The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011

Book Review

Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid

by Andrea Winden

First published in 1935, Canoeing with the Cree is the true story of a remarkable 2,250-mile canoe trip made by two teenage boys. On June 17, 1930, Arnold Eric Sevareid, then 17, and Walter Port, 19, set off from Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in an 18-foot canoe as soon as high school let out. Sevareid, who went on to become a renowned journalist, kept a diary during the trip and in plain-spoken but fine detail describes how the two companions enjoyed, endured, and ultimately survived their 14-week odyssey. Even though the trip compromised college plans and scholarships because it took longer than expected, Eric and Walt showed fierce commitment to their goal of reaching the town of York Factory on Hudson Bay.

With rudimentary maps and advice from experts and locals, the boys navigated at least 10 rivers and expansive lakes. Once past Lake Winnipeg, they encountered territory that had remained the same for 300 years. Traders and Cree Indians inhabited the silent, remote North through which they found their route. Searching for channels in marshes and immense rivers, riding the treacherous breakers of Lake Winnipeg, and steering their way through hundreds of miles of rapids and Canadian wilderness posed considerable challenges. I often flipped back to the map in the book to get my bearings and become acquainted with the complex geography the boys encountered. The journey required at least 60 portages, and Sevareid describes these grueling feats of strength in his natural and matter-of-fact style. Always the 18-year-old voice comes through-clear, honest, and true.

The many encounters with people along the way added a rich and fascinating dimension, and sometimes life-saving assistance. Farm children brought hot meals to the boys as they camped, Polish and French immigrants intrigued them, a doctor in Fargo who treated Walt’s infected finger encouraged them, and the Winnipeg Canoe Club gave valuable help and hospitality. And when they became lost in the chains of lakes and channels deep in the wilderness, the Cree showed them the way. Every turn in the rivers offered up new and exciting experiences for two boys from the prairie. Sevareid expressed his awe at seeing the immense pine forests and his first deer, and hearing the other-worldly song of the whippoorwill.

The book opens a window on the past, when life was slower, communication difficult, and people eager to help strangers. And of course, lightweight and waterproof equipment was nonexistent, and no helicopter parents supplied snacks. Livestock mired in mud, six-foot sturgeons lurking in the shallows, fly and mosquito attacks, hunger, and cold were all in a day’s work. But for Eric and Walt, the greatest challenge was to keep from giving in to fear of the unknown. Many times they were advised to turn back, but their determination to finish their journey pushed them on.

This true story encompasses so many aspects that make for a moving and unforgettable read: the thrill of the natural world, the confidence gained from overcoming difficulties, and the infectious enthusiasm and will of youth. In the end it is a coming-of-age story, in which two boys embark on an adventure and emerge from it as mature and strong adults.

Andrea Winden is a Chapter member.