in the wilds of Canada during the mid- to late nineteenth century. But in taking another look through the book prior to returning it to my Canadian friend, I came across a couple of interesting items.

The first, which finds Young in a birchbark canoe with two Indian paddlers/guides, I'll quote at length:
On one of these early trips we came to a place where for many miles the moving ice fields stretched out before us. One narrow channel of open water only was before us. Anxious to get on, we dashed into it, and rapidly paddled ourselves along. I had two experienced Indians, and so had no fear, but expected some novel adventures – and had them with interest.
Our hopes were that the wind would widen the channel, and thus let us into open water. But, to our disappointment, when we had got along a mile or so in this narrow open space, we found the ice was quietly but surely closing in upon us. As it was from four to six feet thick, and of vast extent, there was power enough in it to crush a good-sized ship; so it seemed that our frail birch-bark canoe would have but a poor chance.

I saw there was a reasonable possibility that when the crash came we could spring on to the floating ice. But what should we do then? was the question, with canoe destroyed and us on floating ice far from land.

However, as my Indians kept perfectly cool, I said nothing, but paddled away and watched for the development of events. Nearer and nearer came the ice; soon our channel was not fifty feet wide. Already behind us the floes had met, and we could hear the ice grinding and breaking as the enormous masses met in opposite directions. Now it was only about twenty feet from side to side. Still the men paddled on, and I kept paddling in unison with them. When the ice was so close that we could easily touch it on either side with our paddles, one of the Indians quietly said, "Missionary, will you please give me your paddle?" I quickly handed it to him, then he immediately thrust it with his own into the water, holding down the ends of them so low horizontally under the canoe that the blade end was out of the water on the other side of the boat. The other Indian held his paddle in the same position, although from the other side of the canoe. Almost immediately after the ice crowded in upon us. But as the points of the paddles were higher than the ice, of course they rested upon it for an instant. This was what my cool-headed clever men wanted. They had a fulcrum for their paddles, and so they pulled carefully on the handle ends of them, and the canoe sliding up as the ice closed in and met with a crash under us, we found ourselves seated in it on top of the ice. The craft, although only a frail birch-bark canoe, was not in the least injured.
Good story, perhaps, but I don't buy it. If you're sitting in the canoe, you can't lift it by pulling up against the bottom of the canoe itself, even if you DO have a lever -- or at least it seems that way to this physics drop-out. (I'm thinking about the old saw "just give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I can move the Earth." Well, that assumes that the place you're going to stand isn't ON the Earth.) Was the good reverend mistaken about what went on here, or is he telling a whopper?

The other item refers to another missionary in Canada, the Rev. James Evans -- the very thought of whom gets Rev. Young all moist and squishy inside, but who adopted an interesting mode of traveling to see his far-flung parisioners:
Ever on the look-out for improvements to aid him in more rapid transit through the country, Mr. Evans constructed a canoe out of sheet tin. This the Indians called the "Island of light," on account of its flashing back the sun's rays as it glided along propelled by the strong paddles in the hands of the well trained crew. With them they carried in this novel craft solder and soldering-iron, and when they had the misfortune to run upon a rock they went ashore and quickly repaired the injured place.
Could this have been the first metal canoe, 100 years or so before Grumman? In any case, it reminds me of Rob White's How to Build a Tin Canoe: Confessions of an Old Salt. Now, this may be a bit off-topic, but Rob White was, IMO, the best humorist and one of the best philosophers to ever write about boats and boating. And while most of the essays in this book aren't about canoes (or any other indigenous boat, per se), it is a real gem that I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone who loves boats, the water, and the whole "messing about" ethos (even if you, like I, are tired unto death of the whole "messing about" cliche itself). 

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