Author and canoeist O. Ross McIntyre will be in Juneau to give a visual presentation on his book, “Paddle Beads,” at the Douglas Library on Monday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m. This event will be co-hosted by the Juneau Public Libraries and Hearthside Books.
McIntrye’s book chronicles his 40 years of experiences in paddling the wild rivers of North America. His presentation will include film footage of the Whitehorse Rapids in 1936 and readings of selected passages.
Here is an excerpt from “Paddle Beads”
“Don’t let the canvas of your canoe or the wood of the paddle touch anything but air or water. I don’t ever want to hear noise from the paddle or canoe. Remember, air or water!”
Engle sat next to the canoe shed, the brim of his peaked felt hat close to his eyebrows, scanning the water, watching. This was a test I had to pass before I could go to Canada and into the Quetico. It was 1945 and I was 13 years old. Engle sent me out in a red cedar and canvas canoe, the subject of a recent restoration in his careful hands — sent me downwind toward the distant stony point, where I was to turn the canoe around and return. He knew that I wouldn’t be able to turn the canoe when I got it there.
I began my turn well before the point, but as I brought the canoe through the first part of the turn, the wind coming from astern caught the bow and the turn ended at 90 degrees. I struggled, trying again and again, but didn’t have the strength to complete the turn. I prayed for the wind to stop, and looked up the lake to Engle who remained sitting, regular puffs of smoke emerging from his pipe as he assessed my repeated failures. At last the wind pushed me upon the rocky point and I violated his rule about paddles and canvas. As I stepped out of the boat into the sloshing water and turned the canoe around before it was bashed, I noted that Engle was now standing and looking even more grim than usual.
Returning upwind, I let the wind whip the bow of the canoe into the opening between the two canoe docks, grasped a dock to prevent the boat from bumping, and steadied it in the water. Engle was there above me, pipe now held in one hand while he held the bow of my canoe with the other. He then quietly told me how to turn a canoe around in the wind — a lesson I would never forget.
I set out again. This time I was kneeling near the center of the canoe. As I approached the point I began my turn, crawling forward so that the bow was now lower in the water than the stern. My former enemy, the wind, did the turning, pushing the stern in an arc around the bow and I was headed back toward the gray face under the pointed hat. There was no celebration. It would not have been tolerated, but Engle and I had bonded: teacher and student.
I met Engle, a high school teacher of German extraction, at Camp Vermilion, a boy’s camp in northern Minnesota. As he supervised activities in the craft-house or in the canoe shed the sharp features of his gray face instilled discipline in otherwise casual youths. His grip on the steering wheel of his 1936 Ford Sedan was as secure as his control of the young campers that were crammed into the back seat. There was no nonsense among us as the car sped over remote gravel roads.
Most successful enterprises have a guy like Engle somewhere in their structure. The camp director, Dubendorf, an outgoing enthusiast for the summer camp experience, had enough sense not to send Engle on the winter trips that sold the value of camp to parents in various Midwestern cities. He would have flopped in public relations. However, when the “one lunger” gas engine that pumped lake water to the camp water tower failed, it was Engle who got it going again, and it was Engle’s car that pulled the trailer loaded with packs and canoes. These talents were not lost on boys who recognized competence when it appeared before them. While our homebound parents during those World War II years planned their meals only after counting their meat ration coupons, Engle shot and dressed the bear we campers ate at a memorable dinner.
On our way to Crane Lake up on the Canadian border, Engle’s overloaded Ford skittered on the washboard and its rear end was pushed sideways by the pole of the heavily laden canoe trailer until the whole rig landed in the ditch. He was unfazed. While young boys kicked at the impressive newly hatched ruts and wondered where a tow truck could be found in this semi wilderness, Engle unhitched the trailer. Directing where we should place our effort, he had us push the trailer back and then with lots of coordination but little work we lifted an pushed the Ford from the ditch.
Forty years later, I canoed down Lake Vermilion again. I paddled past the point where I had received my wind-paddling lesson and landed on the shore where the craft house and canoe shed had once stood. Much of the lakeside property had been sold and new vacation homes replaced the once familiar paths and clumps of alder. Leaving the canoe and walking up the hill I found parts of the old camp, now used as a retreat by the church that had bought the property. The cabin I had stayed in was still there as was the dining hall, the largest structure in the camp. I wondered whether there was still a birch bark canoe hanging from the ceiling of that large hall — a scene that Dubendorf and Engle had planned for all of us.
They may have known that the soft brown of the inner bark, now forming the outer surface of the hull, the lacing of spruce roots, the black of spruce gum would cast its spell on at least a few of the youths who ate under it. In my case our leaders had cast well. I learned that something beautiful and functional could be created from what was found around us. My young horizon was stretched.
So it was that I came to understand the beauty of the shape and substance of a canoe; how it is to fashion simple things into a boat that could carry my packs and glide through the water leaving only a ripple, a craft that would set me free in nature unapproachable by any other means. It was at this camp, on the water and in the dining hall that my love affair with canoes became serious, and since then I have been hooked.
-- Excerpt from “Paddle Beads” by O. Ross McIntyre, pages 13-17. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, GrayBooks.(graybooks.net/publisher/our-titles/paddle-beads)