Thursday, February 22, 2018

Historic Paddle Photo: Voyageur Paddling Stroke

Here's an image of an HBC freight canoe carrying Missionaries as passengers. According to Timothy J. Kent, author of Birchbark Canoes of the Fur Trade, the photo is dated to 1907 and was taken on the Lac des Quinze section of the Upper Ottawa River. However a postcard in the collection of the Quebec Archives also bears this image and claims to taken on Lac Abitibi
 Lac des Quinze, Upper Ottawa River, 1907
or Lake Abitibi


What caught my attention, however, was the paddling technique of the Native Guides. If you look closely at their grip hands, the paddles are not being held with the palm across the top of the grip in the "modern" technique of today. Instead, the upper grip hand is held parallel to the shaft with the thumb pointing down. This indigenous paddling technique has been discussed in a post here and helps to explain why many surviving paddles from this era had oddly shaped grips (or none at all) compared to modern designs.


 Bow paddler and Milieux using the "Indigenous" paddle technique



 Rear Milieux using the "Indigenous" paddle technique 





Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Paddle Submission: Lee F's Poplar Voyageur Paddle

Always enjoy it when a reader gets inspiration from this blog and carves their own paddle. Lee F used information gathered from the site to carve a voyageur paddle from a dead standing poplar tree in his own yard. It was split  with an axe and wedges, shaped with a hatchet, then carved up with a crooked knife.

Poplar Voyageur Paddle

For sanding, Lee used a piece of wet leather embedded with sand. That's a technique seems so practical in its simplicity. I hadn't heard of that before but will certainly try with the growing pile of leather scraps on hand.

Great stuff Lee!



Friday, February 16, 2018

Historic Paddle Photo: Rough Waters on the Restigouche

Here's a wonderful action shot of bark canoe rushing down down some rapids. While the blade of the Guide's paddle is submerged under the water, the long flat grip is faintly visible in the photo.


Source : New Brunswick, Canada  (Publication date 1920)



Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Update on two paddle designs - American Indian Art Magazine

"While browsing through some back issues American Indian Art Magazine at the Toronto Reference Library, I came across an advertisement featuring two familiar paddle blades featured on the blog before.

Ad from American Indian Art Magazine
Spring 2015, Volume 40, Issue 2

The blade on left seems to be from the set of circa 1860 "Delaware" paddles briefly discussed in this post here.

circa 1860 "Delaware" paddles
Original Post Here


A subsequent find in an old Sotheby's catalog from the 90s describes the paddles as " Probably Lorette-Huron"...
“A Pair of Painted Wood Oars, Probably Lorette-Huron.” 
Important American Indian Art
Sotheby’s New York
May 19,1998, lot 726
Original Post Link

The slightly wider blade shape and the obvious paint drips from the dotted decoration point to the likelihood that the shorter paddle of the pair is the one in the ad.

I've made attempts to contact the antique dealer featured in the ad to no avail. But after browsing through snapshots of their site through the Wayback Machine Internet Archive, I was able to find the text that matches this paddle's description:
"This paddle clearly embodies the color symbolism of the Upper and Lower Worlds. The color division of the blade reflects the duality inherent in Native Cosmology. The alternating dots of red and blue circles extending toward the canoeist suggest an animistic connection.
This paddle is associated with the Fur Trade complex. The distinct ornamentation undoubtedly identify this paddle to an individual or band. The three perforations in the handle may have symbolic references and further distinguished its ownership."

The blade on the right of the ad seems to be from the pair of  "Iroquois paddles" listed in a Cowan's auction from 2003.

Pair of Painted Iroquois Canoe Paddles, made of two piece hardwood, red and white painted blade, unpainted shaft
each 65.5" long. Ex Howard K. Echenstern Collection.
 Cowan’s Auction, Cincinnati, Ohio
September 12 &13, 2003, lot #191


The Trotta-Bono experts believe that the Iroquois attribution is incorrect.

"This paddle is finely crafted with a particularly long, narrow blade with a pronounced medial ridge. The long shaft is round in cross section with a broad flattened handle. The distinct ornamentation clearly associates this paddle with the Fur Trade and with a presumably distinct band’s identification. The white circle undoubtedly refers to an aspect of Native Cosmology, interestingly, the white band at the transition from blade to shaft is positioned within the overall red blade."



Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: Border Country

A recently published book may interest those with a keen interest in historical canoe tripping and vintage wood-canvas canoes.  Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene  documents the tripping adventures of an enthusiastic group of wilderness seekers in the early  20th century.

Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene
2017 • Author: Martha Greene Phillips
Foreword by Peter Geye
$39.95 cloth/jacket ISBN 978-1-5179-0107-3
408 pages, 376 b&w plates, 9 x 10, July 2017


Beginning in the summer of 1906, a successful Milwaukee businessman departed with his son and some friends and to explore the headwaters of the Wisconsin River. After that first trip, the group was hooked and spent multiple summers tackling more ambitious routes in Minnesota, Michigan and Canada until a final journey in 1916. As tends to happen when a close-knit group form a tripping camaraderie, nick-names began to emerge. The crew called themselves "The Gang" and labeled their intrepid leader, Howard Greene, affectionately as "Dad".

Howard "Dad" Greene
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips

Greene was not only the trip organizer, he was also the record keeper of the group maintaining meticulous notes of the long journeys. More significantly, he hefted along a cumbersome Graflex camera and tripod to photograph the unspoiled portions of the routes, daily camp life, remote Indian villages, lumber camps and mining operations during a critical time of change in the region.

Tripping photography in the early 20th century
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips


A shoreline break
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips


Camp in 1915
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips

Once back in the city, the ever-talented Greene would type up his notes, develop dozens of large format photographs and sketch out route maps of the trip. He would then bind them with attractive leather covers and make a nostalgic copy for each member of The Gang. The effort and workmanship alone made these journals works of art in themselves.

Howard Greene's Leather Bound Journal gifts for each member of "The Gang"
 Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press

Copies of the original journals were lost over time but a complete set, along with hundreds of never-before-seen photos were held in the private collection of Greene's youngest child, daughter,  Martha Greene-Phillips.  Thankfully, she was willing to share this personal treasure trove with a wider audience. The resulting collaboration with the University of Minnesota Press resulted in a handsome hardcover complete with over 370 photos of the successive trips.

As a lover of wooden canoes and tripping in general, the collection of journals and photos were a mesmerizing read. Normally, personal journals can be quite mundane creating a limited connection with the reader, but Greene's writing style, observational nature and wit succeeds in drawing in the outsider. One almost feels like a ghost member of "The Gang" tagging along,  enduring their hardships yet enjoying the journey. Folks who have paddled these same regions today, now part of Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, might further appreciate the historic documentation that predates the work of other famed wilderness writers  like Sigurd Olson and Calvin Rutstrum by decades.

Modern canoeists will certainly get a historical lesson of the difficulties in logistics for the trips of the time. A significant portion of each trip involved lengthy rides by train, wagon, horse and steamship just to reach the access points. Maps of many areas were still incomplete or inaccurate and navigation required a constant focus rather than the comparatively lazy method of plugging in coordinates into GPS. Tripping like this doesn't seem like a restful vacation yet the summer escapes of the Gang were the highlight of their year.

Two members of the group would eventually purchase their own their own wood-canvas canoes and would freight them back to Milwaukee by train once each trip was over. Greene owned a very early Kennebec canoe whose fine lines and attractive heart shaped deck can be seen in many of the photographs. By the end of his final journey 1916 journey, it had become so battered and patched that it was sold off to local barber for the grand sum of five dollars. Another member of The Gang had an early Thompson. Today, wood canvas canoes from that era are relatively rare and sought after by collectors. Greene's photographs are a valuable early record of these craft  and would be useful for those who wish to study the lines and components for research and restoration purposes.

Greene was also keenly interested in the local Ojibwe people and their culture. The journals discuss exchanges about gear and beadwork with local bands. Photographs of native camps and birchbark canoe construction provide a rare ethnographic visual of these encounters.  Although Martha Greene Phillips writes that her father held enlightened views for the time, she and the publisher made no attempt to sanitize language considered very offensive today, nor hide the fact that while initially respectful in their early trips, The Gang would go on to desecrate native grave sites for souvenirs in later years.

As distasteful as this episode seems to modern ears, the true essence of the book is about the bond of family and friendship through the mutual experience of wilderness escape. Containing a visual photographic feast and delightful tripping stories, Border Country would make a fine addition to any canoeist's library.




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