April 24, 2008: Sevareid's '30s canoe adventure still inspires Minnesotans

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 24, 2008 - 12:20 AM
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Eric Sevareid moved with his family to Minneapolis and graduated from Central High School in 1930.

Photo: U.S. Postal Service

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I never met Eric Sevareid. But I own a canoe. If that seems like a non sequitur, you need to learn more about Minnesota.

Sevareid, one of five great journalists honored Tuesday with postage stamps from the U.S. Postal Service, left a stamp of a different kind on Minnesota: He was one of the great outdoors adventurers who helped inspire our love of wilderness and a passion for preserving it.

Sevareid won fame as a World War II radio correspondent and, later, as a CBS television commentator, with a Middle American conscience on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to politics. He died, at 79, in 1992.

His legacy lives on.

"He was one of our true outdoor heroes," says Chris Niskanen, an outdoors writer for the Pioneer Press who puts Sevareid in the august company of Minnesota adventurers like Will Steger, Ann Bancroft and Ralph Plaisted. "He embodied the spirit of just throwing a canoe on your shoulders and heading to the wilderness."

Sevareid's adventure -- at the tender age of 17 -- wasn't aimed at the Pole like the travels of Steger, Bancroft and Plaisted. Sevareid's ended at Hudson Bay. But his account of his 2,250-mile, three-month-long voyage from Fort Snelling up the Minnesota River, "down" the Red River of the North, across giant Lake Winnipeg and then through uncharted hardscrabble wilderness to the salty waters of Hudson Bay thrilled generations of Minnesotans. For almost 75 years we have read Sevareid's extraordinary 1935 account of his trip, "Canoeing With the Cree."

(First editions identified the author by his given name, Arnold, and are often overlooked by book lovers who never heard of Arnold Sevareid).

Today, there are 900,000 boats in Minnesota, and a lot of them are skinny.

Sevareid was born in Velva, N.D. He had just graduated from Minneapolis Central High School in 1930 when he and his friend, Walter Port, decided they needed a summer adventure. They got $100 from W.C. Robertson, the managing editor of the Minneapolis Star, who agreed to publish dispatches from the trip ("All right, boys, we'll ride with you," Robertson said). The "boys" put their canoe (the "Sans Souci") in the Minnesota River below Fort Snelling and pushed off.

It was the beginning of a 14-week teenage adventure -- without good maps, GPS, cell phones or modern-day conveniences -- that had all the elements of any good thrill ride: Harrowing rapids, exhaustion, arguments, wrong turns in the bush and the final exhilaration of accomplishing the goal.

"It was as though we had suddenly become men and were boys no longer," Sevareid wrote at the close of his book. Far more than a canoe adventure, "Canoeing With the Cree" is a story of growing up, friendship and challenging risks.

Running away from home

"Basically, they were running away from home but they had their parents' permission," says Niskanen, who has chronicled attempts by modern-day explorers to replicate Sevareid and Port's feat. "The book is extraordinarily well written, and captivating. It resonates with anyone who has dreamed of jumping in a boat and taking off. When Minnesotans get an itching for adventure, they read this book."

"Canoeing With the Cree" was republished by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1968, and has sold a few thousand copies each year since, winding up on the bookshelf in a lot of cabins, and in the imaginations of Minnesotans.

It also is on the list of 100 Best Minnesota Books compiled by my brother, Patrick, acquisitions librarian for the historical society (the most accomplished Coleman), who is an expert paddler and authority on canoe literature. Pat and I bought our first canoes, in 1970, after reading "Canoeing With the Cree."

"This is one of the quintessential Minnesota books," says Pat, who is expanding his list to 150 Best Minnesota Books in honor of the Sesquicentennial, and plans to include Sevareid's 1946 autobiography, "Not So Wild A Dream," on that list.

(He is slowly putting his choices online. If you want to keep track of his list, or argue with his choices, go to discussions.mnhs.org/ collections/?p=188

"Sevareid was a great writer," says the bibliophilic brother. "Everything that can happen on a canoe trip happens in this book and everyone who canoes dreams of taking this trip. Not many can, but we all want to. It's a book that is emblematic of what makes Minnesota Minnesota, and what makes Minnesotans Minnesotans. It's a lovely book."

Yes. So let the Postal Service honor Arnold Eric Sevareid with a 42-cent stamp for his distinguished journalistic career. In Minnesota, we will honor him in canoes, with paddles. For long after 42-cent stamps no longer work.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com

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