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‘The Northwest Passage by Canoe’

September 19, 2012
By JERRY McGOVERN - Special to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise

The 30th annual Adirondack Canoe Classic reminded me of a book published in 1987 about another arduous canoe trip.

On an ugly February afternoon in 1936, Sheldon Taylor and Geoffrey Pope were walking down New York City's Broadway, back to their office after having lunch. Both clerks in the circulation department of Macfadden Publications, they weren't in love with their jobs, though they knew they were more fortunate than many of their Depression-era countrymen.

They were not close friends, having few shared interests, and little history together. Taylor, 24, was from California, and Pope, 22 from Minneapolis. But on this gray wintry day in Manhattan, Taylor blurted out a question that would bind the young men together on an extraordinary adventure.

Article Photos

Talking about the Hudson west of Broadway, Taylor asked Pope, "Wouldn't it be fantastic to quit our jobs, get in a canoe and follow that bloody river wherever it goes?"

Pope didn't pay much attention, but Taylor took out an atlas when they got back to Macfadden Publications. He traced the Hudson "wherever it goes," and found Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. He asked Pope to meet him that evening in the NYC Library's map room, and there they began planning a serious canoe trip starting in the Hudson at 42nd street.

In fact, they didn't do an awful lot of planning. They went to an outdoor show in NYC, got interviewed on the radio, talked to a reporter and their boss at Macfadden, trying to get publicity and funds. They also read Dillon Wallace's 1906 Lure of the Labrador Wild, and hoped for their own book and/or movie deal when the journey was done.

Fact Box

"The Northwest Passage by Canoe: New York to Nome," by Rick Steber

North River Press

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

168 pages

That journey is described in "The Northwest Passage by canoe: New York to Nome," by Rick Steber. Based on Taylor's recollections in 1987, Steber chronicles the 8,000-mile, 18-month trip that began April 25, 1936, only two months after Taylor had asked his Hudson river question.

That they made it to Nome is both impressive and surprising. In addition to the 7,865 miles of paddling, rapids, portages, bugs, fatigue, wrong turns and confusion during the 18 months, Taylor and Pope were also beset by one constant irritant: each other. Before they get to Albany, Taylor reported, their friendship, such as it was, had begun to feel the strain of a personality conflict locked in a small craft.

But they do make it, all the way to Nome. They winter in Fort Smith, south of Great Slave Lake, and arrive in Nome Aug. 11, 1937.

From Nome they took a boat to Seattle, then a plane to New York. They signed a movie contract, but nothing came of it. Pope went back to Minneapolis, Taylor eventually moved to Hawaii.

Taylor never even claimed their canoe, Muriel, named after Taylor's sister who provided much of their funding, when it was returned to New York. Their grand adventure disappeared from view, lost among the horrible events that filled the late 1930s.

But 50 years later, Rick Steber gathers Taylor's memories of the trip that took him through the Champlain canal, past Westport, Essex, Plattsburgh and Rouses Point on his way to Nome. Steber writes clearly, and there are some excellent vintage photos.

It is not clear however, exactly what Steber has done - which words are his, which are Taylor's? Did Steber listen and paraphrase, or did he mostly transcribe? Also, sharing the back story - Steber's writing process, the location of the interviews and methods of research, the personality of the 75 year old adventurer - would enrich the book.

These are quibbles. This is a delightful book, narrating the amazing journey of two young men who touched some local geography as they made their way north. It makes special sense to Adirondackers for whom paddling lakes and ponds is one of the reasons we live here. In fact, I think, "The Northwest Passage by Canoe" should be required reading for all entrants in the September 2013 90-Miler from Old Forge to Saranac Lake.

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This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.

 
 

 

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