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Writing the Book on Canoes

Mark Neuzil rose from his chair and disappeared for a moment. When he returned, he was wielding a glossy wooden canoe paddle.

“To get us in the mood,” he said.

Neuzil is a canoe scholar. Who else but a diehard canoe enthusiast could produce a 416-page meticulously researched history of the vessel, brimming with earnestly culled historical and modern photographs and illustrations? The communication and journalism professor – along with co-author Norman Sims, a retired honors professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst – did just that, and Canoes: A Natural History in North America was published in November.

More than a walking repository of canoe-related knowledge, Neuzil is a true aficionado, whose interest in this millennia-old mode of water transport is steeped in a love that springs from his longstanding faithfulness to the great outdoors and is observable in his oeuvre of environmental journalism.

In fact, Neuzil constructed the aforementioned paddle using a few types of cedar, except for the shaft, which is made from recycled cypress flooring. The parts are blended so seamlessly it’s hard to tell they weren’t created from a single slab of wood.

“It’s carved in the voyageur style, and it’s for kids,” Neuzil said of the paddle. “So, it’s lighter than it would be otherwise.”

Neuzil estimated he’s made 10 or more paddles in his lifetime, all of which he either custom crafted for friends as gifts or donated to fundraisers.

Canoes: the book

Neuzil, who has been published in outdoor magazines since his 20s, said he comes at
his environmental journalism from a less common but not rare place for journalists who start writing about the environment: “an outdoor adventure perspective.”

The coffee-table book begins with segments on dugouts and birch bark canoes – the rustic progenitors of the canoes most people are familiar with today. It also covers, in more or less chronological order, successive designs, moving from all-wood canoes to wood and canvas canoes to modern-day versions crafted from aluminum and synthetic materials such as fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber and Royalex, a defunct type of plastic similar to the hard ABS plastic used in car bumpers.

The book covers all kinds of canoe subject matter, and includes a vast collection of historical images Neuzil and his writing partner curated themselves. Sims, a literary journalist, contributed a chapter on canoes in literary works. Neuzil wrote a chapter on canoes and their relationship to the environmental movement from the 1960s forward – a subject dear to him.

“Investigating the modern environmental movement and its various facets is a passion of mine,” he said. “This was a chance to connect the movement to people-powered sports such as canoeing.”

Renowned author John McPhee wrote the foreword for Canoes. Before McPhee would commit, however, he asked Neuzil and Sims to send him all eight chapters of their manuscript.

“He doesn’t do things like this often. I was terrified,” Neuzil recalled of waiting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning, pre-eminent grandfather of literary journalism to make a decision.

He had good reason to believe McPhee, who has received lavish praise as one of the best-known living writers on canoes, would exercise extreme choosiness over which projects he’d attach himself to. One reviewer had this to say about McPhee’s 1975 book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe:

“If you would like to build a birch bark canoe as the Indians built them, drop a line to the Government Printing Office and ask for The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin T. Adney and Howard Chapelle (1964). If you would like to understand the spirit of a bark canoe, read McPhee.”

Much to Neuzil’s relief, McPhee accepted.

A meandering research process

The research process for Canoes took Neuzil as far as Maine and as close to home as his bookshelf. Though Neuzil had a depth of knowledge about canoes prior to writing the book, he appreciated immersing himself in the research because it brought him back to that rewarding feeling of being a student and learning something new.

“Much of the material on the voyageurs was new and interesting to me – how they lived, how hard they worked, how they died and how they [mostly] got along with the natives for generations,” he noted. “Much of that had to do with a mutual interest in trade.”

The academic in him is evident in the book. Neuzil thinks he spent around a year – off and
on – unearthing texts to include in the extensive bibliography at the back of Canoes. He didn’t have to search far for many of the books in the section, however; a sizeable portion came from his personal library – a trove so plentiful he is afraid to count all of the texts, so he had a significant knowledge base to start from.

“One of the most obscure books I have is Snow Shoes and Canoes by a chap with the great Anglo- Saxon name of William Henry Giles Kingston,” Neuzil said. “It’s an adventure story about a guy who was a fur trader near Hudson Bay. It was published in 1876.

“I also like Practical Canoeing: A Treatise on the Management and Handling of Canoes by someone with the pen name Tiphys. No idea who that was in real life, although in Greek mythology Tiphys was the helmsman of the Argonauts’ ship, the Argo, when they were looking for the Golden Fleece. Published in 1883 in London, it is a guide to sailing canoes. The author also tells you how to dress for canoeing: ‘Knickerbockers are better than trousers, both on board and for wading.’”

Neuzil’s research also offered a few welcome excuses to travel and pick the brains of an assortment of canoe historians and craftspeople, some of them delightfully off the grid, all of them masters in one way or another.

One notable encounter took place in the mountains of northern Maine, where Neuzil, accompanied by his wife and two daughters, met with Jerry Stelmok, a well-known canoe builder renowned for his idea in the 1970s to bring back the wood and canvas canoe. His effort was a success. Stelmok, “a real character and a fun guy,” according to Neuzil, still makes the old-style vessels for Island Falls Canoes, which he founded, as well as for L.L. Bean. To add to the lore, Stelmok works out of an abandoned wooden toy factory.

Neuzil also was happy to track down and speak with a birch bark canoe builder – perhaps the oldest style canoe in history not counting the dugout – in Finland, Minnesota.

“It’s hard to find people who build those anymore,” Neuzil said. The builder lives off the grid and builds one or two birch bark canoes per year.

The oldest bark canoe featured in the book, a birch canoe believed to be from the mid-1700s, was discovered during his research phase. A woman living at an estate in England found it in her home.

Although it’s in terrible shape, Neuzil and Sims believe it’s one of the oldest surviving canoes of its kind, if not the oldest.

“That was a really fun thing to happen during the course of our project,” Neuzil said. “We discovered that it was sent home from the Canadian prairies by an English officer probably in the mid- 1700s. He was stationed on the frontier and shipped this canoe back where it sat up in his barn in the midlands of central England. The current estate owner shipped the canoe across the Atlantic to its original home country, where it awaits historical inspection and restoration at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario.

“Can you believe there’s such a place?” he said, with a note of wistfulness.

A canoe of one’s own

Neuzil’s affinity for canoeing and spending time in the wilderness were instilled in him by his father – an avid hunter and fisherman – from a young age. When Neuzil was 10, his family moved to a house on Lake Macbride in Solon, Iowa, a small town in the southeast part of the state. His dad bought a fiberglass canoe soon after, and Neuzil and his siblings spent most summers paddling around the lake.

“If we wanted to paddle, we just hauled our canoe 150 yards down to the lake. It was the best a kid could ask for,” he said.

Though he no longer lives on a lake, he still makes time to canoe and camp a handful of times a year and carves out time for day trips too. He enjoys it, simply, “just for the paddling part, the quiet of it. And the fishing, of course.”

If, in another world, Neuzil’s lifelong love of canoeing, hours of paddling and numerous outdoorsy, environmental and scholarly writing credits weren’t enough to qualify him to write a book on canoes, then one pretty unique experience, even in hyper-DIY circles, would set him apart: Neuzil has built a canoe from scratch.

“It’s not as hard as it looks,” he said, not showing any sign of self-congratulation. “It’s a lot like putting a puzzle together. You have to do a lot of sawing and then a lot of gluing.” From the garage of his St. Paul home, Neuzil built his canoe – from mostly white cedar, a wood known for its lightness and affordability – over several months in 2010. His daughters, Elena and Maria, both students at St. Thomas, helped him cane the seats, which, coincidentally, fulfilled one of his parental goals of teaching his children woodworking.

Once Neuzil coated his creation in a protective coating of fiberglass, he and his wife, Amy, hauled it to Lake Hiawatha in south Minneapolis for its maiden voyage to test for leaks. She likened its first dip to putting a new guitar in the water – sure, the wood would float, but should something so lovingly crafted, boat or not, deserve to be thrown into a lake?

“She was so nervous,” Neuzil recalled. Fortunately, her worries were for naught. The canoe’s solid craftsmanship tested and proven, the Neuzils took the family vessel to the Boundary Waters the next year. How many times has the home-built canoe been taken out since? Neuzil searched his memory.

“Hmmm … a lot,” he said, adding that he might have to retire it soon because its beaten exterior reflects countless excursions in just six years.

Canoes’ publication may have marked the end of a six-year journey for Neuzil, but his canoeing days will be a part of his future “until the water runs out,” he said.

It is Neuzil’s hope that Canoes will impart this same joy in his readers – maybe even enough to go out and buy (or make) a canoe of their own.

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