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A Yankee Notebook

March 10, 2014


FAIRLEE, VT – The pine-paneled dining room here at the Hulbert Outdoor Center is steeped in tradition; it’s where generations of summer campers have dined. The function room adjoining it is decorated with dozens of rustic varnished plaques bearing the names of long-vanished kids. At the moment, the room itself is filled with long-vanished kids, too – men and women, some quite elderly, who pursue one of the most traditional of activities: canoe travel in the North American boreal forest, taiga, and tundra. It’s the annual Wilderness Paddlers’ Gathering.

When I was just getting into this fine madness, about 50 years ago, the field was still pretty much dominated by native Americans and rugged hairshirts from farther south – bankers, doctors, government ministers, writers, and attorneys – who delighted to tackle difficult and remote canoe routes for several weeks of each summer, and have their pictures taken as a group, tousled and sunburned, at the end of each trip. I have quite a few of those heroic photos myself.

How times have changed! As I look around me here, I can spot several young women – girls, really – who’ve come to talk about their recent adventures in the North. Their videos (Who shoots slides anymore?) feature long lake crossings, roaring rapids, portages through fire-scarred black spruce forest and sucking muskeg mud, and lots of moose, bears, loons, and bugs. They carry their canoes solo – wood-and-canvas ones, at that – and their heavy wanigans with traditional tump lines. In their videos they squat with their knees impossibly bent, feeding smoky fires and tending bannock in reflector ovens. They go in for lots of group hugs and line dancing on carpets of reindeer moss. And they’re invariably smiling!

It’s hard for many people to remember now how disenfranchised women were, even decades after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. When Mother and I were married, during the Eisenhower Administration years, she couldn’t open a charge, savings, or checking account without my signature on the application. This was still a man’s world – actually, in those days before the passage of the civil rights or voting acts, still a white man’s world. The subsequent steady erosion of that demographic state of affairs is most likely the source of the current gridlock in our body politic and the spate of Jim Crow-type state laws governing women’s health issues and minority access to voting. A lot of us old white guys are refusing to accept the inevitable end of the historic patriarchy.

The beginning of the end was presaged as far back as John Kennedy’s inaugural speech, in which he announced the ascendance of “a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed....” Three and a half years later President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the political polarity of the United States began to reverse. Many Americans, reeling from phenomena ranging from Elvis Presley to the 1965 Watts riots, or from the Summer of Love to the multiple assassinations of leaders, or from the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention to the Kent State Massacre in 1970, must have felt the way Cornwallis felt at Yorktown, when he ordered his band to play “The World Turned Upside Down.” In any case, the genie was out of the bottle. The bumper sticker, “Question Authority,” said it all.

Previously single-gender academies and universities could see the handwriting on the wall – students increasingly were making the decisions about where to apply – and adopted coeducation. The results, at least in my opinion, have been spectacular. My old secondary school, though it became coeducational in a very clunky fashion, has achieved a wonderful result.

In the matter of wilderness adventuring, however, many organizations have held the line. The venerable canoe camp Keewaydin, based in Ontario, had for literally generations introduced boys to the rigors of wilderness tripping. Some years ago they began admitting girls, but unlike Outward Bound and NOLS, kept the genders separated on canoe expeditions. The enthusiastic alumnae of those trips who are here this weekend attest to the policy’s success.

“We offer unforgettable adventurous canoe trips in the pristine wilderness of the Canadian North,” reads Keewaydin’s web site. “This all-girl environment gives girls a chance to be fully themselves, take positive risks, and learn invaluable leadership skills....foster positive gender identity...understand the importance of ‘sisterhood’...bolster girls’ physical and emotional resiliency.” Watching these young ladies here, I’d say they’ve succeeded.

The United States is still changing, fairly rapidly, and women will play a larger part in whatever is next. A greater percentage of women than men are going to college, and they’re also exceeding the Y-chromosomers academically. In spite of this, though they comprise half of our population, they make up only about 19% of the members of Congress, occupy only about 8% of chief operating officers’ positions, and earn significantly less than their male counterparts.

The possibility that our next President will at last be a woman has been stirring the pot a bit. Some major changes in our national consciousness may be in the offing. If so, I welcome them. The girls here at the paddlers’ gathering, eagerly anticipating this summer’s trips to Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean, will in just a few years be active in them. Any lady who’s battled black flies while filleting a trout, then flipped a canoe up onto her shoulders and carried it away – she’s got my vote!

Photo by Willem lange