August 22, 2017

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Poignant chronicle of Prairie steamers connects boats to area history

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/1/2016 (598 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fictional river travellers Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer may symbolize the romanticism of steam-driven paddle wheelers, but this new and improved version of a book first published in 1977 reminds Canadians that the incongruous combination of Prairie lands and similar watercraft played a historic role in building our nation.

During a career spanning five decades Ted Barris -- journalist, historian, broadcaster and contributor to the National Post and the Globe & Mail -- has authored 17 books, many tracing Canada's military contributions during two world wars and the Korean conflict, such as his award-winning The Great Escape (2013).

W. Frank Lynn's The Dakota Boat (oil on canvas,   Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery).

W. Frank Lynn's The Dakota Boat (oil on canvas, Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery).

Relying on tape recordings and first-hand accounts, Fire Canoe demonstrates a writing style of the 1970s, offering readers a uniquely personal perspective -- this time on an era encompassing the exploration and settlement of previously inaccessible fertile lands throughout the vast northwest of three Prairie provinces.

Barris tells readers the title comes from a Cree description, "Kuska pahtew oosi" ("fire canoe"), uttered by startled natives in 1859 when the Anson Northrup and its American skipper docked near Fort Garry and surprised the likes of Bishop Alexandre Taché, claiming a $2,000 prize for proving the viability of linking the Mississippi River and Red River systems.

Replete with enhanced photos and notes, along with scale maps, this is a timely reprint as Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday in 2017.

According to his boat-building chronology, Barris names at least 120 sternwheel and sidewheel steamboats that rode the inland Prairie waterways, until the hard times of the Great Depression finished what the ascendancy of a national railway system began.

Paddling the Red River, one steamboat, the Selkirk, even carried the Countess of Dufferin railway engine to Winnipeg in 1877 -- parasitic freight that Barris reminds readers ironically symbolized the steamboat's demise.

These shallow draught boats were able to navigate raging rapids and travel overland across flooded sections of river valleys, becoming workhorses for hauling lumber, meat, fish and immigrant settlers to and from fertile Prairie regions.

While uncovering a dizzying array of boats and their accomplishments -- including the long-serving Keenora that plied Lake Winnipeg -- Barris goes back and forth in time, recounting exploits and disasters alike. Unwary readers, engrossed in the personalities of colourful captains and crews, risk confusion by the name changes of some boats.

Barris reveals some new historical facts, proving the steamboat International affected the outcome of Louis Riel's failed Red River Rebellion in 1869, as did the paddlewheeler Northcote during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. He adds that by the later 1870s, steamboats were evolving from drab freight workhorses into ornate pleasure cruisers, such as the Northwest on the Assiniboine that displayed a "$5,000 grand piano."

Rife with dialogue "taken from existing written sources or transcribed first-hand from persons relating their experiences," Barris offers many humorous descriptions, such as the one about a shallow river: "That was the trouble with the Saskatchewan: the bottom was too near the top."

Small indigenous communities surrounding the tiny lake hamlet of Winnipegosis in Manitoba also had their lighter moments, often visited by a black merchant whom Barris discovered owned his own steamboat called Irene, ran a trading post and loved children so much that he built a school for them, professing to be "the first white man in Duck Bay."

One eccentric Scottish riverboat captain with a name to match -- Horatio Hamilton Ross -- is remembered for colliding with a bridge in Saskatoon and for his lavish boat parties in The Pas; he was eventually dubbed "Laird of the Saskatchewan."

Using eyewitness accounts, Barris constructs an especially poignant tale about one particularly hopeful captain, Tom Sukanen, a Finnish immigrant and eccentric loner who never floated his homemade boat, Sontiainen.

The plan was to move separate parts of the boat 27 kilometres overland to the South Saskatchewan River, place them on rafts to float over the shallower waters emptying into Hudson Bay, then reassemble them to steam past Greenland and Iceland and home to Finland.

Revealed to be a most complicated character -- mad genius, inventor, successful farmer and a builder obsessed with fashioning a seaworthy vessel in the middle of Saskatchewan's Prairie lands -- Sukanen's story is only one in Barris's assortment of boats and personalities that collectively shaped a nation.

In their own way they rival those created by Samuel Clemens' fertile imagination.


Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

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