BY MARK NEUZIL
Professor of communication and journalism, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
“Everyone believes in something. I believe I will go canoeing” is a comment attributed to Henry David Thoreau, who could make a claim as America’s most famous canoeist. Regardless of whether he wrote it or not, I have understood what the words meant from about the time I was 10 years old.
Canoes provide their passengers with a story; this has never been more clear to me than in the weeks since the publication of Canoes: A Natural History in North America, the book I wrote with my pal Norm Sims. As I have made promotional appearances, I have discovered one sure way to get a conversation started is to ask “tell me your canoe story.” Everybody has one.
Most of the stories are about childhood experiences, often with dad or grandpa, usually on a northern lake. Almost none of the tales are particularly noteworthy, though they come with a smile or a chuckle and are universally happy memories. A high percentage happened in an aluminum canoe. (Aluminum canoes led the market in sales every year from 1951-1976 and I would bet most of them are still water-worthy.)
What usually happens next is that the person asks me about a canoe memory; I answer that I have too many to choose from because I have spent a life in canoes.
Then they will ask how many canoes I have owned, and which was my favorite? I answer that I have too many to choose from because I have spent a life in canoes.
In truth, I could never bond with either aluminum boat I’ve owned. Both boats were good for me at the time because I had to store them outdoors year ‘round. They had much to recommend them: toughness, low cost, stability in calm water, easy to care for, and I could padlock them to the gas meter. They were also hot in the summer sun, cold in the fall and spring, heavy, ugly, slippery when wet, and not stable fully loaded in rough water. But the biggest gripe I had with those canoes was that they were LOUD. I use canoes and canoeing for quiet, and quiet those boats were not.
Not coincidentally, I also use canoes for fishing. Every time I drop something in an aluminum canoe – especially something metallic like a pliers or a reel or a stringer – it makes a WHANG sound, echoes a couple of times, and scares all the fish to Canada.
Wood, or wood-and-canvas, canoes are quieter, and there is a warmth to the wood than does not exist in metal. It is dangerous to get too nostalgic about wooden canoes, however, because in the end it’s not the construction material in the boat, but the construction of memories from the boat that matters.
Canoes: A Natural History in North America and professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of seven books and a frequent writer and speaker on environmental themes. A former wilderness guide and summer park ranger, Neuzil is an avid outdoorsman who began canoeing in the 1960s with his family. He is a past board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Friends of the Mississippi River.
"Canoes is that rare cultural history that manages to transport through its very subject: the North American canoe. This book is fascinating and thorough and wonderfully accessible. It’s also the definitive work on the single most important conveyance in this continent’s rich past. It’ll carry you away like a beautifully crafted cedar strip canoe."
—Peter Geye, author of Wintering
"A fascinating cultural and technological history that, with its hundreds of color and black-and-white images, including many by renowned artists, is a visual as well as informative feast."