A Transnational History of the American Canoe Association

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In August 1880, a small group of men, called together by author and traveller Nathaniel Holmes Bishop, gathered by the shores of Lake George in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. For four days, those in attendance slept under canvas, discussed sailing and paddling techniques and technologies, and competed in canoeing races. In spite of the poor turnout (Bishop had predicted upwards of two hundred men would attend), the event was deemed a success, and the American Canoe Association (ACA) was born.

Despite its partisan name, from the outset, the ACA was envisioned as a transnational organization, open to Canadian and American enthusiasts. The organization used annual encampments to realize its goal of “unit[ing] all amateur canoeists for the purpose of pleasure, health, or exploration.” Although the initial plan was to hold the meetings on Lake George, the site quickly became impractical and, in 1882, the decision was made to take the show on the road, so to speak. Between 1883 and 1902, the yearly encampments moved between out-of-the-way, if not entirely wild sites in New York, Ontario, and New England. Destinations included Lake Champlain, Muskoka, the Hudson River, the St. Lawrence River, and Cape Cod. Growing concerns about financing a mobile encampment prompted the organization to purchase an island in the St. Lawrence in 1900, and in 1903 the organization moved the annual meeting to Sugar Island permanently. Members of the ACA continue to gather at Sugar Island, a stone’s throw away from Gananoque, ON, to this day.

My dissertation, which is being conducted at Carleton University under the supervision of John C. Walsh, is a postcolonial feminist examination of the annual meetings of the American Canoe Association from the organization’s founding until 1910. This was not my original dissertation project. When I began the PhD, I was exploring women’s varied encounters with canoes and canoeing between 1870 and World War II. However, as I got deeper into the research, I came to realize that it was impractical as a dissertation topic, not least because of its breadth. Around the same time, I was working on a chapter on the place of women at the annual encampments of the ACA, as well as a paper on mobilities at the annual meetings for the Environments of Mobility in Canada Workshop at Glendon College. As I wrote, I began to see the possibilities of looking closely at a single event held over a number of years at a variety of different locations. Much like the Industrial Exhibitions that are the subject of Keith Walden’s Becoming Modern, the annual meetings of the ACA were events with their own logics and rhythms. However, they were also deeply embedded in late-nineteenth-century middle-class culture. As such, they shed light on the important relationships between recreation, politics, economics, society, nature, and culture. That they took place at “natural” locations far from the urban centres that were at the heart of middle-class identity in this period made them all the more interesting to me.

The shape of the annual meetings provides the structure for the dissertation. In other words, I follow the organizers and attendees as they prepare for, travel to, and participate in the meets. The chapters are organized thematically, each focusing on a different practice that was central to encampment life: organizing, navigating, governing, inhabiting, competing, working, and documenting. My hope is that the final product will be a mediation on community, place, and the politics of everyday life in the Victorian era, with some snazzy photos of sailing canoes and “pimped out” tents thrown in!

One of the best parts of my research experience thus far has been the opportunity to travel to archives off the beaten path, but close to water. In August 2010, for example, I spent a week in Mystic, CT (home of Mystic Pizza) working at “the Museum of America and the Sea,” Mystic Seaport. When I wasn’t in the research centre, I was usually off exploring the coastline on one of the town’s free bicycles, watching the Bascule drawbridge or enjoying local seafood and beer. Another one of my favourite destinations is the New York State Historical Association Library in Cooperstown, NY. Not only does the reading room overlook beautiful Lake Otsego, but the local amenities include the Baseball Hall of the Fame, the Ommegang Brewery, and the Fennimore Art Gallery and Farm Museum. Add to these locations, Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks, the Muskoka Lakes Museum in Port Carling, and the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York, and you have one happy paddlin’ scholar.


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Jess Dunkin

Director, On the Land Programs at NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin is the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. She lives in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8), home of the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene. In her free time, Jess loves to paddle, cross-country ski, and tweet about life in the #SpectacularNWT from @jessddunkin.

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