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Me and Those Canoes
Sparse Grey Hackle
September 02, 1957
Illogical and torturous, they demand in equal amounts courage, resolution, endurance. The author loves them
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September 02, 1957

Me And Those Canoes

Illogical and torturous, they demand in equal amounts courage, resolution, endurance. The author loves them

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John MacGregor, a brawny (168 pounds) Scots barrister, started it all back in 1865 by designing a wooden kayak that fitted him like a coat (his words) or a coffin (my words) and made history as the Rob Roy. With a Cambridge hard straw hat on his hard head, a folded raincoat to sit on and his Sunday suit—and damned little else—in a folded cloth bag, MacGregor cruised on the Continent for three months, fascinating children with gifts of rubber bands, petrifying the yokels with the spectacle of burning magnesium and handing out evangelical tracts. On his return he set the sporting world afire by writing: A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe and, subsequently, The Rob Roy on the Baltic and The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Red Sea and Gennesareth &c. The cheerful, hardy, sincere and most engaging personality which these fascinating books reflect was undoubtedly the principal instigation of the worldwide canoe craze that ensued.

It came to America in 1871 when a group led by William Livingston Alden and M. Roosevelt Schuyler organized the New York Canoe Club and built a fleet from drawings of Nautilus, a modified Rob Roy, which they obtained from MacGregor's first disciple, Warrington Baden-Powell. In 1885 the club established the New York Canoe Club International Challenge Cup for decked sailing canoes, which is still in competition.

In the winter of 1874-75 an early member of the New York CC, Nathaniel Holmes Bishop, rowed a canoe from Troy, N.Y. to Florida down the coastal inland waterways, and in the following winter rowed a Barnegat sneak box—a light cedar duck boat—from Pittsburgh to Florida via the Mississippi and the Gulf. The two trips aggregated about 5,000 miles, and since Bishop had earlier walked across South America from Buenos Aires to Valpara�so, it must be judged that he was obsessed with distance. He weighed but 135 pounds, and no wonder. Bishop was the real founder, in 1880, of the American Canoe Association which today is still the governing body of organized canoeing. He wrote three uninspired chronicles of his journeyings, none of them improved by his dissertations as an amateur geographer but all reflecting his courage and resolution.

Our third character is Nessmuk—George Washington Sears, the foremost outdoors writer of the 1880s. All the early canoeists were fanatical on the subject of saving weight, but Nessmuk made a religion of lightness, perhaps because he weighed only 105 pounds. He was the creator and high priest of the go-light craze in camping out.

Beginning in 1880 he and his builder, Rushton of Canton, N.Y., created a series of clinker-built wooden canoes, the first of which weighed 18 pounds and the last, built in 1885, just an ounce under 10 pounds. But his best-known craft, approaching MacGregor's 80-pound Rob Roy in fame, was the Sairy Gamp, 10� feet long, 26 inches wide and less than 7 inches deep. Her sides could be sprung like a cardboard box by mere hand pressure and her planking was less than a quarter-inch thick, but Nessmuk cruised her all through the Adirondacks without mishap. She hangs today in the Smithsonian Institution, a miracle of cabinetwork and varnish, a cedar bubble that floats on the water as a soap bubble floats on velvet.

Aside from the barrel-hoop and bed-sheet canoes that all boys build, my own connection with this fascinating craft began with a $25 no-name and ended with an Oldtown guide model in which my bride and I honeymooned on Barnegat Bay. I had sport in all of them, but just as there is no kiss like a first kiss, so there is no canoe like the first one. That cheap but sturdy craft gave two 17-year-old boys an unforgettable summer during which we furrowed Long Island Sound like a cornfield. In that great burst of exaltation the true philosophy of canoeing—and of canoeists—was made clear to me.

On July 4, 1910 my cousin and I started before daylight to cross the sound to Execution Light but the wind came up with the sun and stalled us within pistol-shot of our goal. So we made a grand swooping run back to the sheltered inlet beside Travers Island, summer home of the New York Athletic Club, and hung around the rest of the day taking in the Metropolitan Senior High-Diving Championships more enjoyably than those who had paid to watch from land.

The wind died as darkness fell. A string orchestra struck up on the veranda of the club house, and richly garbed ladies and gentlemen began arriving in their Rolls-Royces from their lordly estates. Rare wines and costly viands were served, fragrant Havanas ignited.

By contrast, we had half a pound of smoked beef, a box of soda crackers and a jar of water. We still had before us the long paddle home, a two-mile carry on our sunburned shoulders and, for me, three hours on trolley and subway to farthest Flatbush.

I washed down the last salty, crumby mouthful with a long swig of warm water and lit my pipe. The music wafted soft and sweet as a baby's sigh over water which stirred gently as it slept in the arms of the land. The trees were inky against a spangled, luminous sky. The reek of salt marshes mingled with the pungence of the tobacco.

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