Review of Dunkin, Canoe and Canvas

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Jessica Dunkin, Canoe and Canvas: Life in the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880-1910. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019. 312 pgs. ISBN 9781487504762.

Reviewed by PearlAnn Reichwein.

In the late Victorian era, the sport of canoeing was a booming trend. Paddlers from Canada and the United States came together across the border for the annual summer camps of the American Canoe Association (ACA). What was the social world of early ACA canoeing in the late nineteenth century?

Jessica Dunkin explores this question in Canoe and Canvas, and in doing so connects paddling and sport clubs with colonialism and hegemony. She positions the ACA experience as a transnational sporting culture and colonial force that influenced canoeing, which she asserts shaped an inherited sensibility toward paddling and the waterways of eastern North America. She focuses on ACA community formation and placemaking as social processes and is concerned with how the organization reproduced hierarchies of class, gender, and race. Ten chapters follow the trajectory of the ACA’s annual camps across its first three decades “to reconstruct the world inhabited by the canoeists” (10). Dunkin traces the ACA’s institutional regimes but also the experiences of members like D.B. Goodsell, who recalled its camps as “the happiest days of my life” (186).

Canoe excursion on the Humber River near Toronto, June 1896. Photo by R.S. Cassels. Library and Archives Canada, PA-123333.

The ACA was not only enduring – with over 30,000 members today – but also typical of a flurry of sport organizing in the late Victorian city. Canoeing gained enormous popularity as new construction methods enabling mass production converged with the proliferation of amateur sport clubs among an expanding middle class. The ACA was formed in 1880, coinciding with these trends among those considered respectable white urban sportsmen, and a few women, in the affluent middle class who established the influential doctrines of amateurism in the governance and practices of their sport organizations in the late 1800s. It included members in the United States and Canada, in clubs from New York to Toronto, but, as Dunkin observes, the rival Western Canoe Association is a sign that the ACA was regional, with particular northeastern waterways and settlements underlying its social history.

From the Hudson River and Cape Cod to the Muskokas, the yearly ACA encampment was a draw for sport and spectacle as much as a summer holiday escape for city dwellers, and as Dunkin presents, it added its own measure to placemaking in rural areas and tourism landscapes. Hundreds of campers traveled by railway and steamship as well as their canoes to reach annual ACA camps. The ACA preferred camp sites that were “wild but not too wild,” as these events needed to connect with transportation and supply lines (37). The first camps convened at George Lake, New York, in the Adirondacks, followed by Stony Lake, Ontario, in the Kawarthas. A fascinating account maps where camps were held from 1880 until 1903 on waterways in Canada and the United States, which Dunkin also emphasizes as Indigenous territories. Locations on the international border along the St. Lawrence River emerged as both practical and popular, leading to a permanent site in 1903 when the ACA purchased Sugar Island, in the Thousand Islands near Gananoque. The seller was Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, which Dunkin’s research uncovers in federal correspondence involving James Smart and Clifford Sifton, who regarded the ACA in terms of its potential to encourage economic investment and tourism.

Canoe and Canvas probes how ACA encampments domesticated and inhabited space in its material culture and movements of daily life. What was the role of the environment and Victorian ideas of nature in this scenario? Despite the imposition of surveys and axes, camp layouts revealed the terrain and shorelines. Canvas tents were lined up in grid style, like military camps or town squares, but various tenters preferred the forest. By all accounts, the waterfront camps were seen as wild, picturesque, and health giving. Hygiene conscious Victorians threw tents open to sunlight and fresh air, avoiding bacteria and miasma, yet swimmers were required by ACA camp strictures to cover up the human body in bathing costumes. Was this last rule as indicative of nude bathing as the ban on alcohol was of camp cocktails? Camp life responded to daily cycles of sunlight and dark skies, while field mice and hundreds of centipedes cohabited among campers. Notably, Dunkin also finds canoe racers with physical impairments and children present at the ACA camps, which were part of a larger picture of Victorian fresh air life and beliefs focused on exercise and play closer to “nature.”

Tandem canoe racing, Rideau Canoe Club, Ottawa, Ontario, 1925. Photographer unknown. Library and Archives Canada, Department of the Interior collection, PA-043691.

ACA canoeists enjoyed environmental experiences and mobility in their touristic and sporting practices of “consuming landscapes” (179). Paddlers were exposed to waves and winds that set a slow and intimate pace of travel as they cruised the waterways to annual camps. They took daytrips to explore, collect scenic views, and buy souvenir crafts made by local Indigenous women. Regattas were a grand spectacle watched by hundreds every year. Canoe paddling and canoe sailing required different racecourses set out, respectively, on the leeward and windward side of ACA camps. Racing depended on water, wind, and weather as well as athleticism. A sense of freedom and fun prevailed among canoeists but was simultaneous with governance of the self and structural constraints that privileged a dominant sporting culture of white middle-class men.

Adding to the literature on canoes in Canadian contexts, Dunkin argues “the example of the American Canoe Association suggests that the use of the canoe to celebrate whiteness and to further colonial and territorial imperatives transcended the international border” (188). Encampments served as lived spaces of community formation and placemaking for canoeists inscribing their summer playgrounds, but were also complicit in colonial displacement and social exclusion. The ACA paddled in First Nations’ homelands, not terra nullius. Sugar Island was taken from the Michi Saagig (Mississauga Anishinaabeg) and the ACA camp was nearby the Alnwick Reserve. Dunkin exposes the assumptions of Victorian tourism and canoeing while mapping out multivalent geographies to reinforce the Indigenous and rural locale of the many ACA encampments. With a social history focus on understanding labour and space in modern sport, she emphasizes that the ACA relied on the working class – including women, racialized groups, and French Canadians – as paid labourers to make its camps possible. Likewise, the book invites more questions for future research about the ACA’s unpaid labour from volunteers and family members, and the relations of “Others” to tourism and the land.

Masthead of the first edition of The American Canoeist, February 1882.

Classic books and periodicals like Forest and Stream are combined to read across sources written by and about Victorian paddlers. Diverse authors, such as New York Times editor William Alden, stage performer Pauline Johnson, and family travel writer Florence Watters Snedeker, paddled at ACA camps and played a role in making its world. Scrapbooks, albums, and memoirs from the Fenimore Museum and rare family collections are well engaged, also situating commercial photographer Seneca Ray Stoddart and others as creators of its visual image.

Canoes and Canvas is a valuable book and good companion reading for Victorian literature. It rethinks the social history of canoeing in the early ACA and its place in sport, leisure, and tourism. Alignment with colonialism and capitalism is not new for the canoe or sport, as Dunkin demonstrates, but is an aspect of ongoing power relations and cultural mediation. How the environment is seen and inhabited by paddlers was and still is part of it. Dunkin reads sport as colonizing the body and space, yet she also points towards the value of canoeing in efforts for decolonization and Indigenous rights.

This review is dedicated in memory of Professor Emeritus John Taylor (1939-2020), teacher, paddler, and friend, who taught directed studies in environmental history at Carleton University in the Department of History.

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pearlann reichwein

Professor at University of Alberta
PearlAnn Reichwein is a Professor at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation. Her research focuses on Canadian history and mountain studies. She is an invited scholar for the inaugural European Summer School of Canadian Studies at the University of Innsbruck, and lectured at the Université Gustave Eiffel in Paris. Her new book Uplift: Visual Culture and the Banff School of Fine Arts, co-authored with Karen Wall, is published by University of British Columbia Press.

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