White water

Review of: Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880-1920

Jessica Dunkin, University of Toronto Press, 2019

For me, canoeing first meant something more than wilderness when I saw a man do a handstand on the water. I was twelve, visiting the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, with my family, and I sat spellbound in front of a short film produced by the provincial government in the 1930s. It featured Reg Blomfield, a legendary early twentieth-century paddler, showing off all the tricks he could do in his skinny racing canoe — including handstands.

Thirteen years later, I remember the clip clearly because the culture it showed was at once familiar and mysterious. As a kid, I associated paddling with windy lakes on the Canadian Shield and remote rivers in the North — the kind of imagery that frequently pops up on my Instagram feed today. Canoes had always meant wilderness to me, not showing off in cottage country. Surely, Blomfield’s stunts wouldn’t be much use in remote places. It turns out the cultural difference between wilderness and cottage country might be smaller than I thought.

Jessica Dunkin’s Canoes and Canvas, a portrait of American and Canadian sport canoeing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, helps brings those two worlds together. The illuminating book details Blomfield’s era, while exposing underlying inequities that continue to shape recreational canoe culture.

(continued here)

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