Respect for Native Sites and Artifacts

Ancient Chugach burial caves, hidden in outcroppings all along the rugged coastline of Prince William Sound in Alaska, are accessible only by small boats such as kayaks.

For more than a century, these sites have been looted for their artifacts, masks and skeletal remains. The increase of kayakers, who can nose into areas difficult to access any other way, is a worry to tribes working to preserve what little evidence of their material culture remains.

In October last year, the Anchorage Daily News reported the return of seven large masks from the Smithsonian Institution’s Virginia warehouse to the Chugach natives.

They are the only masks to be returned to the Chugach, who have pitifully little of their material culture left after more than two centuries of colonial rule, first by the Russians and English, then by Americans. These resource-extraction-driven settlements changed the trajectory of native culture forever.

John Johnson, cultural resource manager for the Chugach Alaska Corporation, works, through the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, to secure the return of artifacts and human remains taken from burial caves.

He is one of dozens of cultural resource managers working for tribes along western U.S. and Canadian coastlines-from Barrow, Alaska, and along the Bering Sea, in the Aleutian and Kodiak archipelago, through the Inside Passage, and down the Pacific coast to Southern California.

The seven recently returned masks and an undisclosed number of “mummies” were sold to the Alaska Commercial Company in 1875 for $12. No one knows what happened to the human remains after they were sold.

Pothunters still search for artifacts in shell middens (large refuse piles of shell and bone) and old village sites along the coastline, even though federal law prohibits the possession of cultural remains; but the problem for tribes lies deeper than that.

Fram Museum Kayaks – Fridtjof Nansen and the Fram no. 171 Kayak

A student of traditional kayaks discovers a piece of kayaking history in an Oslo museum and surveys one of the bamboo and canvas kayaks used in Fridtjof nansen’s legendary 1890’s expedition.

While visiting friends in Norway, I discovered that Oslo’s Fram Museum was full of traditional kayaks. Of all the kayaks on display, there was one that I recognized. It was one of the canvas-and-bamboo kayaks used in 1895 by expedition leader Fridtjof Nansen and Fram crewmember Hjalmar Johansen in their attempt to reach the North Pole.

I’d seen it before in an engraving of bamboo kayaks in Derek Hutchinson’s book, The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking, showing Nansen and Johansen in the kayaks lashed side by side, sailing the arctic waves. And there in the museum was one of the actual kayaks! I had no idea that any of these boats still existed.

When I got home, I checked through all the books I knew of about kayak surveys and found no mention of the Fram kayaks. The only reference I could find was a web page by canoe, kayak and small-boat historian, Craig O’Donnell, who had reverse-engineered pictures of Nansen’s kayak into a set of plans. Even O’Donnell didn’t know whether or not the kayaks still existed.

When Harvey Golden, a well-versed student of traditional kayaks, came to my town to talk about competing in the 2000 Greenland National Kayak Championship, I asked him about the bamboo kayaks. He had never heard of the Fram kayaks either, but he said someone should survey them before they aged further and deteriorated. A seed was planted in my mind.

The Search Begins

Six months after talking to Harvey, I found myself on a 767 to Copenhagen with a load of rulers, measuring tapes, calipers, fishing line, paper, pencils and an arm’s-length cardboard box full of 1 x 4s and canvas straps-my disassembled homemade kayak stands.

I was to join my friend living in Lund, Sweden, head north by night train to stay with another friend who lived near the museum in Norway and survey some kayaks. I had spent time before leaving home devouring anything I could read by and about Nansen: Farthest North (Nansen’s book about his expedition to the North Pole, originally published in 1897), First Crossing of Greenland (Nansen’s 1890 book chronicling his crossing of the Greenland ice cap in 1888 by ski and sledge) and Eskimo Life (his observations on Greenland peoples and culture, published in 1891), as well as books on kayak surveying: John Brand’s The Little Kayak Book, 3 vols., and David Zimmerly’s Qayaq: Kayaks of Alaska and Siberia.

After steeling my courage, I had faxed a letter to the Fram Museum asking if I could come study their kayak collection. I had expected to wait weeks or months for a reply, but when I answered the phone the next morning at breakfast, it was a long-distance call from Norway. A man from the museum, Mr. Berg, said he would be happy for me to come study their kayaks.

After 10 hours on the plane, 20 minutes across the Øresund bridge to Sweden to pick up Josh, my surveying partner, and eight hours on the train north to Norway, I arrived jet-lagged and sleep deprived to meet my friend Elise who let us stay in her tiny apartment. Josh and I fortified ourselves with bowls of oatmeal and cups of tea and set off for the museum.

In the Fram Museum, we found the bamboo kayak as well as a similar unidentified kayak that appeared to be a replica of the original kayak from the Farthest North expedition (Fram Museum no. 171) but built with a lumber frame instead of bamboo and covered in worn, painted canvas with six deck straps sewn on. There were also four Greenland kayaks and a gray canvas-covered folding kayak, with a long open cockpit bearing the label: “Faltboot Werke, Rosenheim Bayern,” its origin unknown to the museum.

We could only spend five days in Oslo, so I quickly decided to document Fram Museum no. 171 and one of the Greenland kayaks (Fram Museum no. 176) that was built for one of Nansen’s colleagues following a crossing of the Greenland ice cap in 1888.

Nansen’s History

Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer who at age 27 led a team of five to be the first to cross the Greenland ice cap. Returning to Norway in 1889, he took a position at Christiana University as a professor of zoology, but his interests were not settled. He returned to exploration, leading the Fram expedition from 1893-96, crossing the then-uncharted Arctic Ocean.

Although he wanted to continue exploring, his fame led him to be made Norway’s ambassador to Britain. He helped dissolve the union of Norway and Sweden in 1905 and later organized a relief effort for refugees and POWs from World War I, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

After returning from the crossing of Greenland, Nansen had settled down into a house in Oslo, which he named Gothaab, to write about his recent experiences. On his wall, he hung the harpoon he used to hunt with in Greenland. Something about that harpoon always bothered him: Where did the wood come from that Greenlanders collected to make their tools?

Despite the name, Greenland was mostly covered in ice with only seasonal vegetation that grew around the coasts. There were no trees there more than a couple of feet tall.

Any wood there that had not been imported was driftwood. Nansen’s harpoon was made from a piece of straight-grained, reddish wood that had washed up on the shore, originally from a tree that had grown tall and straight on some other land. It could have come from anywhere that connected to the arctic seas; the tree might have fallen into a stream or river and flowed down into the sea to drift by a current and land finally on the shores of Greenland.

An early indication of the origin of materials across the frozen polar sea came from the Jeanette, an American scientific ship that was trapped in the arctic ice north of Siberia in 1881.

Despite all efforts to free her from the ice, she was crushed. Years later, a number of articles from the ship were found on the southwest coast of Greenland, evidence that there was a polar drift that might pass right through or very near the North Pole, from Siberia to Greenland.

Origin of Fram No. 171

In 1892, Nansen decided to test his drift theory. He commissioned the building of the Fram, a ship designed to survive the crushing pressure of being trapped in the polar ice pack. It had an egg-shaped hull, reinforced oak construction and layers of insulation.

The Fram and her crew sailed from Norway in 1893 to attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole. The plan was to sail to the polar pack ice north of Siberia, intentionally trap the Fram in the ice pack and follow the drift. Nansen estimated that it would take three years to come out on the other side in the waters near Greenland.

Two years into the drift, all was going much better than expected. The crew, instead of starving or growing ill because of a deficiency in diet, were getting fat. Nansen, however, was bored. Despite the scientific accomplishments of the voyage, Nansen realized that they’d pass about 15 degrees shy of the North Pole.

He made a bold decision: he would use the skills he had acquired in Greenland to try to reach the pole by ski and dog sledge. He would then make his way to a safe port using kayaks once he reached open water. He decided to travel with only one other companion, Hjalmar Johansen, a young crewmember fit enough to be up to the task.

During the winter, the crew of the Fram built the sledges and the kayaks. The kayaks were bamboo framed, twine lashed and covered in canvas. They were loosely based on the Greenland design Nansen was familiar with, only shorter and wider.

The kayaks’ short, wide, flat-bottomed hulls were not designed for speed but for cargo-carrying ability. With three deck hatches and deep hulls, they could carry three months’ worth of supplies and equipment for the two men and their dogs.

The hulls were made for crossing open lanes in the ice and for paddling along the coasts of whatever land they’d reach, not for rough ocean passages. They were not agile like the kayak Nansen had used in Greenland, and it would be unlikely that Nansen or Johansen could recover from a capsize by executing a roll, as he had done before in Greenland.

In March of 1895, the kayaks were mounted on the sledges and filled with provisions, and Nansen and Johansen set out for the North Pole.

Surveying the Kayak

The museum removed Fram no. 171 from its display on the wall starboard to the giant display of the Fram and placed it down by the keel of the ship for us to work on. The museum indicated that the boat was Hjalmar Johansen’s kayak. We were told that Johansen’s kayak was originally housed at the Ski Museum in Oslo, which still holds the sister kayak used by Nansen as well as other artifacts from the expedition. I could confirm the identity of 171 by the depth-to-sheer measurement.

Johansen’s boat was built deeper, 38 cm to Nansen’s 30 cm, to add more cargo space. The boat was a little crooked from pressure on the starboard stringer. The whole frame had shifted over to the port side, but because of the way the ribs were constructed, no ribs had broken and no lashings had parted.

The canvas skin had a dirty, aged appearance and showed the damage and scrapes from the arctic ice and repairs done by Nansen and Johansen (patches and re-sewn seams). Otherwise the skin was in good condition.

The skin is canvas, originally waterproofed by steeping it in a mixture of paraffin and tallow and later patched with oil paint and soot mixed with melted blubber. All this waterproofing made the kayak heavy. Nansen reported it to be 41 pounds with the skin accounting for 25 pounds of the weight.

Three hatches in the deck gave access to the equipment stored inside. They were made by leaving a circular hole in the deck canvas with a loose tube of canvas cloth sewn to the perimeter of the hole. The hatch could be closed much like a dry bag: rolled or folded back onto itself and tied off with a cord. As the kayak rode high on the sea, water getting on deck and collecting into the hatches’ depressions would not have been much of an issue.

Sticking my head inside, I found that the kayak was stinky and full of dust. It was easy to imagine the sweat, blood, blubber, grease, sea salt and soot that must have had their turn inside.

For a kayak that had been through what Nansen and Johansen did to their kayaks and then aged more than a hundred years, Fram no. 171 had considerably little structural damage. There were no loose pieces inside. Some loose bamboo fibers fell out during the survey, and these were respectfully placed back in the kayak after we were done.

The bamboo frame lashed with cord was built using transverse frames holding the stringers instead of traditional ribs. Anyone familiar with George Dyson’s aluminum baidarka designs will recognize the structure.

Most of the frame members are straight except the gunwales, the stringers and the one deck beam at the front of the cockpit. There are no mortises. The transverse frames are secured to the gunwales and the stringers by lashings going through a hole drilled in the rib (to keep its position) and wrapped around each side of the joint to hold it together.

The only pieces of the frame that are not made of bamboo are the cockpit coaming and the bow and stern pieces.

The coaming is made from a bent strip of 12 mm x 40 mm wood, joined by metal rivets, with three separated bone pieces of 5 mm x 12 mm x 23.5 mm making a sprayskirt lip. In keeping with Greenland style, it’s attached to the skin and not the frame. The bow piece is 44 cm long and is at 35 degrees from vertical. The stern is 40 cm long and at 22 degrees.

There are a number of places where the bamboo broke and was repaired. Nansen wrote that at one point when they were sure of being close to open water, they stopped their march across the ice and took a few weeks to make their kayaks seaworthy again.

They took the skins off and repaired any holes. Johansen’s frame had to be splinted a number of times on the gunwales and the stringers, which I was able to see in two places on the aft section.

Because bamboo does not come in regular widths, as does sawn lumber, each piece of the frame is a slightly different size. Also, bamboo’s width is not uniform through its length. It grows in sections, each separated by a nodule ring and tapering in between. In spite of this, Fram no. 171’s members are of a fairly consistent size, and a fair generalization can be made as to the size in width of each piece.

Exhibited with Fram no. 171 was the sledge used to haul the kayaks and their gear over the ice. I didn’t have time to survey it, although I wish I had. There was no paddle displayed with the kayak. Nansen reports using a canvas-bladed paddle lashed to a bamboo stick.

There are no photographs, but I would guess that it was similar to one used by Nansen in Greenland when he built an improvised skin-on-frame rowboat to take him down the Ameralik fjord on the last stage of his crossing-a Y-fork supporting a canvas blade.

These paddles were found to be too short for use when the two kayaks were lashed together side-by-side for long crossings. Improved paddles were made with shafts of bamboo snowshoe staffs lashed to blades made of broken-off wooden skis, which would look something like an improvised Greenland paddle.

Put to Use

After months of travel against the southern drift, across pressure ridges and around lanes of open water and the occasional stretch of good ice, Nansen and Johansen reached 86° 14′ North, the farthest north reached by human beings at that time. They decided it was time to give up the bid for the North Pole and turn south before supplies and dogs ran out (they would kill their weakest dog to feed the rest, a gruesome business that haunted Nansen in the years that followed). They reached open water August 7, 1895, after five months on the ice and down to one sledge dog each.

They had reached the sea near Franz Joseph Land, hundreds of miles from their intended target of Spitsbergen. Having dreamed of the ease of paddling instead of trudging over ice, they would still have to make a long crossing in a heavily laden, flat-bottomed boat not designed for the open ocean. Their solution was to lash the kayaks together catamaran-style with their skis through the deck straps as support and their sledges and two remaining dogs on the deck as cargo. They could only paddle on one side of each kayak, but they soon had a following wind and found that the sail they had carried for pushing their sledges across the ice worked just as well for their little watercraft.

Winter was approaching, so they found a suitable island where they built a stone-and-moss hut and survived on polar bear and walrus meat. Their plan was to stay until spring, then sail through the Franz Joseph archipelago to the westernmost point and make the open crossing of 140 nautical miles to Spitsbergen, where there was sure to be a Norwegian whaler that could take them home.

Up until this point, they had made much smaller open-water crossings from island to island of no more than a day and usually along the edge of ice where they could camp at night. To stay and wait meant hoping the Fram would make it out of the ice soon enough that their supplies wouldn’t run out and that rescue would find them. Besides that, waiting was not in their character. To go south across the Barents Sea to northern Russia meant a longer crossing and a long walk home. Spitzbergen was the closest Norwegian territory.

One day during their voyage westward through the remaining Franz Joseph islands, Nansen heard dogs barking while he was breaking camp. He went to investigate and encountered a British man, clothed in fine wool and smelling of soap.

Nansen, with only his sharp eyes peering from a face blackened with soot and grease, greeted the man and conversed with him as he walked back to the man’s hut. Suddenly, recognizing who he was, the man turned to him and said, “Aren’t you Nansen? By Jove! I’m glad to see you.”

The man was part of a British scientific party that had a ship coming for them sometime that summer. Despite the comfort of clean clothes and a warm hut and coffee for both Nansen and Johansen, they were eager to sail south. Over the next few weeks in the company of the Brits, Nansen still considered trying for Spitsbergen in the kayaks. Luckily, the ship finally arrived and took him and Johansen and their kayaks and sledges back to Norway.

Remarkably, eight days later, the Fram arrived at Skjærvø, Norway, after having been freed from the ice only six days before. After almost a year apart, Nansen reunited with his crew and sailed home to Oslo.

The Fram was used twice more: in 1898 to explore the northern tip of Greenland and in 1910 to springboard Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, which makes it the ship that has sailed the farthest north and south on the surface of the Earth. In 1936, it was preserved for posterity in the A-framed museum where it currently rests.

Built to Last

It seems incredible today that a pair of canvas and bamboo kayaks of Fram no. 171’s design would perform well in harsh arctic conditions. They had a couple of things going for them-they were short and wide, which enabled them to carry a large amount of cargo, and the design was flexible enough that it could be transported on sledge over ice, paddled across calm water lanes in the ice, lashed together and sailed over longer stretches and last over a year’s hard use.

Although the frames and skin were damaged, they were repairable with simple materials and tools, such as splints and cord for the frame and soot and blubber grease to seal the canvas.

Even when disasters occurred, like a walrus spearing holes through the deck of Nansen’s kayak or a gunshot accidentally piercing the hull (narrowly missing Nansen’s legs), the kayak could be repaired, usually in hours, and they could continue. The design’s simplicity paid off.

What better endorsement is there for the usefulness of good old canvas on a hand-lashed frame?

John MacGregor: A Victorian-era Paddle

After taking on supplies at Gravesend,” wrote John MacGregor, firmly establishing the jaunty tone that became his signature, “I shoved off into the tide, and lit a cigar, and now I felt we had fairly started.” Thus begins the literature of sea kayaking and, indeed, of the sport itself.

Although the British Dictionary of National Biography identifies MacGregor (18252892) as a philanthropist and traveler, this eminent though forgotten Victorian single-handedly created a rage for what came to be known as “canoeing.”

Had MacGregor never been born, a Rudyard Kipling or a Robert Louis Stevenson might have had to invent him. The son of General Sir Duncan MacGregor who fought against Napoleon, John MacGregor was an adventurer from the outset.

As an infant, he was rescued along with his parents from a burning ship in which they had set sail for India. MacGregor tried to return the favor as a 12-year-old by nimbly slipping aboard a lifeboat bound for a ship in distress off Belfast, Ireland. Because of his father’s reassignments, MacGregor attended seven schools before graduating Trinity College, Dublin in 1839 with a degree in mathematics. He later entered Cambridge, and subsequently studied patent law. Even before his kayaking escapades, he’d traveled overland through Europe, the Middle East, Russia, North Africa, Canada and Siberia.

In 1865 MacGregor commissioned Messrs. Searles of Lambeth, England, to construct to his specifications the first in a series of seven clinker-built, cedar and oak “canoes,” each of which he christened “Rob Roy.” Although MacGregor omits mention of the exact aboriginal lineage of his boats, it is assumed they were based upon his observation of such craft in Siberia and North America. The original Rob Roy, a decked canoe that weighed 80 pounds and was equipped with a lug sail and jib as well as a seven-foot double-bladed paddle, is now preserved in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

It measures 15 feet long with a 28-inch beam, is nine inches deep, and draws three inches. Although the Rob Roy’s inflexible bulk eventually fell from favor (the torch taken up 40 years later by Johann Klepper’s folding boat), it put hundreds of paddlers into the waters of Europe and inspired the first circumnavigation of Tasmania.

Buoyant in every sense, MacGregor set off down the Thames, waving merrily to astonished bargemen then venturing into the English Channel where he joined a school of porpoises.

The Rob Roy was then ferried to Europe, where MacGregor explored rivers and lakes in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. His account, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe (1866), may have been that year’s best seller.

“The object of this book,” he wrote in his introduction, “is to describe a new mode of travelling on the Continent by which new people and things are met with, while healthy exercise is enjoyed and an interest ever varied with excitement keeps fully alert the energies of the mind.”

As the embodiment of this new independent traveler, MacGregor was impervious to the blandishments of hired guides or the security of Cook’s Tours. He set off for the entire summer with a spirit stove, a wooden fork and spoon (cunningly carved at opposite ends of the same stem), one spare button, and nine pounds of luggage.

While his kit might be Spartan, fitting together “like the words in hexameter verse,” MacGregor was an ardent creature of style. He decked himself out in a gray flannel Norfolk jacket (garnished with six pockets), matching trousers, canvas wading shoes, blue spectacles, and a straw boater-plus a blue silk Union Jack for the boat.

To say this six-foot-six vision of sartorial splendor enjoyed creating an effect, whether in life or upon the page, would be an understatement. Because his trips were widely publicized, shipping frequently altered course for a closer look and ashore he received plentiful offers of meals and lodging.

Even when unrecognized, he precipitated a mild sensation. “I drew along side [a small steamer on the Meuse] and got my penny roll and penny glass of beer through the porthole, while the passengers smiled, chattered, and then looked grave for was it not indecorous to laugh at an Englishman evidently mad, poor fellow?”

Nor was he above an occasional prank. Paddling unseen below the Danube’s banks, he indulged a hearty chorus of “Rule Britannia,” much to the bafflement of peasants cutting hay nearby.

When all else failed to get attention, at a Swedish wedding into which he had politely blundered, he entertained guests by igniting a bit of magnesium ribbon apparently carried for just such occasions.

After he paused to form the Royal Canoe Club (H.R.H. Edward, Prince of Wales, Commodore), subsequent expeditions followed hard upon one another. He crossed the Channel and sailed up the Seine in a diminutive yawl (christened, predictably, Rob Roy) at the invitation of Napoleon III, to promote canoeing in France. That became another book in 1867.

A tour of Scandinavia in the previous year resulted in Rob Roy on the Baltic.

MacGregor dumped all sorts of improbable information into Rob Roy on the Baltic, making it a veritable collage of oddities: several maps, the music to “The Swedish National Air,” complete lyrics to “The Björneborgarnes March,” conjurer’s tricks (guaranteed to delight children), and a specimen restaurant menu (with prices).

Appendices comment upon the Danish missions and Prussian education. Another appendix is devoted to discussing watertight aft hatches, drip-rings, lee boards, outriggers and a set of bronze boat wheels. (He rejected the wheels because paved roads were still rare and, very much a man of his class, he could afford a few pennies for the local yeomanry to lug his boat into town or portage it by ox cart.) MacGregor also executed three dozen woodcuts, beginning with a dramatic frontispiece depicting the Rob Roy catapulted skyward as a runaway horse and cart crash through a fence.

Though well drawn, the illustrations have a slightly bizarre quality, an exaggeration that may or may not have been intended by the artist, but which is delightful nevertheless. Another, reminiscent of Max Ernst’s surreal collages, depicts the boat transported on a Norwegian railway conveyance powered “by cranks and treadles for the feet, as a velocipede is worked, and to which vehicle there clung as many persons as could hold it.”

Given his prodigious energy, it is perhaps not surprising that MacGregor often expressed himself in the first- and third-person plural: “All hands were piped on deck by the boatswain at an early hour, and the last pair that came up were told off to scrub ship and wash clothes.

Meanwhile, the head cook of the Rob Roy (an ignoramus)…mixed water and oatmeal, and had a round tin plate heating on the flame whereon the mixture was poured. It steamed, it set, it dried hard; and then he removed the plate from the fire, but alas!

The cake would not come off the tin-plate until it was torn away with struggles and a knife; and then all the lower part of the brown cake was covered with bright tin-gone was my only hope of breakfast; for even salt air does not enable you to digest sheet metal.”

When the dog he planned to take along disappeared, he unleashed one of his worst puns, ruing the canine’s absence because he wouldn’t be able to write, “my bark is upon the wave.” Yet despite these lapse and some awkward punctuation, a late 20th-century reader can glide through whole chapters lulled by the utterly familiar: tedious head winds, generous tail winds, fog, makeshift campsites and curious onlookers.

MacGregor carries us thirty or more miles a day, chattering on about encounters with ferocious bed bugs, logjams or a perilous tow from a Dutch cutter. These are balanced with sedate pleasures like fishing or Miss Kjerstin, farmer Svenson’s lovely daughter, who modestly serenaded him on the guitar while he sketched her portrait.

Eventually, however, snagging on some detail, we awake with mild shock and remember that all this took place before the Great War, before the internal combustion engine or household electricity. A window abruptly opens on a harbor full of gaff-rigged work boats, a steamboat that blows a cylinder in a gale, or one of John Ericsson’s fearsome ironclad gunboats. Streets clatter with horse-drawn carriages while, on the green, Bismarck’s troops drill or practice marksmanship.

Where he may try our patience is in his religious asides. A thwarted vocation for missionary work led MacGregor, who styled himself the “Chaplain of the Canoe,” to distribute reams of Protestant tracts to surprised bystanders, and to make less than generous remarks concerning the “benighted” members of the Roman Church. Overall, his rectitude is not overbearing, and takes a back seat to his proselytizing the gospel of the canoe.

Upon his crossing the four-mile stretch of the Baltic into Denmark, however, we encounter a prime candidate for judicious editing: “The Rob Roy, carried through Copenhagen, of course attracted a great crowd, and the head waiter (being a man of sense) conducted her upstairs, where the ball-room was allotted for a boat-house, and there the canoe rested gently on an ottoman.”

This may be the briefest sample of what, after reading his three kayaking books, one comes to think of as the Rob Roy’s mandatory “triumphal reception” into town. Whether set in a busy Scandinavian city or a muddy Prussian hamlet, this interchangeable narrative staple soon becomes the most tiresome device in MacGregor’s repertoire. Nevertheless, there is one instance where it reaches an amusing pinnacle.

In his Middle Eastern expedition, The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Red Sea, and Gennesareth (1869), he plunges down the Jordan noting with pride how few European travelers ventured down the river’s more remote reaches. He quickly found out why. An entire village tumbled out, brandishing rifles and casting stones.

Several men dove in after him and, although our hero valiantly swatted left and right with his paddle, he was finally cornered in the shallows. Affecting nonchalance, a cocked pistol concealed under his knees, he noted, with characteristic understatement, that “their patience was on the ebb.”
The subsequent scene reads like John Cleese playing “The Man Who Would be King” as a Monty Python skit.

“A dozen dark-skinned bearers,” writes MacGregor, “lifted the canoe and her captain, sitting inside, with all due dignity graciously smiling,” up the bank amid loud shouting, and deposited them inside the tent of the local sheik.

Remaining in his boat, MacGregor doffed his pith helmet, and blithely informed his host that he “would rest at his tent until the sun was cooler.” The startled sheik summoned his counselors. After threats and counter-threats, a couple of surreptitious bribes and much conferring -in which MacGregor sat imperturbable, reading the Times-he was eventually liberated by Harry, his well-armed, fast-talking interpreter.

The book is MacGregor’s most exotic and, despite his studied composure, the expedition clearly had its share of real crocodiles and brigands.

The incarnation of the Rob Roy used on this trip was modified with a removable aft deck, allowing its owner to rig a canvas tent fly, drop mosquito netting, and sleep aboard. MacGregor tried out this arrangement along the newly opened Suez Canal, doing his best to remain solitary, as, in that neighborhood, “any man with five francs, or supposed to have them, is worth killing.”

He remained unmolested except for a jackal who “would neither leave me in peace nor come near enough to be shot.” In his inimitable way, he continued down to the Red Sea, particularly tickled by an incongruous cup of coffee offered him afloat, accompanied by a pair of silver tongs for the sugar. Finally, after steaming on to Beirut, he trudged overland through a foot of snow outside Damascus to find the source of the Jordan. He concluded his adventure shortly after 12 contemplative days on the Sea of Galilee musing on the life of Jesus.

While his writings certainly encouraged numerous amateurs to get their keels wet, there was yet another side to MacGregor. His passion for philanthropy led him to donate the proceeds of all of the Rob Roy publications to charitable causes like the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society and the National Lifeboat Institution.

He also co-founded the Ragged-School Union’s Shoe-Black Brigade, which sought employment for destitute children. Combining two improbable interests, he raised money for charity by giving public lectures, hamming it up on stage with the Rob Roy, doing quick changes into his canoeing outfit (or, after the Jordan expedition, into a burnoose) and reappearing to wild cheers. Ironically, almost 140 years later – amid a worldwide explosion of kayaking – the man once anointed the “patron saint of canoeing” has been reduced to a footnote.

MacGregor’s works, decades out of print, lie mostly in the hands of collectors and antiquarian booksellers. I found copies slumbering in the closed stacks of the Peabody Essex Museum (in Salem, Massachusetts) and the Boston Public Library. Time had not been kind to them, nor, in the latter institution, was the attendant who delivered the volumes with a mighty thump that resounded painfully down the reading room’s vaulted ceiling.

Bindings cracked, folded maps tore along ancient creases, dog-eared corners fell like withered leaves. Yet, the contents, the story, MacGregor’s indefatigable enthusiasm and wit, have weathered well. If we dare to think of kayaking as having a literature the way fishing does, then MacGregor is our Izzak Walton.

Having recently read Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania, I felt I had bounded from one end of kayaking’s literary bookshelf to the other. To MacGregor’s credit, that leap requires far less adjustment for the armchair kayaker than one might suppose.

Despite their very different sensibilities, I could easily imagine MacGregor and Theroux happily switching boats. Their interests are not that different, nor their insistence upon travel on their own terms, their mixed feeling about their fame, their curiosity about their hosts tempered by impatience with some of their hosts’ customs.

MacGregor’s digressions on the shortness of Danish beds, the deceitfulness of Prussian customs agents, and the behavior of English people abroad, find a certain correspondence in Theroux’s mutterings about Kiwi politicians and starch-fed Tongans.

Theroux’s efforts to “toktok” Pidgin English recall MacGregor’s amusing attempts at communication. He gamely passed a phrase book back and forth with his Swedish hosts until a learned doctor arrived for tea and they discovered a language in common: “We talked Latin,” MacGregor notes, “with that circumlocutory elegance which a very slow remembrance of it involves, like pumping water out of a very deep well, with very little in the bucket when it comes up, and not much at the bottom.”

As personalities, each might be the perfect antidote to the other. A good dose of MacGregor’s cheery, indomitable, stiff upper lip can create an absolute yearning for Theroux’s misanthropy, angst and soul-searching, and, perhaps, vice versa, but, while Theroux’s work is still with us, where will we find MacGregor?

Let me confess that I conceived this entire sketch as an introduction to an imaginary, deluxe, lavishly illustrated, amply edited and thoroughly portable MacGregor. Now where is the publisher?