Jerry Dennis

Eugene Buchanan

Jerry Dennis's From a Wooden Canoe: Reflections on Canoeing, Camping, and Classic Equipment has been in print since 1999, drawing praise from the likes of The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. 

Now this eloquent collection of essays celebrating old school woodsmanship is available as an E-book of all things. The book can now be read on electronic devices of every kind, though the device the longtime Canoe & Kayak columnist cherishes most is the canoe, which he paid homage to in his long-running column “Traditions" column for the magazine. With a new and updated third edition of his popular Canoeing Michigan Rivers: A Comprehensive Guide to 45 Rivers out this spring as well, we caught up with the prolific author and paddler for his thoughts on all things water and writing.

Eugene Buchanan: Tell us your history as a paddler and contributor to C&K. 
Jerry Dennis: I grew up on an inland lake in northern Michigan and learned to paddle at an early age. Starting at about age 10, I joined my father and his friends on fairly ambitious expeditions in northern Ontario. In college, in Marquette, Michigan, I started paddling a lot with my housemate, Craig Date, and a group of other friends. During one winter trip we came up with the idea of writing a paddling guide to the rivers of Michigan. I started writing for Canoe and Kayak (when it was called Canoe Magazine) in 1985, shortly before the first edition of Canoeing Michigan Rivers was released. I'm happy to say it has never been out of print. Last year Craig and I revisited all 45 rivers in the book and updated it for the third edition.

How long did your Traditions column run?
From 1990 to 2000. Near the end of the run, at the urging of my editor at St. Martin's Press, I expanded many of the columns and collected them in From a Wooden Canoe.

What are some of your favorite and most memorable columns?
Telling stories is always the most fun. The day and night Craig and I were lost on the Brule River in "Revenge of the Map." The long-john-wearing guy I watched hurtle through the side window of his pickup camper when a bear climbed inside with him in "All Hail the Union Suit." And "Dumb Moves," which is mostly about my own dumb moves.

How has the sport changed for you after 50 years of practice?
I've mellowed. If I think a rapids is a little above my ability, I'll portage it now. One of my favorite things these days is drifting with the current and watching birds and other wildlife. In my youth I was so impatient to see what lay beyond the next bend that I ended up missing a lot.

What's your take on the sport of canoeing – and paddling in general – today?
I'm deeply impressed with the technical mastery I see among paddlers of all kinds. I'm guessing they're getting good instruction at an early age – something that was rare when I was coming up. A few of my friends got some tips in Boy Scouts. The rest of us taught ourselves from books and magazines and lots of trial-and-error.

How do you balance work and play when your work is writing about the things you love?
It's a good problem, isn't it? After writing for a living for almost 30 years I've learned to recognize imbalance. Usually it's because I've spent too much time wrestling with sentences and not enough time on rivers and lakes. Luckily, the solution is simple.

How do paddlers' commitments change as we age, from simply going out to play to fighting to protect that world for our kids and grandkids?
That's an interesting question. I don't know if it's true for most people, but starting when we were in our forties many of my friends and I started looking at land and water differently than we did in our younger years. We went from the fun of being at play in the world to rolling up our sleeves and doing what we could to protect water and land for the future. It's simple, really. We want to make sure that our kids and their kids and all the kids in the future have clean and beautiful places in which to paddle, hike, fish, and camp. History suggests that they'll be inspired in turn to protect those places.

In one column, you mention that wooden canoes have a soul…can you explain?
I was being whimsical, of course, but there's a grain of truth in there somewhere. Wood was once a living thing, and some of the life remains in it even after it is cut and seasoned. Fine violins are still made of wood because nobody has found a synthetic material that can match its resonance. Is it soul? Depends how you define "soul," but as an old carpenter I can attest that working with wood is more rewarding than working with fiberglass and plastic. And, yes, I admit I contradict myself. In my garage are a pair of Royalex Mad Rivers trimmed beautifully with wood, but I don't own a wooden canoe.

Why should everyone get out and paddle a canoe?
Because it's good for our souls.

What do you like most about canoeing?
That moment when you push off from the bank and it feels like you're soaring. Getting close to water, wildlife, open sky, rollicking thunderstorms, and the people who appreciate such things. That when we paddle we're free, unlicensed, and self-propelled in an age when powerful forces want us to be obedient consumers lined up at cash registers. To hell with that. I want to get muddy and throw stuff. Paddling is rebellion!

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CLICK HERE to purchase the E-book. 





Smoke Gets In Your EyesThis excerpt from Jerry Dennis’s writings compiled into a book ‘From a Wooden Canoe’ discusses the importance between building a decent a decent fire and a great one.
Getting OutThis excerpt from Jerry Dennis’s writings compiled into a book ‘From a Wooden Canoe’ stresses the importance of exploring nature, even in not-so-comfortable times.