Manitoba by the Book: an occasional series of introductions to writings about our city and province, with an emphasis on the strange, obscure or forgotten. Manitoba moments.
Canoeing with the Cree, (1935) by Arnold (Eric) Sevareid
The Hudson Bay men, together with the Mounted Police, hold absolute rule over the northland.
It was 1930.
Two boys in Minneapolis graduated from high school and immediately set out to paddle to Hudson Bay. It was an ambitious journey by a pair who had dreams of “Indians and rapids and Mounted Police” in their heads.
Just 17 and 19 years-old, Eric Sevareid and Walter Port planned to paddle 2,250 miles, via the Minnesota River, Red River and Lake Winnipeg en route to salt water at York Factory.
They cajoled a Minneapolis newspaper into sponsoring them with a grubstake of $50 and the promise of $50 more in York Factory. Then they told their parents about their plans.
They survived and Sevareid published this account of their adventure several years later.
Sevareid confesses early on that when they started out in their second-hand canoe, they ‘knew practically nothing of woods life. Never before had we really traveled by canoe.’ Their outfit list is in the book and included several cans of beans and a .22 caliber rifle.
It was the school of hard knocks for the pair. They had inadequate maps and would learn to paddle whitewater on the way. At times they would have to rely on the kindness of strangers and their own sheer stubbornness.
The story takes us back to days when the North was seen as being populated by Mounties, traders and Indians. It gives us some idea of the romantic notions and typecasting of the day.
After crossing the border, they were struck by the French settlements south of Winnipeg: ‘They were a picturesque lot, living and dressing much as I had imagined the inhabitants of France do, and their musical language fascinated us. One old man, short, dark, and bewhiskered, operated a clumsy old ferry at St. Jean…and he might have stepped out of the pages of Victor Hugo.’
Sevareid is not an unsympathetic observer, but he can’t quite escape an element of Boy’s Own romance. Perhaps not surprising in a 17-year-old.
In Winnipeg, they were taken in by the Canoe Club and camped next door. They spent two days enjoying the soft pleasures of city life before some hair-raising times on Lake Winnipeg.
The big lake was always the bane of paddlers. At the Cree settlement of Berens River, they spent several days held up by weather. They found the chief in a hammock in his front yard smoking his pipe.
‘He was very interesting. He shook hands solemnly, asked after our health in a nice manner and chatted with us for a quarter of an hour on many subjects. Yes, he had heard of Minneapolis.
We liked Chief Berens. He bore his position with just the right amount of dignity. He had a fine sense of his place, but I cannot say that of some of the white men and women who stepped off the steamer to stare at the Indians. They gathered about the chief in a circle and asked him silly questions like, “Do you have any papooses?” Some of them actually held out pieces of candy, as though he were a bear in a zoo!’
Glory Days: in the 1920s and 1930s there was no shortage of Mounties at the cinema to spur boys’ dreams.
That was a time when the RCMP had a reputation. In the inter-war period there was even a movie genre that could be called Northwestern, rather than Western. Law and order was represented by the Mountie and pictures were fleshed out with a stable of stock characters-the trapper, the prospector, the lumberjack, the French-Canadian and First Nations people.
Interest in the north was fueled by the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, and Jack London and Robert Service were bestsellers in the early years of the century. The author was not immune to their effects.
When a local man turned up to try their canoe, ‘it was as though he had a motor on the end. Across the bay and through the reeds the canoe shot like a racing boat….We had developed a pretty good opinion of our own ability by that time, but we were babes compared with this man. As he rammed her prow high up in the mud with one thrust of the blade, one of the “clarks” leaned over and whispered to us, “He’s a Mountie.”
Well, that explained it!
Private Alfred Jones was the first “Mountie” we had ever met. I had read about them, dreamed about them since I was a little kid, and had ached to meet one in the flesh. That was the biggest thrill I had received from meeting anyone since the time I shook hands with Jack Dempsey himself, and swore I wouldn’t wash my right hand for a week.’
Beyond Norway House, the boys were fortunate to fall in with an HBC man heading for the God’s Lake post. He hove into sight sitting between two Cree paddlers and reading a book, apparently channeling the ghost of George Simpson.
The boys were hard-pressed to keep up with his Cree paddlers, Moses Gore and James Robertson: ‘Moses was fifty-four years old and yet he could portage the heart right out of Walt and me.’
Two minutes after landing, he lamented, the Cree would trot off with about 250 pounds apiece on their backs.
On one portage the author had a pratfall worthy of Charlie Chaplin, with a telling aftermath.
‘Canoe over our heads, we were feeling our way along a portage trail. I was in the rear and could see a few feet farther ahead than Walt. A pair of moccasins came into view, padding toward us. I assumed it was either Moses or Jimmy returning for another load, but I could not see higher than the Man’s knees.
Suddenly there was a crash. My forehead banged the stern thwart. Walt went down on his knees as though he had been shot. When my head cleared a moment later, I was on the ground, also. Elegant Cree curses were crackling through the frosty air. When we got the canoe off our heads, there was an Indian, whom we had never seen before, staggering to his feet, by the side of a big freighter canoe. He had seen our boots coming, but not our canoe, nor had we seen his boat…the prows of both craft met squarely, with almost stunning force. The man was in a rage, but gradually it dawned on him that our colouring was simply sunburn and that we were white. He shut up like a clam, hoisted up the canoe and went on without another word.’
The adventure reflects the conventions of its time, but Sevareid does dutifully report their struggles and brings us unexpected details.
When they haul in their prize catch of northern pike at God’s Lake, the Cree children laugh. They are informed that jackfish ‘go to the dogs for winter grub. People around here eat nothing but whitefish.’
It was the dawn of the air age, but who knew forestry seaplanes took carrier pigeons on their flights in case of emergency? No radios.
Their final race to the Bay to beat freeze-up was a grind, ‘our conversation consisted of nothing but opinions as to where we were, as to the length of time our food would hold out, of good meals we had once eaten, of warm beds we had once slept in.’
In the end, the author feels they returned home as men, and he might just be right.
Sevareid was back in Minneapolis too late to begin regular university courses that fall. Instead, he became a copy boy on the Minneapolis Journal and six weeks later a reporter. Later in the decade, he was working in Paris. In 1939, he joined CBS as a European correspondent, and would go on to an award-winning career in television news reporting, retiring in 1977.
Canoeing with the Cree was published in 1935. It was re-published in 1968 and 2005 and remains in print.
York Factory, established in 1684, closed as a fur trade post in 1957.
FOR: more fodder for dreamers and armchair paddlers. The next book will have no canoes.
FINDING: newer edition is still available by order.