Book Review: Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid

For a moment I felt very calm. I was not excited. I merely thought, “This is what all the rivers come to. All those rivers. This is the sea, where everything ends.” (Sevareid, Eric; Bancroft, Ann (2010-10-25). Canoeing with the Cree (Kindle Locations 1650-1651). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.)

ComsologicalBooks are often about timing. Time and again in my reading life I have returned to a book I once started, but had quickly lost interest in, only to  find that months, years, even decades later that same book is suddenly difficult to put down.

Canoeing with the Cree, By Eric Sevaried, is one of those books. It was first recommended, and loaned to me, by my friend Dave a few years ago. At that  time I started it, read a few chapters, and ended up returning it back to him. For a thousand reasons the timing was wrong.

Flash forward a few years. A few weeks ago, just after my recent vacation to the North Shore, I downloaded Canoeing with the Cree to my Kindle  iPhone app and tried again. This time the result was… magic. In the intervening years the book had not changed, but I had.

Canoeing with the Cree is the story of Eric Sevareid (yes the Eric Sevareid) and Walt Port who just before high school graduation in 1930 come up with the audacious idea to paddle a canoe from their home in Minneapolis to Hudson Bay: a 2,250 mile trip west on the Minnesota River to the border of South Dakota and Minnesota, then north on the Red River to Canada and Lake Winnepeg, and finally portaging through a maze a of rivers and lakes to the sea.

Neither Sevareid nor Walt Port had done much canoeing when they began their journey. They found a used canoe in Minneapolis, talked the Minneapolis Star newspaper into to sponsoring them (100 dollars: 50 dollars at the start of the trip, and the final fifty when they got the the end), and read some books about canoeing an wilderness livings.

In 1930 even the Minnesota River and Red River were in spots unknown. Several times during their trip Sevareid and Port asked people about the rivers they lived near and found that people either knew next to nothing about their local river or that what those people told them was inaccurate, sometimes dangerously so.

Canoeing with the Cree is great adventure story. What it lacks in literary merit it more than makes up for in narrative spirit. In my Midwest exile, I have lived on two of the rivers they traveled and taken both for granted. No more.

I walk down to the Minnesota River that runs just a few miles from my house. I look down at the same current that Sevareid and Port paddled 82 years ago… where Dakota and Cree used to paddle their canoes when the world was still young and untamed…. and it is like I see the river for the first time. What more can you ask a book to do?


The 2005 Borealis Edition

A word about this edition. For the 75th Anniversary of Severeid’s trip, Borealis Books reissuedCanoeing with the Cree with a new foreword by “adventurer” Ann Bancroft. I am not sure how many people living outside of the North Country know of Ann Bancroft. In the 1980s and 1990s she made a name for herself, and a living, “adventuring” to the North and South Poles. The North Country in the 1980s and 1990s had a number “adventurers” like Bancroft who were seemingly always on the local news telling us about their last adventure or drumming up interest (read that, money) for their next one.

In her very brief foreword she seems quite impressed that Sevareid and Port only had one sponsor for their expedition. Modern day “adventuring” is an expensive, full-time business. Sevareid and Port were merely on a youthful lark. It was something to do before beginning their real lives.

Bancroft and fellow “adventurers” have always seemed to me to self-serving “adults” trying to get others to pay for, and just as importantly perhaps, admire them for their extreme hobbies.

When teenaged Sevareid and Port dropped their canoe into Minnesota River in 1930 they were doing something no one had done before and that no one thought could be done. There were still unexplored areas of the world and places off the map. Not any more.

When people like Ann Bancroft, or Will Steiger, now head off on their “adventures” they are merely practicing an extreme form of marathon running… pushing themselves and their bodies as far as they can. No matter what claims they may make about furthering knowledge and education, what these “adventurers” do is merely the same thing as the dozens (hundreds?) who now climb Mount Everest every year.

What makes Sevareid’s book so interesting in the end is how much was still unknown about the country they were going through, even about the Minnesota River. While it is clear from her foreword that Bancroft and her fellow modern “adventurers” crave to be admired for their feats today, the world has changed. There are no blank places on the map, and has not been for decades. Bancroft and her fellow “adventurers” would do best to follow Sevareid’s example and leave “adventuring” to the young, enter adulthood, and start contributing something of value to society rather then lining up “sponsors” to finance their next great adventures.


Some Lines from “Canoeing with the Cree”

It was queer that so many people saw only the hardships and discomforts of our trip. No one seemed to realize what great sport it was. (Sevareid, Eric; Bancroft, Ann (2010-10-25). Canoeing with the Cree (Kindle Locations 376-377). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.)

The doctor’s parting words repeated themselves in my brain continually during the rest of the day: “Don’t let anyone, no matter who he is, convince you that your trip can’t be completed. You have youth and strength, and courage too, I hope, and with a little common sense you can do it.” (Sevareid, Eric; Bancroft, Ann (2010-10-25). Canoeing with the Cree (Kindle Locations 594-596). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.)

I cannot imagine how a lake could be more thrillingly beautiful than God’s Lake. No wonder that name—God’s country, indeed. Such sights as this are reserved for those who will suffer to behold them. (Sevareid, Eric; Bancroft, Ann (2010-10-25). Canoeing with the Cree (Kindle Locations 1361-1362). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.)

“Minneapolis?” Colonel Reid asked. “Where the deuce is Minneapolis?”
And when he wanted to know just why we had made the canoe trip and I answered, “Oh, for pleasure, I guess,” he exploded: “Pleasure! What a jolly funny kind of pleasure!”
But he amended his statement with, “Oh well, that’s youth. Things look different when you’re young, I suppose. My word, I almost believe I envy you.” Sevareid, Eric; Bancroft, Ann (2010-10-25). Canoeing with the Cree (Kindle Locations 1748-1751). BookMobile. Kindle Edition.


Comments are closed.