Fourteen months ago in Astoria, Oregon, Neal Moore shoved off in his 16-foot Old Town canoe, bound for the Statue of Liberty, some two years and 7,500 miles ahead. The 49-year-old had come home after nearly 30 years abroad to rediscover America and share the stories of its people in a style of journalism all his own, “slow and low down from the view of a canoe.”
He’d charted a two-year journey on 22 major waterways through 22 states, but almost didn’t make it out of Oregon. He slipped across the state line in late March last year, just ahead of a shelter-in-place order that would have derailed his 22 Rivers project for a second time. (His first attempt in 2018 fell victim to historic high water and a nasty Cottonwood snag after 1,700 mostly upstream miles.)
This is an epic adventure, 40 days in the northern reaches of Quebec, travelling with traditional tools including wood-canvas canoes and fire irons for cooking over an open fire. It is a trip filled with unknowns for me, but there is one thing of which I’m sure: the 11 young women I’m travelling with, nine of whom are teenagers, will not see each other at their best. They are bug-bitten, cold and boob-deep in muskeg bog and have to carry an incredibly heavy canoe on their heads.
At the heart of this story is a summer camp – but not the kind most people know. This one is called Keewaydin, the second-oldest operating summer camp in North America. Its vision hasn’t changed since it was established in 1893: “a program focused on wilderness canoe tripping, with minimum time spent in base camp”. In its first 105 years only boys got the chance to go tripping, but in the past two decades girls have joined the ranks. I’m interested in how something established more than a century ago to promote manliness and “roughing it in the woods” can be relevant for teenage girls today. I wonder what kind of teenage girl would want to forgo life’s luxuries to spend a summer in the wilderness – but also know that, as a teenager, I probably would have been one of them.
Voyageurs is the French translation for voyager – a person who goes on a long and sometimes dangerous journey. However, in Canadian history, the term has an added significance.
This 1964 National Film Board film tells the story of the men who drove big freighter canoes into the wilderness in the days when the fur trade was Canada’s biggest business. The film recreates scenes of the early 19th century.