'Canoeing with Cree' revisited
Two Minnesota men are the latest to plan to retrace the canoe journey
from Fort Snelling to Hudson Bay taken by the late newsman Eric Sevareid
and a friend in 1930.
Pioneer Press Outdoors Editor 1/25/04
Scott Miller and Todd Foster never saw Eric Sevareid, the famed newsman,
on television, but they are big fans of Eric Sevareid the famed canoeist
and author of "Canoeing with the Cree."
They have read and re-read the book that chronicles a 1930 canoe trip
Sevareid, then 17, and friend Walter C. Port, 19, took from Fort Snelling
to York Factory on Hudson Bay.
Miller and Foster plan to retrace the route next year to commemorate
the 75th anniversary of Sevareid and Port's trip, which helped launched
Sevareid's career in journalism.
"I guess I'm too young to have known Eric Sevareid on TV,'' said
Miller, of St. Paul. "But I think the romantic aspects of the book
have captured our imaginations. It's fun to think we can leave our hometowns
and canoe that long of a distance."
Foster, of St. Cloud, Minn., and Miller represent the latest generation
of canoeists inspired by Sevareid's book. Its current publisher, the Minnesota
Historical Society Press, sells 1,000 to 2,000 copies of "Canoeing
with the Cree" a year, a number that has held steady even after Sevareid's
death in 1992.
Graduates of Minneapolis Central High, Sevareid and Port were bored teenagers
looking for adventure when they launched their canoe, the Sans Souci
(Without Care) and headed north. They received $100 for a series of articles
Sevareid wrote about the trip for the Minneapolis Star and in 1935, Macmillan
Company published "Canoeing with the Cree."
That "Canoeing with the Cree" is still being read 70 years
after it was published is a remarkable achievement, says Kevin Morrissey,
marketing director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
"The fact that it is still in print is significant,'' he said. "It's
a book that has continually been one of our best sellers. I think it's
one of those classic adventure stories."
The Minnesota Historical Society has reprinted "Canoeing with the
Cree'' nine times since 1968, when it bought the book's publishing rights,
and the publisher recently updated the book's cover design.
Sevareid achieved fame as a World War II correspondent alongside Edward
R. Murrow. During the war, Sevareid once parachuted out of a disabled
airplane over Burma. He covered the founding of the United Nations, the
Vietnam War and Watergate. He had a 38-year career with CBS, retiring
in 1977, but he remained a highly respected television commentator through
As a celebrated newsman, Sevareid was nonplussed about "Canoeing
with the Cree," calling the writing "flat" and the stories
"uninteresting." However, he spoke with pride in having paddled
more than 2,000 miles in an old, wood-canvas canoe and living to tell
"Now, of course, the kids do it with modern equipment, two-way radios
and lightweight, unsinkable canoes,'' he told the Pioneer Press in 1991.
Fans of the book are drawn by the tale's adventure and its concise portrait
of a Canadian wilderness that largely was unknown and unspoiled at the
Sevareid and Port canoed up the Minnesota River, down the Red River to
Lake Winnipeg, and then connected with a network of northern Canadian
rivers and lakes that eventually took them to York Factory, a former fur-trading
post on Hudson Bay. They had little or no experience paddling a canoe,
nearly capsized on Lake Winnipeg and, without adequate maps, often relied
on Cree Indians for directions and help. The trip was 2,250 miles long.
No one has an exact count of the number of the groups who have paddled
from Minnesota to Hudson Bay since "Canoeing with the Cree,"
but it might be in the dozens.
Starting in Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior, Stephen Baker and his buddy
Scott Anderson canoed to Hudson Bay in 1987. They were 22 and had read
"Canoeing with the Cree."
"That's where we got the idea,'' said Baker, now 38 and a physician
in Duluth. "Scott had read it before I did, but he and I had this
idea to take some sort of big trip. Scott suggested we go to Hudson Bay,
and I said, "That sounds great to me!'''
They made it to Hudson Bay, and Anderson wrote a book documenting their
journey called, "Distant Fires," a classic in its own right
in canoeing circles.
Said Baker of "Canoeing with the Cree, "It's a quick read,
but it grabs you."
Dennis Smith, 51, of White Bear Lake was a counselor in the 1970s with
a nonprofit organization called Expeditions of North America. He helped
lead a group of seven teenagers from Lake Saganaga in northern Minnesota
to Hudson Bay in 1975. The teens were "troubled youth,'' Smith said,
and the trip was a means of turning their lives around.
Smith said the group, in addition to bringing guitars and a huge frying
pan, had a portable tape recorder.
"We listened to tapes of 'Canoeing with the Cree,' '' he said. "The
book has a mystery and adventure with it. It's the challenge of being
able to survive."
The trip, taken in a 26-foot Fiberglas canoe made to look like a voyageur
boat, shared an outcome with "Canoeing with the Cree." It changed
the lives of the participants, Smith said.
"I remember from our kids that they had this exuberance when they
came home, that no matter what they encountered in their lives, they would
be able to manage and overcome it,'' he said.
Others have accomplished the trip. According to newspaper accounts, Judd
Hoff of Forada, Minn., and Steve Morgan of Brookings, S.D., re-created
Sevareid and Port's journey in 1993, launching from Hidden Falls Park
in St. Paul. Last summer, St. Paul residents Christopher "Kip"
Barrett and Kees van der Wege, along with friend Chris Gorton of New Jersey,
paddled from Grand Portage, Minn., to Hudson Bay, a distance of 1,300
miles. Their trip also was inspired, in part, by "Canoeing with the
Port, who fought in World War II, moved to Bemidji, Minn., and worked
in the photo department of Johnson Drug Store for 25 years, did not achieve
the same fame as Sevareid, but people still sought him out to talk about
their famous canoe trip.
"Most every summer someone would come to the drugstore to talk to
my father about duplicating the trip,'' said his youngest son, Mike Port,
56, of Minneapolis. "I'm amazed at how many people have read the
Walter Port died in 1994 at age 86, but not before the National Audubon
Society flew him and Sevareid over their canoe route for a magazine story
in 1980. Sevareid and Port wrote to each other every year, Mike Port said,
and Sevareid often would send his friend a royalty check for his share
of "Canoeing with the Cree."
Mike Port said he has fond memories of canoeing with his father, but
he never decided to re-create his father's trip.
"I re-read the book and decided to take my own journey,'' said Mike
Port, who operates the Minneapolis nonprofit Solar Oven Society, which
seeks to bring solar cooking ovens to Third World countries.
Port said his father later donated the compass used on the 1930 trip
to the Minnesota Historical Society, which also has one of Sevareid's
Miller and Foster plan to start on the Sauk River, near Foster's home,
paddled to the Mississippi River and begin retracing the "Canoeing
with the Cree" route where it began at Fort Snelling. Their trip
will start in May 2005. They recently began to collect gear, maps and
advice. Their goal is to compare the condition of rivers today with their
condition when Sevareid and Port took the trip.
Miller and Foster established a Web site (www.hudsonbayexpedition.com)
that gives descriptions of Sevareid and Port's trip and will keep readers
abreast of their progress in 2005.
Miller is a part-time camp counselor; Foster is a full-time emergency
medical technician. They're unconcerned about the fact that their trip
has been duplicated many times before.
"People have done it, but it's still a big deal for me to paddle
2,000 miles," Miller said. "I think a lot has changed with these
rivers, but a lot has stayed the same. There are hydroelectric projects
in Canada; maybe we'll call attention to them and other issues. You get
used to seeing things from a road, but they look different from a river.
And I've never met a Cree."
Nearly 75 years have passed, but the pull of the north country is the
same for Miller as it was for a young Eric Sevareid.
Chris Niskanen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5524.