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Sept. 3, 1911: Canoeing with the Ojibwe

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • April 1, 2014 - 4:43 PM
 
Have you read "Canoeing With the Cree," Eric Sevareid's engaging account of his 1930 canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay? Sevareid, 17, and a 19-year-old friend paddled more than 2,200 miles that summer. They caught fish, shot rapids, ate pemmican. They mingled with Indians and slept under the stars.

A few decades earlier, another 17-year-old boy from Minneapolis set out on a canoe adventure that was nearly as ambitious and just as likely to inspire others to pack up a canoe and head north. Bruce Steelman submitted this account to the Minneapolis Tribune:
 
Bruce Steelman intended to take photos, but his camera got soaked early in the trip. Thank goodness the Minnesota Historical Society has scores of images from that time and place. Here, an Ojibwe family paddled Lake Vermilion, the starting point of  Steelman's 1,100-mile journey. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)
 

Minneapolis Canoeists
Tour Upper Minnesota

 

Three Boys Cover 1,100 Miles on Lakes and Rivers in Five-Week Trip.

Range Waters and Rainy River Country Explored – Rare Experiences.

They Come Down Mississippi From Bemidji – Outing to Be Repeated.

Bruce C. Steelman, 119 Thirty-third street west, his brother, Clyde, and Loyd Sherman have returned to Minneapolis after a canoe trip of 1,100 miles on the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota. Some of the places visited have seldom been visited by white men. The boys plan to repeat the trip some time.

Bruce Steelman tells the story of the voyage as follows:

“Loyd Sherman, my brother, Clyde, and myself had long planned to take a canoe trip. We shipped out two canoes and supplies to Tower, Minn., on July 16. We stocked up with bacon, salt pork, navy beans, flour, corn meal, rice and everything that generally goes with a camping outfit. We started from Minneapolis, where we all live.

“We arrived at Tower at 11 a.m. the next day. Early in the afternoon we launched our canoes and pushed out from shore in Vermillion [correct spelling: Vermilion] lake. Crossing the lake we entered the river of the same name and passed through Crane lake, Sand Point lake, Namekan lake and some smaller bodies.

Tepee Pitched.

“At the outlet of the Vermillion river we pitched our tepee. The owner of Hunters’ lodge there advised us to ship one of our canoes back, because there were many portages to make, but we went on with the two canoes.

“The first day out from there we made five portages. One of the canoes got away from us and was swept down the rapids. It turned partly over and filled with water. We lost all our ammunition, part of our clothing and some of our grub. Loyd rand down stream and headed off the canoe, jumped into the stream and towed it to shore. Our camera was soaked and this prevented us from taking many pictures along our trip as we had intended doing.

“At this point we decided that one canoe was plenty and were sorry we had not followed the advice of the man at Hunters’ lodge. The next morning Loyd and I started back with the smaller canoe to the foot of Vermillion lake and shipped it back home.

“My brother was to go down stream a little farther with the large canoe and the supplies to a small creek. Though we had never been there we thought we could easily find him. After getting the canoe off our hands we started back overland to join Clyde. We found the  creek, but Clyde was not there. As we had spoken of no other meeting place we did not know what to do. We made a search of the surroundings and found an old boat, which we got into and went back to our camping place of the night before. He was not there. Night was coming on and we had nothing to eat with us and no gun. In the meantime a strong wind came up and a heavy shower, which drenched us to the skin in a few moments.

Had No Dry Matches.

“We had no matches that were dry and we could not start a fire. It was now dark. We groped around and found a windfall, pulled off some boughs, made a bed and remained there all night. At the break of day we got out and started back in the boat. The morning was bright and the warm sun felt good to us. We had not gone far when we saw three moose only a few yards away. They trotted off briskly.

“After a search of a couple of hours we found Clyde and the supplies. We were more anxious to find the latter than the former, for our appetites were pretty keen. The waves had driven Clyde ashore and we had passed him.

“In a few days we had reached the Rainy Lake river, after making about 18 portages, two of which were over a mile long.

“Up to this time we had caught wall-eyed pike weighing up to seven pounds and plenty of northern pike. We had also seen a number of deer.

“At our first camping place on the Rainy Lake river we were besieged with timber wolves. We kept up a pretty high camp fire and they kept their distance, but hung around most of the night. When daylight came they had disappeared and we saw nothing more of them.

“We saw many Indians along our trip, but as they could not talk English they could not benefit us much. They have some fine birch bark canoes which we could have bought for from $3 to $10.

“We started up the Rainy lakes and could not make over about seven miles a day, as it was showery for about three weeks. We had to use our compasses, for we could not tell the islands from the mainland. Part of the time we camped on the Canadian side. Some nights we camped on islands when we thought we were on the mainland. Moose seemed plentiful on the international boundary. Fishing was most excellent.

The Mississippi River below Lake Bemidji in about 1910. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)

“The trip through the lakes was very interesting as the shores are very rocky and covered with timber. There are scarcely any white men up there, but Indians are everywhere to be found. We traveled by moonlight a great deal, for the nights were calm while the waves rolled nearly every day. We lost our way many times on these lakes and were several days reaching International Falls, where we camped for a few days.

“We shipped our canoe and luggage to Bemidji, Minn. Here we launched our canoe in Bemidji lake, the outlet of which flows into Cass lake, and after passing this lake we went down the river to Lake Winnibigoshish. The Mississippi is so shallow up there that we were aground every little while and we had to work like galley slaves to get along.

“From Bemidji to Minneapolis by the river it is over 500 miles. We found but few whites along the river clear down to Aitkin.

"We were almost out of supplies and could get but little from the Indians. When we were almost ready to land at home we came very near losing our whole outfit in a log jam. We landed Friday evening at the Union station, Minneapolis, at 7 o'clock. All we had left of our provisions was salt and pepper and a little rice.

"The trip cost us about $40 apiece, not counting our experience."

 
Cooling off in Cass Lake in about 1910: Steelman didn't report seeing any bathing beauties like these while crossing the big lake. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)

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