Portage Into the Past: By Canoe along the Minnesota-Ontario Boundary Waters – J. Arnold Bolz
17 February 2016
— Boundary Waters, canoeing, exploration, fur trade, fur traders, history, Minnesota, Northwestern Ontario, travel, US-Canada boundary dispute
I’m always on the lookout for regional history, both for my personal library and the book shop. I was tidying up my shelves the other day when I came across this one. I’d forgotten I had it. Not only that but, since it is the only one I’ve ever come across, I’d forgotten such a book even existed. I began to read…
I wish I’d known about it when I first started learning about this area’s history. Originally published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1960, Portage into the Past serves as a wonderful little introduction to the Fur Trade era and the Boundary Dispute that made this portion of the Canada/US border one of the last to be determined. And it does all this in a very novel manner.
The author and his wife are both outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs. Bolz has spent years amassing a library of original source material about the route between Lake Superior and Rainy Lake. They decide to invite a friend who runs an outdoor tripping business to go with them on a five-day canoe trip following the trade route. They plan to introduce him to the region’s history through reading excerpts from the diaries and journals of early travellers and surveyors around the campfire each night and at various stops that they make along the way.
The result is that readers experience a wonderful blend of the past and the route as it had become by 1958. Their friend also ends up catching the history bug, and by the end of the trip he, too, is taking a turn at reading the passages aloud. All three of them spend their breaks from paddling trying to find the exact location described by Henry, Hind, Delafield or any of a number who left a footprint on the trail over the past 250 years.
The book is illustrated by Frances Ann Hopkins, John Bigsby and Francis Lee Jaques, all of whom travelled through at some point in their careers during each of the three periods of history covered.
While the book offers only a superficial history of the Boundary Waters, it does so in an entertaining manner that encourages readers to go farther, and provides an excellent list of primary sources to facilitate further study.