When he was 17, Nathaniel Bishop hiked 1,000 miles across South America. Later in life, he became interested in canoes. In 1874, he set off with a friend in an 18-foot wooden canoe, determined to find the most direct passage along natural and manmade waterways from the cold and rocky Gulf of St. Lawrence to the semitropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
When he arrived in New York, he encountered a manufacturer of paper boats, and he decided these crafts were much superior to the one he had. Ditching his companion and the wooden boat, Bishop set off to finish the trip alone in his new paper canoe. Though he was “frequently lost in the labyrinth of creeks and marshes which skirt the southern coast of this country”, he eventually made it to the Gulf of Mexico in 1875. He had paddled 2,000 miles on his own in a 58-lb paper canoe. If you think this sounds crazy, you are not alone:
Everywhere along the route the peculiar character of the paper canoe attracted many remarks from the bystanders. The first impression given was that I had engaged in this rowing enterprise under the stimulus of a bet; and when the curious were informed that it was a voyage of study, the next question was “How much are you going to make out of it?” Upon learning that there was neither a bet nor money in it, a shade of disappointment and incredulity rested upon the features of the bystanders, and the canoeist was often rated as a “blockhead” for risking his life without being paid for it.
Bishop’s narrative is interesting because he is re-exploring supposedly known territory, and his book is full of contrasts between the wilds he traverses and the cities he passes through. While many adventure stories, though true, seem far-off and impossible to the common reader, Bishop’s descriptions make such feats seem feasible even today:
Every instinct was now challenged, and every muscle brought into action, as I dodged tug-boats, steamers, yachts, and vessels, while running the thoroughfare along the crowded wharves between New York on one side and Jersey City on the other. I found the slips between the piers most excellent ports of refuge at times, when the ferry-boats, following each other in quick succession, made the river with its angry tide boil like a vortex. The task soon ended, and I left the Hudson at Castle Garden and entered the upper bay of New York harbor. As it was dark, I would gladly have gone ashore for the night, but a great city offers no inducement for a canoeist to land as a stranger at its wharves.
Much of the time, however, the author is paddling along creeks and through marshes in uninhabited and wild areas:
…the inhospitable marshes became wide and desolate, warning me to secure a timely shelter for the night…the high reeds were divided by a little creek, into which I ran my canoe, for upon the muddy bank could be seen a deserted, doorless fish-cabin, into which I moved my blankets and provisions, after cutting with my pocket-knife an ample supply of dry reeds for a bed. Drift-wood, which a friendly tide had deposited around the shanty, furnished the material for my fire, which lighted up the dismal hovel most cheerfully. And thus I kept house in a comfortable manner till morning, being well satisfied with the progress I had made that day in traversing the shores of three states.
All this is punctuated with edge-of-the-seat adventure, like when Bishop capsizes in the Delaware Bay (the only time, incredibly):
The boat having turned keel up, her great sheer would have righted her had it not been for the cargo, which settled itself on the canvas deck-cloth, and ballasted the craft in that position. So smooth were her polished sides that it was impossible to hold on to her, for she rolled about like a slippery porpoise in a tideway. Having tested and proved futile the kind suggestions of writers on marine disasters, and feeling very stiff in the icy water, I struck out in an almost exhausted condition for the shore…I found I could not get my head above water to breathe, while the sharp sand kept in suspension by the agitated water scratched my face, and filled my eyes, nostrils, and ears…The land was not over an eighth of a mile away, and from it came the sullen roar of the breakers, pounding their heavy weight upon the sandy shingle. As its booming thunders or its angry, swashing sound increased, I knew I was rapidly nearing it, but, blinded by the boiling waters, I could see nothing…
The Voyage of the Paper Canoe is full of geographical and historical information which provides a background to the adventure, including lore of the native peoples of the east coast. Bishop also gives detailed information about the exact process of paper boat-making, and there are many touching portraits of the human kindness he encountered along the way.