New book paddles through history on canoe

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Courting on Grand Canal in Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River, with Detroit, Michigan, on one side and Windsor, Ontario, on the other, c. 1900. Note the Victrola mounted in the canoe in the foreground. Image: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Marie Orttenburger

Before everyone had a car, young lovers made out in canoes.

In the early 20th century, Michigan’s Belle Isle Park on the Detroit River was one of a few hot spots for the “canoedling” fad. Couples could rent or buy canoes especially designed for courting. The front seats in these canoes faced the rear, so the couple could look at each other while paddling. A Belle Isle suitor could outfit his canoe with a Victrola record player, rugs for the floor, backrests and pillows to keep his lady comfortable.

The fad later became a controversy in Boston when Puritanical preachers and reformers spoke out against it. Several couples were arrested for their transgressions.

The Charles River at Newton, Massachusetts, became one of the most popular waterways for “canoedling” among young people during the early twentieth century. Image: John Summers Collection.

Canoedling is just one chapter in the rich history of the canoe, the subject of the new book “Canoes: A Natural History in North America.”

Since its first recorded iterations, the canoe has scarcely changed. There have been some variations in materials, accouterments and functions throughout its thousands of years of existence, but the fundamental form of the boat has remained steadfast.

“The natives who first built either birch barks or skin canoes or dugouts got the design right. That’s why it survived for thousands of years—because it was correctly built,” said Mark Neuzil, a professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-author of the book.

The same can’t be said for many tools. Neuzil suspects only the snowshoe has similar longevity. That’s part of the reason he and Norman Sims, a retired professor from University of Massachusetts Amherst,  teamed up to write “Canoes.”

They’re also both longtime canoe fanatics.

The book is in eight parts, each following the evolution of the canoe. Filled with beautiful, full-color images of canoes through time, it’s a book about history. But it has hints of ethnography as well, including interviews with very different individuals who share the common thread of canoes.

“We didn’t want to write a book about a technology,” Sims said. “We realized that canoes were connected to the time in which they were used.”

The canoe is intricately entwined with the history of North America, beginning with the land’s first residents. It was (and is) an important tool for indigenous peoples and later influenced trade for the European settlers. They were essential in the movement of fur harvested in Canada and the northern United States. French voyageurs paddled huge canoes up to 36 feet in length, moving pelts across Lake Superior and beyond. The largest “Montreal canoes” could carry up to 16 passengers and 8,000 pounds of cargo.

Frances Anne Hopkins, Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, 1869. Oil on canvas. Hopkins inserted herself into this image as she traveled with her husband, Hudson’s Bay official Edward Hopkins, and voyageurs. She journeyed extensively with her husband by canoe along the company’s trading routes in 1864, 1866, and 1869, and perhaps on a fourth trip in 1870. Image: Frances Anne Hopkins fonds, Library and Archives of Canada.

In the twentieth century, the canoe became a popular recreational vehicle and remains one today.

Over the course of the book’s history lesson, the reader meets a cast of intriguing characters. One man still builds dugout canoes on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Another interview came from Sims’s archives. Sims met 90-year-old and lifelong canoe-lover Jules Fox Marshall in 1980. Marshall canoed the circumference of Long Island with a friend at the age of twelve. It’s impossible to know the length of their exact route, but it would have been at least 280 miles. That was in the early 1900s.

“You could do this back then,” Sims said. “Nowadays the parents would get arrested for child abuse.”

For that and other stories of canoeing culture, find “Canoes: A Natural History in North America” for purchase from University of Minnesota Press for $39.95.

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