I’ve lived in the mountains, and I’ve lived on the ocean, but I’m a Great Lakes girl at heart. I’m writing this post from my childhood bedroom almost a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. It’s the first Christmas I’ve spent here probably since my senior year in high school, and I’m wallowing in nostalgia. I’ve been visiting old friends, showing my husband my favorite old lunch spots, seeking out the old hills to take the kids sledding, and am of course properly suited up in thick socks and a big sweater inside because it is my dad’s house after all. I’ve also been combing through the book shelves trying to find the few books that didn’t get shipped out to me when I first started having babies. And I think I’ve found probably the most appropriate book I could. It’s not even my copy. It’s my dad’s, given to him when he was a small boy.
Published in 1941, Paddle-to-the-Sea is the name given to a small wooden figure in a canoe carved by a young Native American boy in Lake Nipigon, Canada, which is just north of Lake Superior.
The boy places the carving on a pile of snow one winter, and when spring comes and the sun melts the snow, Paddle-to-the-Sea begins his journey along a spring-run mountain stream, emerging along the banks of Lake Superior, travels through all of the Great Lakes, plunges over Niagara Falls and makes his way up the St. Lawrence River until at last he reaches the Atlantic Ocean.
Along the way, Paddle-to-the-Sea faces several perilous situations: logs tumbling through the river on the way to the sawmill that threatens to rip him up, a violent late fall storm in Lake Superior and a terrifying shipwreck, forest fires and the wild animals desperately trying to escape, fishing nets, ice chunks, and especially the intense drop over Niagara Falls and the whirlpools waiting for him at the bottom. He also finds help along the way: a logger that snatches him away before the saw can get to him, a ship’s captain that brings him in for repairs, a dog sledder that brings him overland to the Soo Locks, and the son of a French cargo boat captain, who fishes him from the Atlantic after four years and thousands of miles to carry him across the biggest body of water yet.
Along the way, his many helpers add to that note, so that at the end of the book, his new copper rudder is stamped with the sign:
I am Paddle-to-the-Sea, from Nipigon Country north of Lake Superior. This plate, containing original message with more added, was put on at Whitefish Bay after a shipwreck. Please help me to more adventures. Scratch with metal point on this copper, names of towns I pass. Return me to water in good place to continue voyage to sea.
My children are too young to appreciate this book (I’d guess it’s probably more appropriate for at least a 9 year old), but I still enjoy looking through it time and again; the geography and history it imparts is fascinating, and the writing is just pure poetry at times. It really is a story about perseverance, trust, and solidarity. I think my favorite quote in the book is said by a Detroit factory worker who has come across Paddle in Lake St. Claire. A friend offers to buy the carved figure for a museum, but the man declines.
‘No,’ he said, ‘somewhere, someone who had faith in currents, in winds- and also in people, put thought and careful work into this carving. And I’ll not be the one to stop his Paddle-to-the-Sea.’
Going back and reading it again now as an adult, it reminds me of the story River-Horse by William Least Heat Moon, which is sort of a real-life Paddle-to-the-Sea adventure memoir, where WLHM boards his boat Nikawa, Osage for River Horse, in the Atlantic at New York Harbor and attempts to traverse the country entirely by its inland waterways all the way to the Pacific near Astoria, OR.
I’ve been thinking a lot about books representing their locations lately, especially after I saw this:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of my favorites that takes place in Michigan, though the map above lists his book The Virgin Suicides. But A River Runs Through It is really the quintessential Montana memoir (where I live now). And from my time in Hawaii, I loved Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux and The Colony, about the leper colony on Molokai, by John Tayman.
Do you have favorite books that were set in your region? What are they?
*Edited to add that as I typed this up, my son, who is two days shy of turning six, has climbed up onto my bed and is gingerly leafing through the pages of Paddle-to-the-Sea. He says he remembers when we started to read it and really, really wants to read it again. Now that he’s nearly six of course. So perhaps it’s a good book for kindergarteners as well.