Canoeing the Churchill

18 February 2016

Canoeing the Churchill: A Practical Guide to the Historic Voyageur Highway
by Greg Marchildon and Sid Robinson
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95 ISBN 9-780889-771482

Call me unusual, but activities that require great strength and endurance, are potentially fatal, and involve the outdoors are my idea of a glorious time. Thus it’s not inconceivable that at some point in my life I may participate in an extensive canoe trip, ie: the Churchill River. Now that I’ve read Canoeing the Churchill: A Practical Guide to the Historic Voyageur Highway, I couldn’t imagine that undertaking without packing along this book, though at a hefty 476 pages, I might be cursing that decision during the many portages on the 1000 km route between Methy Portage and Cumberland House.

In this tour de force the authors merge historical fact, journal entries, maps (with all-important entry and exit points), photographs, paintings, legends, a packing list, safety tips, camping suggestions, and so much more while also delivering a veritable stroke-by-stroke (or at least section-to-section) account of what one can expect on this epic journey, including what current services one might find in the various small communities along the route. (If you’re from northern SK, names like La Loche, Buffalo Narrows, Patuanak, Dillon, and Île-à-la-Crosse will already be part of your lexicon.)

The Churchill was an important route for fur traders and voyageurs dating back to the 1770s, and the authors introduce us to several of these characters, including Connecticut-born fur trader Peter Pond – murderer, map-maker, and the first white man to cross the approximately 19 km Methy Portage: ouch. The grand Peter Pond Lake (largest lake on the Churchill route) is named for him. Explorer David Thompson’s “special connection” to the route is also cited: in 1799 he met and married his 13-year-old Métis bride, Charlotte Small, in Île-à-la-Crosse.

In 1986 Marchildon and Robinson canoed the entire journey over seventy days in an aluminum Grumman Eagle, and they’re to be thanked for many of the book’s photographs. They were excited about “camping on the same rocks and portaging the same trails as the early traders and their voyageurs.”

There’s so much to appreciate here, from the fine writing, ie: “Regrettably, much of the early history is lost in the mists of time” to the map of sites where Aboriginal rock paintings can be found; from a short history on beaver hats to current information (ie: “a few independent fur buyers [still] buy fur in the old way,” including Robertson Trading, in La Ronge); from clear directions to Cree legends, ie: the Swimming Stone near the northern tip of Wamninuta Island, where it’s believed a medicine man gave the flat-backed boulder the ability to swim. All this, and much humour, too, ie: they’ve written that Face #7 at a rock painting site “suffers from a natural exfoliation or flaking of the rock.”

Aside from an invaluable resource for canoeists, this book also makes for a well-written read for anyone who enjoys history, adventure, and armchair travel. The fact that this slightly-revised edition is actually the fourth printing of this title speaks well of its popularity. These men know of what they speak.


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