“Canoes ,” by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims, is a vibrant history of one of North America’s most beloved conveyances.
The book, which includes an introduction by New Yorker writer John McPhee, glides through the birch-barks of the Native Americans and the canoes of the French fur traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Laden with beaver pelts and provisions, their canoes often weighed more than 8,000 pounds, so heavy the gunwales cleared just six inches from the water.
The narrative continues through the wood-and-canvas and synthetic-hulled canoes of modern times. Neuzil and Sims pepper their book with vignettes of canoe culture and portraits of enthusiasts. There was a 19th-century craze for competitive canoe sailing. And a scandal when young men and women began slipping upstream to smooch, an act known as “canoedling.” During World War II, six British commandos used a folding canoe to sneak into a French port to blow up several cargo ships.
This generously illustrated volume shows canoes bobbing on lakes, some beached ashore, others girded on a workshop bench, ribs exposed. We also see fur traders negotiating rushing rapids, Indians paddling among bulrushes, and fathers and sons fishing over the side on a warm summer’s day.
Browsing these pages, one senses what the naturalist Sigurd F. Olson called the “magic in the feel of a paddle.” That’s magic that Neuzil and Sims know well.
“The heart of canoeing is not necessarily the materials used to construct the craft; rather it is the experience of paddling it,” they write. “We can drift quietly past a moose in Maine or under an osprey nest on the Selway River in Idaho. . . . More important, as many canoeists say, just being on the water is its own reward.”
And so is their book. “Canoes” is a fantastic adventure.
Timothy R. Smith is on the Book World staff.
By Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims
Univ. of Minnesota Press. 336 pp. $39.95