Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Digging It

Is there a better occasion for father-and-son bonding than fashioning a dugout canoe out of an old cottowood tree and paddling it down the mighty Mississippi River?  I don't think so. 

Earlier this month Dean Campbell, a 78 year-old former teacher and longtime historical enthusiast, and one of his sons, Dave Campbell, 50, of Springfield, Illinois, did just that.  Campbell senior spent the last five months carving out the canoe with axe and adze.  On September 1st it was launched on a seven-day journey from Beardstown, Illinois, along the Illinois River and down the Mississippi to St. Louis.  Campbell designed the 125-mile trip so that fourteen different people, paddling a day each in pairs, could take part in the adventure; he and his son reserved the final leg for themselves , paddling from Alton on to St. Louis on September 7th.  Here is a report published in the Illinois Times just before the launch, and here is another published in the River Bend Telegraph as the dugout was nearing its destination.

The canoe's test run.  From the Illinois Times.
Campbell declared that he intended to follow up by taking part in events at Fort de Chartres, the reconstructed eighteenth-century French fort and state historic site near Prairie du Rocher, just south of St. Louis.

I've long entertained a special fondness for the dugout canoe.  Its sleek cousin, the birchbark canoe, gets all the fame and glory.  As far as our collective historical memory of New France and Early Canada is concerned, birchbark is king.  With good reason, to be sure, but we shouldn' forget that dugout canoes were used extensively by Natives and Newcomers along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, where the mighty birch did not grow, but also throughout more northerly climes: in the Maritimes, along the St. Lawrence River, and through the Great Lakes.  It was a sturdy and practical watercraft.  Samuel de Champlain observed how the native inhabitants of what is now New England went about fabricating theirs: "After much effort and time used to cut the biggest and tallest tree they could find with stone hatchets, they strip the bark from all sides except one, where they burn it in many places... When it is hollow enough, they scrape it completely with stones."  Dugout construction persisted among both Aboriginals and French settlers, with metal tools replacing stone ones, until the nineteenth century.

Several dugouts can be found in museum collections today.  The Canadian Museum of Civilization has a couple in storage, including one found on Île d'Orléans by Marius Barbeau, the father of Canadian ethnology, tucked away in a barn where it had long since been repurposed as a grain container.  Dugouts have also survived the centuries in waterlogged environments.  One, dating back to the fifteenth century, was found by an amateur diver beneath Lac Gour, in the Laurentians, in 1986.  At last notice it was on display at the Pointe-du-Buisson museum, southwest of Montreal (an interesting writeup of its discovery and conservation treatment can be found here).  Another, uncovered on a beach near Val Comeau in northeastern New Brunswick in 2003 and revealed to date to the sixteenth century, has been on display at the New Brunswick Museum (for the description of a related research project, check here).

I dig the dugout.  Do you?


1 comment:

  1. A big thank you to the good people at the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, for reblogging this entry. For readers of Charlevoix who may not be already familiar with the CCM's wonderful blog, you can discover it here: