Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: Border Country

A recently published book may interest those with a keen interest in historical canoe tripping and vintage wood-canvas canoes.  Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene  documents the tripping adventures of an enthusiastic group of wilderness seekers in the early  20th century.

Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene
2017 • Author: Martha Greene Phillips
Foreword by Peter Geye
$39.95 cloth/jacket ISBN 978-1-5179-0107-3
408 pages, 376 b&w plates, 9 x 10, July 2017

Beginning in the summer of 1906, a successful Milwaukee businessman departed with his son and some friends and to explore the headwaters of the Wisconsin River. After that first trip, the group was hooked and spent multiple summers tackling more ambitious routes in Minnesota, Michigan and Canada until a final journey in 1916. As tends to happen when a close-knit group form a tripping camaraderie, nick-names began to emerge. The crew called themselves "The Gang" and labeled their intrepid leader, Howard Greene, affectionately as "Dad".

Howard "Dad" Greene
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips

Greene was not only the trip organizer, he was also the record keeper of the group maintaining meticulous notes of the long journeys. More significantly, he hefted along a cumbersome Graflex camera and tripod to photograph the unspoiled portions of the routes, daily camp life, remote Indian villages, lumber camps and mining operations during a critical time of change in the region.

Tripping photography in the early 20th century
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips

A shoreline break
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips

Camp in 1915
Courtesy of Martha Greene Phillips

Once back in the city, the ever-talented Greene would type up his notes, develop dozens of large format photographs and sketch out route maps of the trip. He would then bind them with attractive leather covers and make a nostalgic copy for each member of The Gang. The effort and workmanship alone made these journals works of art in themselves.

Howard Greene's Leather Bound Journal gifts for each member of "The Gang"
 Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press

Copies of the original journals were lost over time but a complete set, along with hundreds of never-before-seen photos were held in the private collection of Greene's youngest child, daughter,  Martha Greene-Phillips.  Thankfully, she was willing to share this personal treasure trove with a wider audience. The resulting collaboration with the University of Minnesota Press resulted in a handsome hardcover complete with over 370 photos of the successive trips.

As a lover of wooden canoes and tripping in general, the collection of journals and photos were a mesmerizing read. Normally, personal journals can be quite mundane creating a limited connection with the reader, but Greene's writing style, observational nature and wit succeeds in drawing in the outsider. One almost feels like a ghost member of "The Gang" tagging along,  enduring their hardships yet enjoying the journey. Folks who have paddled these same regions today, now part of Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, might further appreciate the historic documentation that predates the work of other famed wilderness writers  like Sigurd Olson and Calvin Rutstrum by decades.

Modern canoeists will certainly get a historical lesson of the difficulties in logistics for the trips of the time. A significant portion of each trip involved lengthy rides by train, wagon, horse and steamship just to reach the access points. Maps of many areas were still incomplete or inaccurate and navigation required a constant focus rather than the comparatively lazy method of plugging in coordinates into GPS. Tripping like this doesn't seem like a restful vacation yet the summer escapes of the Gang were the highlight of their year.

Two members of the group would eventually purchase their own their own wood-canvas canoes and would freight them back to Milwaukee by train once each trip was over. Greene owned a very early Kennebec canoe whose fine lines and attractive heart shaped deck can be seen in many of the photographs. By the end of his final journey 1916 journey, it had become so battered and patched that it was sold off to local barber for the grand sum of five dollars. Another member of The Gang had an early Thompson. Today, wood canvas canoes from that era are relatively rare and sought after by collectors. Greene's photographs are a valuable early record of these craft  and would be useful for those who wish to study the lines and components for research and restoration purposes.

Greene was also keenly interested in the local Ojibwe people and their culture. The journals discuss exchanges about gear and beadwork with local bands. Photographs of native camps and birchbark canoe construction provide a rare ethnographic visual of these encounters.  Although Martha Greene Phillips writes that her father held enlightened views for the time, she and the publisher made no attempt to sanitize language considered very offensive today, nor hide the fact that while initially respectful in their early trips, The Gang would go on to desecrate native grave sites for souvenirs in later years.

As distasteful as this episode seems to modern ears, the true essence of the book is about the bond of family and friendship through the mutual experience of wilderness escape. Containing a visual photographic feast and delightful tripping stories, Border Country would make a fine addition to any canoeist's library.

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