Canoeing a Continent: New book a compelling read

Many Pontiac residents (as well as North Americans) know Max Finkelstein as an avid canoeist. He is also communications specialist for the Canadian Heritage Rivers System, Canada’s national program for river conservation.

Rivers beckon him. So much, in fact, that when he isn’t promoting Canada’s rivers through his slide shows, talks and writings, he is paddling. In fact, Max has paddled over 20,000 kilometres through Canada, Africa and Australia.

Canoeing a Continent traces explorer Alexander Mackenzie’s journey across Canada just over 200 years ago. His trip marked a first: “Mackenzie was the first European to reach the Pacific travelling overland by canoe and foot. He and his party in 1793 hiked the last 347 km following a traditional Naďve trading path over the Coast Ranges from the Fraser River.” [p. 14]

Indeed, Mackenzie’s trip preceded Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s famous expedition across America by thirteen years.

On May 9, 1793, Mackenzie started out with a dog, two Indians, and seven other men in a 25-foor birchbarck canoe built for the expedition. The goal? To find a route to the Pacific.

Why was this important? Mackenzie worked for the famous fur trading company, the North West Company. Furs were in hot demand back in Europe, but although they were easy to come by at first, the voyageurs had to penetrate further and further into the hinterland to find good quality fur for the European markets. Crossing the continent would serve the North West Company well: discovering a path to the Pacific could give the traders a good look at potential routes for trade.

Mackenzie’s trip inspired Max Finkelstein. Like many of us, he enjoys reading the early European explorer’s journals of their trips.

“I love to read them,” Max confided in an interview. “Journals take you on a vicarious journey. In fact, when I did this trip, I paddled down the Peace River reading what Mackenzie saw over 200 years ago. I took Mackenzie’s journal along. It gave me a real connection in time to this astonishing man. The farther we went, the closer we got to his words, to his destination… which was also my destination.”

What inspires him to embark on long canoe trips, I asked?

“I’m a landscape junkie. Since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to find out what’s around the next bend. As well, it’s all so beautiful: It’s so darn pretty in the wild. I love the sky at night – in the city, we never see the stars.”

But why this trip in particular, I pressed. “There are some bigger reasons. Canada does have a fascinating story. As well, there are strong environmental reasons for going on a trip like this, and leaving a soft footprint on the earth. There are so many different layers, different reasons for going.”

Why, I asked Max, is adventure travel such as this a compelling read, in 2002?

“Adventure is always popular. We’re a mobile species so travel is an innate instinct in human beings. And the actual blank spots [on the map] are disappearing. This fact is pushing us into an increasingly sedentary life.

“Also it’s more difficult for us to really explore as we get more and more removed from the wild.”

“What is startling to realize is that Mackenzie’s book about his trip was a best seller in England, France and the USA in his own day. It was also an extremely wordy book, being 550 pages that was written by a ghost writer named William Coombe.”

Chatting with Max reveals his passionate love for Canada, for nature, and for canoeing man. Part of the pleasure in reading Canoeing a Continent, is the insight we readers get not just of the journey, but of the writer.

Mackenzie’s journey ended at the Pacific, at Bella Coola. In 1998, my husband Eric and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary by tying Windigo, our home-made cedar strip canoe onto our car and driving, canoeing, horseback riding west, to the Pacific Ocean. That July, we boarded a ferry at Bella Coola and passed a landmark in Canadian history.

The ferry slowed down to approach a wild-looking, rainforest shoreline. I took my binoculars out and focussed on a rock, upon which was written “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land, 22 July, 1793.”

No wonder Max Finkelstein wanted to canoe Mackenzie’s route. It was a journey of self-discovery and connectedness with our historic past, born of a great love of our Canadian wilderness.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy Canoeing a Continent. (ISBN 1-896219-00-4, Natural Heritage Books, $24.95.)


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and world explorer who telecommutes from her home north of Quyon, Quebec.