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At Hotel Chequamegon, I pay the state rate, but ghosts stay for free. Off the lobby, the parlor faces north over Chequamegon Bay. A book-jacket photo of Sigurd Olson faces the windows, the bourgeois forever watching north over the Apostle Islands, over the canoe country of Minnesota’s north shore and off into its horizon deep into the Canadian shield.

Olson was a Wisconsin kid and a Dean at Ashland’s Northland College, but his work life was only a means to enable canoe travel, pondering, and writing among and about the vast watery dreamscape east of the Canadian prairies and North of the Great Lakes.

I feel it. When our family was young, canoe trips were go-to summer adventures. Camping on Canadian Shield shorelines, blueberries and loons, moose in the foggy shallows. Muddy portages and mosquitoes.

Olson wrote in an almost-lost voice, a formal deliberate English. But he wrote about canoe-country dark waters, and wildlife, and transcendence and he seasoned it with fur-trade-era romance and an occasional sympathetic nod to the Cree and Ojibwe. And he wrung melancholy from the language. Singing Wilderness and white horses. A love of wild places and a sense that something was passing on.

The distances traveled by canoe sometimes defy traces on a map. He paddled his canvas and cedar canoe and dreamed of voyageurs. I paddled my cedar and epoxy canoe and dreamed of Sigurd Olson essays.

These things filter back at intervals and something about canoes lives in memory. It returned last summer when University of Wisconsin scientists and Ho Chunk partners gently recovered a 1200-year-old canoe from the bottom of the world’s most studied lake (Mendota). It returned this summer with the discovery and recovery of an even older canoe. A dugout made from white oak (Ho Chunk: caašgegu). Three thousand years old and 100 yards from the earlier find.

Three thousand years. Sit with that number.

Three thousand years at the bottom of my busy local lake. Right there below the surface while we who have lived here since floated and swam and fished and watched the watery horizon in all seasons.

A canoe from 1000 years before Christ and before the mound builders who left effigy mounds to guard DeJope (Ho Chunk for “four lakes”). Three thousand years of under-ice darkness every winter and late summer algae blooms. Three-thousand years before the shoreline was platted and made exclusive.

Legacies of fur trade travel live in my Midwestern landscape. You read it in indigenous and French place names that sound like water music, rhythm and timbre syllables that tumble off your tongue: Lac du Flambeau, Oconomowoc, Menominee, Michilimackinac, Lac Vieux Desert, Charlevoix, Munising. Mainstreet Portage, just up the road from me, is the transfer point between the water highways of the Laurentian and the Mississippi — a mid-continent hub of travel established in antiquity.

Olson’s fur trade era affection tastes a little stale lately. The European explorers exploited waterways that were known for millennia. A clear-eyed view of those voyageurs’ canoes would find an oily film trailing in their wake, an early commodification of nature (beavers) that rose to feed the felted hat fashions demanded by European dandies. Extraction and trade presaged genocide and the land theft of the colonizers. And, as a direct consequence, I now “own,” in a pinched Western sense, 0.22 acres of “reclaimed” marsh in the headwaters of a little Wisconsin tributary.

I heard a Ho Chunk elder say one time that her people had been removed nine times from a home place overlooking the Wisconsin River floodplain. She shared an oral tradition for a long-since removed settlement on the nearby terrace (the terminal moraine!) and a time of cold — hinting that her ancestry, tantalizingly, holds the retreat of the glaciers in its cultural memory.

I wish I could find the link for the news story, but I was struck by the quote from a Ho Chunk leader, about how touching the ancient canoe touched ancestors across the millennia, how there was satisfaction in the material proof of his people’s presence in the landscape during the “time immemorial” that we appeal to piously in our university land acknowledgement.

I think about how my flavor of faith and my scientific conventions turn on a moment of European thought in the 1500 and 1600s. I think of cultural accretions and estrangement. My vocation is groping towards respect for ancient wisdom. We even have an acronym, TEK for traditional ecological knowledge.

I think there is a spiritual parallel — a value to be recovered from when boundaries between human and non-human were more porous. When humility was a virtue for sitting with ancient mystery, when you could rest your paddle on your knees and drift easily into the universe’s center until the loon resurfaces and the beaver slaps her tail. Read the Psalms with the iron-aged eyes of the people they were written for. Deep calls to deep and the floods clap their hands.

I envied the Ho Chunk leader and his sense of connection. I know little of my deep-time ancestry. But a map of my genetic affinities looks like a target on the North Sea with its bull’s eye on the mouth of the Rhine. I likely am a descendant of the people at the watery margin of ancient Europe, and I try to imagine. My scientific mind loosens the restraints on my increasingly feral heart while it reaches for connection because both find it’s a balm for my tired soul. I imagine there’s a white-oak dugout still buried in the Polderland mud.

This weekend, I’ll pack up my tubby little sailboat and put her to sleep for the winter. My canoe hangs from the garage rafters and I reach up to touch it now and again. I’ll dream of little boats and the way they convey liquid movement up my spine into my hindbrain where watery memory lives. The water is dark and becoming cold and soon will be capped in ice and snow.

There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When one* is part of one’s* canoe, one* is part of all that canoes have ever known.
(S. Olson 1956. The Singing Wilderness, University of MN Press. *edited for inclusion).

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I loved this as usual. Your drawing big picture meditations and questions from the intimate details of the landscape. But I’ve done just barely enough regular canoeing on some civilized waters of the Canadian shield to wonder, why an oaken canoe? Granted, it would take oak to survive thirty centuries, but why heavy oak instead of more practical hemlock or even ash (not to mention bark)? It must have been for use only on the lake or maybe slow rivers. What do we read about the peoples’ lives from using oak for a canoe? Deep calls to deep.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Good questions. I speculate that it has to do with geography. Birch-bark canoes (light and mobile) were used by the Ojibwe and Cree because the signature building material was available in their boreal forest world. Birch is rare to missing further south. Ash is prone to fungus and rot, if the firewood pile in my backyard is any indication. It’s also tough and stringy and nearly as heavy as oak, I think the stringiness would be hard to work with axes and adzes. Oak is rot resistant (lots of tannins) and splits cleanly likely making it easier to chip and flake into a dugout. I’m not familiar with the toolability of hemlock but it also more of a northern species in the Midwest. Our pre-Christian germanic kin venerated and worshipped the big oaks (cf St. Boniface). Fun to wonder about.

      • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

        Ash is what the Ho Chunk use in traditional basket weaving. The Wisconsin band, at least, as the Nebraska band when displaced to the Plains lost access to ash trees.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    You have a gift. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    There’s a saying among canoeists: God created the world in six days, rested the seventh, and created the canoe on the eighth so humans could explore what he had created.

  • Katy Sundararajan says:

    Thank you for sparking my own imagination and adventurous outdoor longings with this beautiful piece today.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    You would enjoy reading John McPhee’s _The Survival of the Bark Canoe_
    Olson’s works are classics; I still have volumes that were on my grandmother’s bookshelves.
    I appreciate not only your keen and informative science, but also the careful and intimately artful expression of your writing.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    What a marvellous gift you have that you continue to share with us – first-rate science plus a beautiful intuitive and practiced intimacy with the land you are so familiar with. I so enjoy your writing!

  • Dennis Van Andel says:

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful thoughts on canoes, canoeing, and Sigurd Olson. It triggered special memories of the privilege of meeting Olson at his home in northern Minnesota nearly 50 years ago.

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