The Canoe and I

By Mike Whitney

In 1944, WWII was raging and so was polio. Tension was in the air and we kids felt it – swimming in Walden Pond our mothers hovering – “Don’t stay in the water too long – you might get sick!” As part of “social distancing,” at 6 1/2 I boarded the coal powered-steam train and was sent away for two months to South Pond Cabins, a smallish camp (est. 1908) run by an unsmiling martinet. One of the first camp crafts taught was to take a shovel, wheelbarrow, and lime, and clean out the latrines weekly, training us to be good little soldiers. Being a fearful, poor swimmer, I wasn’t allowed to swim to the raft or go in the canoes. So, I just sat in them – old, wooden, and sodden. SPC made some effort to help me swim, but it was resentful. And so was I – not a happy camper.

In 1949, I went to Keewaydin Canoe Camp at Lake Dunmore, Vermont. Founded in1893, its specialty was canoeing and tripping, and still is. Keewayden was a sunny place, with generous leaders, and well-vetted young men as counselors, able to handle young boys firmly when needed, but who made it fun most of the time.

And that’s where I met John McPhee, then 18, who I remember well as one the lead canoe instructors. The canoes were all wood and canvas. The program was planned to qualify us to go on the progressively longer and harder trips. Yes, we hiked up and down the Green Mountains on the Long Trail too. But that was always just hard work, carrying ill-fitting, surplus rucksacks, with a few highs: sleeping on fir boughs, catching an expansive view now and then, drinking from a cool spring in the heat of July. But canoeing was what we really wanted to do.

The clearest memories of my two summers there were the days of canoe instruction. John and the other counselors made it fun, instilling teamwork and friendly competition, assured that we could get under a capsized canoe, flip it, bail, help others to scramble in, and paddle away. We learned the strokes, the sweep, the pulls, the prys, the J. Even how to erect a makeshift sail. We learned to pack wanigans, use tump lines, set up Baker tents, cook on open fires and with reflector ovens, sleeping in our 3-pin blanket rolls on the ground, and the traditional camping crafts. We learned to scan the waters, gauge the wind, read a river. We were taught the basic swimmers’ rescues, and our swimming abilities increased. What those young men really gave us was confidence on and in the water, which helped with our sense of self-worth. Not so easy for some New England boys then.

The canoeing skills, the crafts, the NRA instruction at the rifle range, map reading, canoe carries, long days, camp cookfires, story-telling, making camp, breaking camp, teamwork, getting along with others, no whining allowed, regardless of weather, all added to our life skills. They added to my self assuredness when I decided to become a professional forester, and when later I volunteered for the Marines.

As we progressed, we went on our first overnight canoe trips. Easy at first – several nights on Lake George, pure and quiet in the late ‘40s. Then Lake Champlain, and as you became more experienced, on to the Adirondacks with its deep woods, lakes and rivers. You could work your way up to the Premier Trip – the Allagash. Some older campers would continue on to the Temagami Keewayden Camp in Quebec, for remote tripping on the rivers leading to Hudson Bay. I never made it that far.

In 1950, I was an able camper looking forward to the canoeing and my pals at Keewaydin. I knew the counselors, and many, like John McPhee and Joe Ward, became role models. But there was a somber, tense side too. Those were the Cold War years, and despite booming America, The Bomb hung over us. Other realities started to enter our young lives.

At lunchtime in late June, our head “Waboos” Hare announced that North Korea had invaded the south, and President Truman was sending in the Army and Marines. You could feel the gloom descending among the older staff and teenaged counselors. All remembered WWII vividly, even us youngsters. Those of draft age knew they would serve. Maybe not in combat, but military service was almost universal if you were fit. It was an accepted part of being a man, of being a contributing citizen of the U.S.

But it was high summer on the waters. Our leaders settled things down, and summer proceeded; the inter-cabin rivalries and pranks kept going, the campfire stories and skits got better, and everybody cheered up. Yes, we were growing, and yes, we too would get our turn. And Keewayden and the canoes helped us prepare, helped us toughen up, to become some of those productive citizens.

John McPhee and his cohorts made me a canoe lifer. My water time waxed and waned over the decades, depending where I was in career and family. In the ‘80s advocates like Bill Mason and Cliff Jacobson helped reinvigorate the spirit of canoe tripping and the wilderness. New technologies expanded the opportunities, made it easier to get on the more remote rivers and lakes. Fiberglass was much better than the aluminum and Rubbermaid clunkers, but Kevlar was a marvel that made it easy to introduce our young daughter to canoe camping. Made it easier to do the Allagash, and the Saint John and the upper San Juan River out of Mexican Hat, Colorado. And Jerry Stelmok built a beautiful E. M. White canoe for us. The moment I paddled off, feeling varnish meet the water, and gliding so easily away, the memories and smells of those halcyon summer days all came flooding back.

Like Michael Eisner (read “Camp”), I credit Keewaydin and the canoe with much of my success in life. My mother could not afford the camp in 1951, and canoeing since then was on my own. But regardless of rough winds, rainy days, bugs, smoky campfires in your face, grit in the food, days in canoes, especially shared with family and friends, were always happy times. A few hundred yards on the water took you far away from stress and cares of life. The canoeing skills stay with you, can always be honed, like Tai Chi or any practice, and they just become more a part of you. Today I look at my canoes and collection of paddles of all styles, and marvel at their simplicity and elegance. Yes, the canoe and I are bonded, even though now it is mostly in memory.

Mike Whitney, Pownal, Maine August 2020

Joe Ward and his charges – including Mike Whitney


Lake Champlain, July 1950 Off Grand Isle


“Coming Into The Country”

57 years after meeting John, my wife and I flew from Yakatut over the largest glacier in the Americas. Our STOL bush planes landed on a beach at Icy Bay, dominated by Mount Saint Elias (18,009 ft), the highest point in the world nearest salt water. A remote rainy place on the Pacific 200 miles south of Valdez, with only 50 visitors in 2006. It did not exist in 1900, still covered by glaciers. The group we organized assembled the collapsible Kleppers, stowed our gear for seven days of kayaking among ice chunks, tenting on new ground, literally – some emerging as recently as 1985. We hiked to the tops of the glaciers, stayed distant from the grizzlies along the shore, and paddled to within 7 miles of the summit.

Seeing Alaska that way was a life goal. It also was just one more mount out on the water, albeit a unique one, that McPhee and Keewaydin trained us for. Whether I was planning the loading of a ship for the Marines, or a downeast cruise in our lobster boat, or riding enduro motorcycles in the Baja Peninsula for 1200 miles, the lessons the canoe and tripping gave you were good for life in any kind of circumstances.

Mike Whitney, Pownal, Maine August 2020


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1 comment on The Canoe and I: Boyhood Memories and Reflections

  • Malcolm MacNaught

    Holy shit Mike, now I know how you survived.

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