Sunday, February 22, 2009

Whitewood Dugout Canoes III - Sleek Dugouts

Continuing with my "Michigan Whitewood Dugout Canoes":
Tim Kent of Ossineke, author of the definitive two-volume "Birchark Canoes of the Fur Trade", who is working on a similar book on dugouts, expresses a contrary opinion (to Dunbar's "rough and slow moving craft" characterization). In an October 1999 Chicago Tribune article on canoes, he is quoted as saying "There were an awful lot of dugouts used on rivers. There is a misconception that they were big, clunky, heavy watercraft that couldn't be portaged. Many were sleek vessels".
I found evidence that there must have been many dugouts that were indeed "sleek vessels" while researching for my narrative/monograph "Across Lower Michigan by Canoe-1790", the tale of British trader Hugh Heward's 1790 odyssey when he and seven French-Canadian paddlers in two birchbark canoes crossed the Lower Peninsula from Lake Erie to Lake Michigan. To do this they went upstream on the Huron River and downstream on the Grand River. The headwaters of these two rivers are interconnected by a series of small creeks and lakes, a three mile portage and extensive marshes.
It was an account of "two pirogues from Detroit" that crossed the Lake Erie-Lake Michigan divide in high water without having to exit their canoes. Such a feat meant that the two pirogues had to have gone down the Detroit River to Lake Erie, then upstream on the twisting and turning Huron River, up the small stream now known as Portage Creek, through a series of lakes along the Livingston/Washtenaw County Line to the divide between the Lake Erie and Lake Michigan watersheds near the village of Stockbridge.
Today in this area there are many muck farms. In pre-settlement days those were interconnected wetlands that in high-water times allowed uninterrupted passage by watercraft. There is no way such journeys could have been accomplished by clumsy log dugouts. 
NOTE: The Ultimate Hugh Heward Challengers will be following this route in April but there is no chance of them paddling across the divide. Deforestation and agricultural drainage has reduced the water table radically over the last couple of centuries.

Photo credit for Louisiana Cypress dugout: Thomas Wintz, Jr.
NEXT: Tales of pioneers in  whitewood dugouts.

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