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The Canoe: A Living Tradition

by John Jennings

History is often told as a chess game or battle of wills between great leaders, but as intellectuals such as Marshall McLuhan and Ursula Franklin have demonstrated, societies are more likely to be transformed by advances in technology than by the Napoleonic quests of individuals. This is easy to demonstrate in a relatively young nation like Canada – think of the building of the railroad or, more unlikely, the modest birchbark canoe. History professor and outdoorsman John Jennings, along with 11 other historians/paddling enthusiasts, make a strong case for the canoe as nation-builder with The Canoe: A Living Tradition .
In his excellent introductory essay, Jennings argues that before the arrival of Europeans the native nations in Canada each adapted their own version of the birchbark canoe to navigate the continent’s interlinking waterways, establishing complex and efficient trading routes. The European fur traders knew a good thing when they saw one, and abandoned their cumbersome row-boats for the expertly designed indigenous version. So crucial was the birchbark canoe to Canada’s early development that Jennings can assert, with only a minor stretching of the point, that a “map of the range of the white birch is essentially the map of Canada.” Northwest Coast dugouts, the Adirondack dugout, the kayak and umiak of the Arctic peoples, and the more recent innovations of European settlers are all examined in loving detail, as well as a brief history of canoeing as both a leisure activity and organized sport. Complementing the essays are hundreds of well-chosen diagrams, maps, and new and archival photos.