Key Porter Books, Toronto 2004
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,
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
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
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
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.
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