In Which the Discerning Reader Will Find
A Rambling Prologue and a Few Halting Words of Explanation,
Followed by a Brief Introduction to
Two Tales About Three Men in Three Boats on the Danube
By Farwell Forrest
January 8, 2013
f, like me, your first canoeing ventures — family vacations excepted — were whitewater day trips, you probably learned to loathe backwaters. These were the places where the current slowed to nothing. Almost immediately, paddling stopped being fun, and before long it had become little more than an indeterminate sentence at hard labor. The dancing waves and rushing waters of the rapids lay behind you. Or ahead of you. In either case, they were somewhere else. And you? You were stuck in a backwater, sweat trickling down your neck, your wetsuit galling the flesh under your arms, and the sweet‑sour smell of vegetable decay always hovering in the air.
But the time came when I began to dread the marathon road trips to distant put‑ins on whitewater rivers more than I did the prospect of hours of hard labor in a local backwater. Tamia had a lot to do with this. She opened my eyes to the vibrant, vital tapestry of life in these little‑visited places. My father had tried to make me see this earlier, but I had my eyes tight shut at the time, and he died before I grew more biddable. Once I got the message, however, I was a changed man. Backwaters were in my blood. And they're now where I spend most, though not all, of my paddling hours.
There are backwaters in the torrent of words, too: books that, for one reason or another — their age, perhaps, or their subject matter, or their failure to make it onto the reading lists of freshman composition courses — now slumber undisturbed in the dusty basements of public libraries, even those few institutions that still bother to keep anything besides Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the latest PBS "Friendraiser" DVDs on their shelves. But you can't judge a book by the thickness of the dust on its cover, can you? And paddlers will discover that some of these backwatered volumes are well worth a second look. Or maybe even a cover‑to‑cover read.
Which is why I'll be digging through the neglected stacks in library basements in the months to come, and whenever I find an interesting volume I'll let you know. Not that I'll really need to venture into the basement of any local library, of course. For one thing, it would be a waste of time. Most of the public libraries in my corner of Canoe Country have already "weeded" their collections of anything that hasn't appeared on the New York Times' best‑seller lists in the last 10 years or so. And the (very) few volumes lacking this essential imprimatur which somehow managed to survive the weeding process have been handed off to one museum or another, with access now limited to sponsored researchers and post‑doctoral fellows. This includes me out.
The upshot? I'm going to do my digging in the proliferating mines of e‑texts, instead, beginning with the nearly four million volumes in that mother of all online libraries, the Internet Archive. It's not perfect, to be sure. Thanks to the continuing efforts of the Disney people to secure the copyright on Mickey Mouse into the 99th millennium, any book that first appeared in print after 1922 won't be on the Internet Archive's virtual shelves. This means a lot of titles from the mid‑1920s through the 1950s that would be of interest to paddlers — to say nothing of anglers, hillwalkers, and cyclists — have effectively disappeared from public view. Still, Mickey is safe from unauthorized exploitation, and for that we must all be duly grateful. I, for one, sleep much more soundly knowing that Steamboat Willie can ply the waters for hire for many more years to come.
So much for the necessary throat‑clearing. It's time to brush the dust off an old volume and see what lies between the covers. Actually, I'll be looking at two old volumes. As rare as it is to have two books about the same excursion appear in print in the same year, by two different writers, that's what happened here. The trip in question was a tour of the Danube River from its nominal headwaters in Donaueschingen to its mouth on the Black Sea, in the year 1891, undertaken by three men in three cruising canoes.
A few more words of explanation are probably in order at this point. Cruising canoes were solo craft of a type seldom seen today. In appearance they resembled beamy kayaks, and when under paddle they were propelled by double blades. Lacking spray skirts for the most part, they were, nonetheless, decked craft. What distinguished them from modern‑day touring kayaks, then? Well, for one thing, they were designed to be equally at home on whitewater rivers and big lakes, where they could be driven under either sail or paddle. The canoes used by the three Danube voyagers were identical representatives of this once‑common type. Each was outfitted with a pedal‑actuated rudder, a diminutive cat ketch rig, and a fan‑like folding centerboard. At eighty pounds (before the sail rig and centerboard were added), they weren't exactly light. It would be interesting to see what could be done in the way of weight reduction with modern materials, though. And there's always the portage cart.
Poultney Bigelow's sketch of CARIBEE, his cruising canoe
Cruising canoes had one other attraction: They allowed the crew (i.e., the paddler‑sailor) to sleep aboard. As night approached, you just hauled your boat ashore, rigged a purpose‑built "canoe tent" around the extended cockpit, and stretched out in comfort. Or you lit your candle lantern and read or worked up your journal, supported by the same backboard that served you during the day's paddling. You could even sleep aboard while floating in shallow, protected waters, to be rocked by the ripples and wakened by the laughter of a distant loon. It's easy to see why some paddlers would find canoe tents mighty attractive, and Poultney Bigelow, the author of one of the two books that I've dug out of the Internet Archive's fertile backwaters, rhapsodized about them at length, contrasting them with tents "such as are used on shore, that smell of fermented grass and mud; that are clumsy to rig and clumsier still to stow away." Canoe tents, he wrote, "do not touch the ground at all." They "come in contact with nothing but what is clean."
Bigelow in his berth ashore
And if you'll be camping in fields frequented by cows — or on sites used by dog‑walkers, for that matter — this is certainly something worth considering, isn't it?
Bigelow's account of the trip, entitled Paddles and Politics Down the Danube was first published in 1892. It's the more "literary" of the two narratives, though whether this is a good thing or a bad is open to question. I incline to the belief that it's bad, despite Bigelow's obvious delight at being on the water in a canoe, as illustrated by the following brief passage:
Our first day was crowded with the sensations that contributed to happiness — a bright day, with just enough passing cloud to save the skies from monotony; a body of clear, crisp eddying water beneath, just lively enough to make one have an eye to the paddle lest one be caught foul in swinging around a sharp corner; banks of grass retreating from the river until they merge themselves in the leafy recesses that crown the distant mountain‑tops of the Black Forest; and flowers! — who could do justice to the wealth of glorious coloring that sets its fragrant limits on the edges of the stream?
There's no doubting Bigelow's enthusiasm for his subject, is there? In fact, his fondness for life lived aboard the confines of his little craft extended to mealtimes, and an ill‑fated experiment with a "coffee‑machine" — apparently one of his own design — nearly brought his trip to an early end, when the machine, resting on a spirit stove placed on the floorboards of his boat and nestled between his knees, suddenly erupted in a Vesuvius of scalding hot milk and coffee.
But after a promising start, Bigelow's account drifts away from the river below the storied Iron Gates. According to Francis Davis ("Frank") Millet, the painter whose prosaically‑titled The Danube From the Black Forest to the Black Sea is the second account of the trip, it was there that "the Admiral of the fleet … was compelled to leave us." (Millet left his readers in no doubt that the "Admiral" was Bigelow.) Curiously, though, the Admiral himself fails to mention this in Paddles and Politics. His narrative of the trip continues unbroken to the Black Sea, even if politics play a far larger role in the second half of his book than paddling does. Perhaps Bigelow felt it would be impolitic to mention that he was relying on his companions' journals to flesh out the remainder of his tale.
Or it may have been something else. In their mammoth biography of Frederic Remington, Peggy and Harold Samuels suggest that Bigelow could be a difficult companion, self‑willed, boastful, and bigoted. (Remington and Bigelow were students together at the Yale School of Fine Arts, and an on‑again, off‑again friendship continued for most of Remington's life.) Moreover, Bigelow had conceived of the Danube trip and persuaded Harper's Magazine to underwrite it, recruiting two noted artists, Frank Millet and Alfred Parsons, to accompany him and illustrate his printed account. And Bigelow was in no doubt that it was to be his account. He saw himself as the expedition's sole chronicler. Millet, however, had other ideas, and early in the trip he may have hinted at his ambition to publish his own book. This would have enraged Bigelow, who was convinced, the Samuels wryly note, that Millet "as a painter was necessarily illiterate."
Of course Millet wasn't anything of the sort, and his story of the trip, while less self‑consciously literary than Bigelow's, is also mercifully free of Bigelow's extended and strident disquisitions on such topics as "Servian Public Opinion" and "The Jew From a Danube Point of View." Polemical outbursts of this sort were very much in Bigelow's style, however. Peggy and Harold Samuels describe him as "a complete anti‑Semite," with "side ventures into anti‑black and anti‑feminist sentiments." And while Bigelow often attempts to distance himself from the more inflammatory opinions expressed in his writing — he attributes these views to others, casting himself in the role of disinterested reporter — this transparent charade does little to refute the Samuels' unflattering characterization.
But that isn't to say Bigelow's narrative of the early days of the trip, before the politics displace the paddling, is without its charms. Far from it. Bigelow was a gifted story‑teller. Taken all in all, however, Millet's account is a far more interesting — and much less tendentious — read. It's also better illustrated. No surprise, that. While Millet can't match Bigelow's lyrical prose, he was a more skillful writer than Bigelow was an illustrator, not withstanding the latter's years at Yale. (The landscape painter Alfred Parsons, the expedition's third man, also contributed a number of detailed and evocative watercolors to Millet's book. These are absent from Bigelow's account.)
Now for the bottom line: Apart from their antiquarian interest, is there anything in these two books for modern paddlers? Indeed there is. While neither one would serve as a river guide today — the Danube above the Iron Gates was altered out of all recognition by the construction of the Iron Gate Dams in 1972 and 1984, and a lot of other things have changed since 1891 — both books have something to say about practical matters of importance to today's canoeists and kayakers. Bigelow is particularly good on the vital business of choosing a campsite, for example, and Millet has some timeless insights about outfitting for a long river trip, insights which are as relevant in 2013 as they were in 1892. Would you ever have thought of a "sketching umbrella" as a useful addition to your paddling kit? No? Well, after reading Millet on the subject, you might just change your mind, even if you never intend to put pencil to paper from put‑in to journey's end.
And our journey must end here, too. We'll be visiting other literary backwaters in coming months, however. In the meantime, let's give Bigelow — now, happily, in lyrical mood — the last word:
[N]o part of the Danube can be monotonous when moving in tiny canoes that feel the twist of every eddy, that dance to the music of every rapid, that rush with impetuous zeal down slopes of pale green shallows, and that narrowly escape being sucked into the back current at the river corners. … [T]he Danube can be grander at some points than others, but uninteresting — never.
Backwaters are shunned by many paddlers. This is their loss. There's a lot to be seen in and around around the quiet reaches of a river, if you just know where (and how) to look. The same thing can be said about literary backwaters. There's treasure for the taking on the dusty shelves, sagging under the weight of forgotten volumes. But you won't have to spend long hours in library basements to unearth it. Thanks to resources like the Internet Archive, you can have the book you want delivered to your desk in less than a minute, for the price of click.
This week, by way of introduction, I've looked briefly at two titles that caught my eye and held my interest. In the months to come, I'll be adding more volumes to the list. And if you've any recommendations of your own to make, I'd like to hear about them. Just drop me a line. The only requirements? All titles have to be free of copyright restriction and readily available on the Web.
A Warning to Those About to Venture Into the Backwaters: Times change, and we change with them. The popular literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries abounds in offensive stereotypes, while racial and religious slurs are commonplace. You can, of course, pass over these grating notes, treating them as cultural artifacts grounded in a particular time and place. Or you can choose not to open the books at all. The decision is yours.
Books Discovered in the Backwaters
A note on the illustrations in the article: The sketches of the CARIBEE and the canoe tent are by Bigelow, and are taken from Paddles and Politics; the watercolors and the initial "I" are from The Danube. I think both watercolors are by Alfred Parsons, but since the first is unsigned I can't be sure.
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