The Journal of Canadian

Wilderness Canoeing

    FALL 2004



OUTFIT 118 & 119










In this issue

Front Page



Winter Packet


From the Editor

Canoelit I

Canoelit II

Back page




Canoelit I

Books reviewed by Michael Peake

No Man's River

By Farley Mowat

Key Porter Books, Toronto 2004

355pp, $36.95

ISBN: 1-55263-624-0

If there was one event or moment in time that catapulted the young Farley Mowat into the world of literature it was his travels in the north after WWII. Here is the kernel of a successful career that has spanned more than half a century.

Mowat returns to those very writing roots and canoe routes in No Man’s River, a wonderful memoir of those days in the late 1940s when he travelled in and among the native people of northern Manitoba and southern NWT. The very look of this book tells you why Mowat is beloved by publishers, apart

from his superb writing style. He can produce a modern northern travel narrative that doesn’t need costly photos! And he has done it here, crafting a fascinating memoir enveloped on the cusp of monumental change.

Arguably Mowat’s most famous work, Never Cry Wolf, was made into a major motion picture and was based on his experiences here. After his harrowing World War II service, young Mowat went north as an assistant to a highly anal and pedantic scientist whose mission was to kill and embalm as many species as possible in the greater name of science. Along the way Mowat befriends the Schweder family of German trappers who have deeply assimilated into the northern life.

Mowat soon tires of the scientist and befriends Charlie Schweder, the second generation member of the trapping family, and half native. The book is primarily about their travels through the area and includes details of the first descent of the Thlewiaza or ‘Big’ River in 1948.

Much of the first half of the book involves establishing the range of characters, which, as in much of Farley’s world, is an elaborate mix of good, bad and indifferent. These years were just before the famed starvation of the natives in this area and Mowat shows the beginnings of that. His first book, People of the Deer, told that tale of government incompetence and native suffering very eloquently. He is highly critical of a Dr. Yule; a government medical envoy who Mowat says did little of good. Farley always sides with the underdog.

Mowat recalls this tale with the aid of his journal and that of Charles Schweder’s. He paints Charles as a complex man, torn between two cultures, both of whom want a piece of him. But the incredible depth of the story’s detail and nuance is clearly from Mowat’s memory mixed with his great imagination and the work of an author who has proudly proclaimed to “never let the facts get in the way of the truth”. And we are all the richer for it.

From a wilderness canoeist’s point of view, the tale is fascinating. Mowat is traveling through the country made famous by P.G. Downes just a decade earlier but with much more detail. They work up and down the rivers and lakes of the region and fortunately there are good maps in the front of the book. Their boat is powered by an old Lockwood motor, as was the custom of the era, but they spent much of their time paddling as well to save precious, and heavy, fuel. Mowat’s descriptions of the rapids are somewhat over the top, in that they seemingly ran most huge ledges and even falls – unlikely – but probably an accurate recollection of what “it felt like” to young Farley. Mowat, as always, a  master of dialogue, uses colloquialisms where proper, and every speaker sounds true and not over-the-top or hokey.

No Man’s River is a Technicolour snapshot, without photographs, of an era now gone. A master writer, a witness to history and still in full command of his considerable craft at 82, Mowat takes the reader to a north that is long gone; natives living off the land and about to be assimilated; trappers wrestling a living across a wild country; a land largely empty but hugely lived in.

Paddling the Boreal Forest:

Rediscovering A.P. Low

By Max Finkelstein and James Stone

Natural Heritage Press, Toronto 2004

319pp, $26.95

ISBN: 1-896219-98-5

The name A.P. Low, is one any historically-minded northern paddler has run up against. He defined the term hard traveller in a 20 year period near the end of the era of traditional land-based northern exploration. Albert Peter Low is also a name that few people remember and fewer have ever heard of.

I was very glad to hear a couple of years back, that Max Finkelstein and Jim Stone were working on Low’s bio. You read about it first here of course in Outfit 111. Max and Jim have combined the story of that 2002 slog of a trip, which patched five of Low’s northern Quebec journeys, together with the story of Low himself.

A.P. had a Low profile indeed. The man was

the very essence of a Canadian hero, in that he virtually never mentioned himself at all in his many writings. Now, of course, Low was in the employ of the Geological Survey of Canada and was paid to write about his trips. And with low pay and high adventure, he spent months and sometimes years on the northern trail. And that was in an era when getting there was half the fun.

This is a very different kind of book that that of Farley Mowat. While no one wants to be compared to Mowat as a writer, the pair do a great job and I found the book getting more enjoyable as it went along. They have done a considerable amount of research and it shows. For while Low left a superb public accounting of his work, there are virtually no private letters or memorabilia to help a biographer along. It is very hard to get inside Low’s head with some personal insight or that of others. And there is not too much about the private Mr. Low. And this was a man who was apart from his wife and children for long stretches. two of their children died which should have provoked some thoughtful discourse but these have all vanished somewhere in time. Pity.

I was a bit surprised by the book’s title and photos inside. Paddling the Boreal Forest, while certainly accurate, is pretty boring. How about AP: In the Footsteps of Low or Low County/High Adventure? The photos, many of which are real gems from the National Archives, are way too small. One even has a caption mentioning a cow in the frame, you would need a magnifying glass to find it. These complaints are not the fault of the authors. The book also features hundreds of footnotes, which further classifies it as a scholarly work. I am always torn by ­footnotes as they do interrupt reading and change the feel of a book all the while providing great info and access to even more. I think a bibliography would do well enough.

If you were to compare this book and Mowat’s to a canoe, Farley’s would be a finely crafted cedarstrip with perfectly placed copper nails made by Walter Walker of Lakefield.  Max and Jim’s is a big rangy Quebec north woods Tremblay canoe – a wood and canvas model. Now, the Tremblay doesn’t have the fine lines of the graceful stripper – but it certainly still gets you there in one piece.


 Fall 2004/Winter 2005        Outfit 118 & 119 

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