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Ladies, Canoes and Rules: “Camp Grindstone” Part II


Last month’s article “Camp Grindstone” reported that today membership in the American Canoe Association [ACA] is approximately 50,000. In 1884 that number was roughly 500 to 600. What impressive growth!! But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Back then the Association’s book of rules stated that “the crew of each canoe shall consist of one man only.” None the less a dozen or so women were honorary members “in deference to their sex.” That attitude eventually changed as in 1944 the ACA gave women the right to vote and in 1980 a women was elected commodore of the ACA.

The camp was governed by a strict set of rules. Women stayed in their own camp called Squaw Point and were not to visit the main encampment from five o’clock in the afternoon until after eight o’clock in the morning. The morning restriction gave men time for an early dip and breakfast. While not confirmed in the magazine article, my guess is there might have been a third camp for married men and women. All the camps were guarded to prevent outsiders from attending. 

Opening festivities began with a night parade of a hundred or more canoes, heavily hung with paper lanterns and boat lights, silently moving over calm, dark waters against a dark sky. The scene was compared to a Venetian night festival. The next day the fleet was reviewed by the commodore, the vice commodore and the rear commodore as one hundred canoes pass in single file before the flag ship. Sailing canoes were the last to be reviewed.

No two canoes were alike as each owner customized his canoe just enough to make it unique. The difference between two canoes might be as insignificant as the placement of a cleat. There was also a great variety of sails, both in design and how they were decorated.

Canoe races were merely features of the meet and not the meet’s main objective. Not everyone participated as only a handful of enthusiasts chose to race. There were no professional canoeists and absolutely no betting. Canoeing was considered “a game for gentlefolk” whose benefit was “all around exercise.” The prize for winning a race was simply the honor of being the best in that event at the time. Two years later at the 1886 meeting, a trophy was awarded to the winner of the international race. It was the first prize permitted by the ACA. Most paddle races were won by Canadians who knelt while paddling. Americans paddled while sitting in the bottom of the canoe. As an aside, the fastest time for a one mile race by paddle was about ten and a half minutes.

There were other races such as the “upset” race in which, at a given signal, the racers completely turned their canoes over and paddled to the finish line. A favorite spectator event was the hurry-scurry race where the contestants ran 100 yards, swam 20 yards and then paddle 200 yards to the finish line. There was a sailing race between a canoe and a St. Lawrence skiff, manned by a “native” [probably a man who lived in the North Country]. The skiff lost in a light breeze but many agreed a stronger wind might have changed the outcome in favor of the heavier skiff. Still the canoeists were fascinated by the sailing skill of the “native” whom they labeled a “crack sailor.” 

After spending most of the day on the water, the canoeists had built up healthy appetites and were ready to feast on a good dinner. Cooking fires appeared in the various camps. Temperance was an unwritten rule and rarely challenged.

Sunset was a majestic, emotional moment as the playing of the bugle marked the end of the day. Some were so moved they buried their faces in a blanket to conceal their feelings. As night fell musical instruments, such as the banjo and kazoo, were heard. Singing, an occasional speech and storytelling followed. The task of building a bonfire was rotated nightly among the various camps – i.e. the Rochester camp, the Albany camp etc. Many camps hung lanterns to form their camp’s first letter such as a B for the Buffalo camp.

These meetings renewed old friendships and formed new ones. As the campers packed up to go, there was the satisfaction that a year later, another meeting would take place.

By Robert L. Matthews

Robert L. Matthews is the author of two popular books:  Glimpses of St. Lawrence Summer Life: Souvenirs from the Thousand Islands: Robert and Prudence Matthews Collection, and A History of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club, published in 2009.  Bob presented five articles last winter.  He and his wife Prudence ( well known River artist whose work was presented in Hooked on Prudence in 2009) have one of the most extensive collections of  Thousand Islands memorabilia.  When not at their beautiful River cottage at Fisher’s Landing, they live in St. Petersburg, Florida.  This article is Part II of “Camp Grindstone”, published in December 2010.

Posted in: History, Sports
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