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The Log of a Quaint Canoeist
Mary Evans
September 16, 1968
A 19th century Scotsman named John Macgregor turned the workaday craft of the Indians into a boat for the sportsman
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September 16, 1968

The Log Of A Quaint Canoeist

A 19th century Scotsman named John Macgregor turned the workaday craft of the Indians into a boat for the sportsman

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Somehow, with the help of calico strips he had tied to the reeds, he found his way out again and continued his exploration of the nearby morasses—there were quite a few, all of them uncharted—always trying to keep safely inside his canoe.

After exploring the soggy marshes of the Abana River, he had his canoe carried over more mountains and then set off to follow the Jordan River to its mouth. He was working out a new and elegant way of steering around a serpentine bend when an astonished Arab popped up from the reeds and ran off to summon his fellows.

Soon at every loop of the river stood crowds of shouting Arabs heaving clods of mud at him as he swept past. Some leaped into the river and swam after him. Macgregor whacked his paddle on the water, splashing the nearest swimmers, then pulling away in the confusion. One strong swimmer managed to get the canoe tucked under his arm, but Macgregor pried him off with his paddle and floated on.

When the swimmers failed to stop this alarming intruder, the local people brought out their gunmen, one of whom posted himself in a good position at a bend of the river, with his rifle cocked. The crowd fell silent. Macgregor considered what to do. The gunman was less than 20 feet away. Escape was impossible; to show fear fatal. "The clear round black of the muzzle end followed me covering as I passed. I stared right at the man's eyes, and gave one powerful stroke; at the same moment he fired—fiz, bang! and a splash of the bullet in the water behind me. I stopped and said, 'Not fair to use a gun.' " Later on, a native pleased him by protesting, "Not fair to use a paddle!"

Canoemanship had saved him for the moment, but only for a moment. Soon the water was swarming with would-be captors, one of whom at last succeeded in getting a firm grasp of the canoe's bow. Macgregor turned to the crowd, using his few words of Arabic to express his profound international friendship, all the while affectionately patting the heads of the swimmers clustering around the canoe. He refused to get out of the canoe, so the Arabs picked him up, canoe and all, and carried him to the tent of their sheik. Macgregor insisted he and the canoe be honored by a place inside the tent; and not until this was done did he consent to stir. The boat procession and the unshakable dignity of the Scotsman as he was borne aloft struck the crowd as funny, and their anger and fear diminished.

Macgregor tricked the sheik into tasting some English salt (by desert law, two persons having shared salt were sealed in friendship). To further seal the matter, a feast was held, the sheik offering a delicious couscous, Macgregor taking out of his store a roast chicken, tea and almonds and raisins, white bread and rice pudding.

Macgregor was allowed to go on with his journey, though there were still many dangers to come. Many of the Arabs would not accept him and considered his canoe a good rifle target. Macgregor once disposed of a bothersome rifle barrel trained at him from a few feet away by pushing it aside with his handy paddle.

He safely completed his tour of the Holy Land, meditating on the meaning of the ancient sites and complaining about the haste with which American tourists swept through the old cities. This was the last of his great canoe trips, but it was only the beginning of sport canoeing. By 1871 New York had its own canoe club, some of whose members went in for lonely voyagings in the American wilderness. Other disciples, however, worked on the Rob Roy design to improve it for open-water sailing; these swift sailing canoes eventually became extremely popular for racing, particularly in the 1890s. But for Macgregor the point of canoeing was not speed or competition (he would think that emphasis terribly American). A canoe was simply a way for a man to be more himself, and to travel where otherwise only his imagination could go.

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