The Great Atlantic-Pacific Canoe Trip : NEW YORK TO NOME The Northwest Passage by Canoe <i> by Rick Steber from the recollections of Shell Taylor (North River Press, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: $17.50; 168 pp., illustrated) </i>
It was the middle of the Great Depression. Two young men working as clerks in a New York book publishing house decided to chuck it all and paddle a canoe from New York to Nome, finally achieving the Northwest Passage sought in vain by explorers from Hudson to Mackenzie. And they did it!
Dreaming not only of adventure but of eventual fame and fortune, Sheldon Taylor and Geoffrey Pope assembled their expedition in a couple of months. Unable to entice a sponsor, they eventually had to rely on Taylor’s entertainer sister, Muriel, to stake them and drum up publicity. On April 25, 1936, at 9 o’clock in the morning, they put in at the foot of 42nd Street in a badly designed canoe they named The Muriel.
Upon their successful arrival at Nome in August of 1937, the two found fame to be an ephemeral thing. After a few vain months of waiting in New York for books and movies to materialize, Pope returned to his home in Minneapolis, and Taylor, a fifth-generation Californian, settled in Hawaii where he was able to find a job. For each of them, the trip was to be the one great punctuation of a lifetime. Finally, 50 years later, comes this first (and probably last) account of the longest canoe trip in history: Shell Taylor’s recollections to outdoor newspaperman Rick Steber. It is deliciously entertaining.
I do not know which of the words in this story belong to Taylor and which have been added by Steber, but one of them is one hell of a raconteur. The old photos of this adventure, great ones at that, mostly feature Taylor as a handsome, athletic, Errol Flynn-ish fellow full of bravado (and Pope cuts a fine figure in the few pictures of him). The years since seem to have diminished none of those characters. Often, re-creating a scene, his words remind you of Hemingway or Fitzgerald and that innocent, reckless confidence Americans had before the war; and then the next moment, he is thoroughly modern. His sheer physicality--whether talking about being drunk or bug-bitten, describing a meal or a woman, utterly belies Taylor’s 75 years. And yet, although he credits himself with a great sense of humor throughout the expedition, the wry wit in “New York to Nome” takes a handful of decades to ripen. You have to believe this guy was larger than life--probably still is--and must have driven his partner slightly crazy.
Pope must be none too pleased with this last word on his shared world record. Taylor portrays him as a stolid, sleepy and unimaginative fellow paddler--although lacking neither in endurance nor courage. Taylor awards himself the credit for conceiving and planning the trip, for comprehending the grandness of wilderness they penetrated, and for constantly prodding his reluctant partner forward to keep the brutal schedule seasons and distance demanded. “He was one type of guy,” Taylor concludes, “one personality, and I was another. I’ve given it considerable thought over the years and have decided we were the perfect blend to make the expedition a success. If we had both been like him, we would still be paddling up the Hudson. And if we were both like me, we probably would have driven each other into the ground. The blend, the team, it worked.”
I laughed out loud reading “New York to Nome,” shouted out passages to anyone in earshot. I simply loved it. For all of Taylor’s considerable ego, he makes light of the huge, cold, dangerous country they crossed. Instead, he invests his words in the places they saw, the people they met, and the interpersonal dynamics of the two principals. “The three of us slept under the sleeping bags opened like blankets. The Indian was in the middle. He was rank, smelling of a mixture of body odor, horse sweat, fish, and I don’t know what else. Rain sputtered again in the middle of the night. I threw a log on the fire and pulled the sail over us.” But then: “The next day I shot at a duck with the .22 but only winged him. We had to run him down, and Jeff wrung his neck. That night we cooked a delicious duck and caribou stew, the likes of which you could never duplicate in the fanciest restaurant. The taste included campfire smoke and the spice of the vast land: the moodiness of the lake, the strength of the timbered ridges, and the uncertainty of the boggy muskeg.” I envy them their moment. You will too.