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Wilderness traveler's journals are window into another world

Dec 21, 2017 01:51PM ● By Editor
This photograph, of lunch on the sands of Sand Pointe Lake during a Rainy River trip in 1910, typifies the hand-bound chronicles compiled in a new book called "Border Country."

By Dennis Anderson of the Star Tribune - December 20, 2017

Having fathered his last child when he was 79 years old, and still doing daily chin-ups when he was 90, Howard Greene, it can be fairly said, enjoyed a remarkable life.

Dennis Anderson COLUMN MUG

Dennis Anderson

Yet virility might not have been the most noteworthy trait of this Milwaukee businessman turned adventurer, who was born during the Civil War and died in 1956 at age 93.

Rather, the wilderness canoe excursions Greene led into northern Minnesota border country, and into the far reaches of northern Wisconsin between 1906 and 1916, are perhaps his most enduring achievements — not least because he kept detailed journals of the voyages, and because he toted along a cumbersome, large-format Graflex camera to record the expeditions photographically.

Now Martha Greene Phillips, his youngest descendant, in conjunction with the University of Minnesota Press, has published her father’s hand-bound chronicles, in the process providing a unique rendering of the elder Greene’s rough-and-tumble backwoods travels in a region that can at times seem impassable even now.

Greene’s journeys predated those of Minnesota expeditioners and writers Sigurd Olson and Calvin Rutstrum, and present a rare glimpse into an era in which recreational travel in the region was both uncommon and arduous.

Titled “Border Country,” the book records eight paddling exploits of Greene’s, each of which demanded months of planning, and in many instances required passage by train, horses and wagons, and steamship simply to reach the voyages’ jumping-off points.

The book includes 376 remarkable images captured by Greene with his Graflex, whose weight, bulk and slow shutter speed would have discouraged a less committed shutterbug.

“During that 10-year period, my dad traveled with a group he called ‘The Gang,’ “ Phillips said. “There was no question the trips were one of the highlights of his life. He had served during the Spanish-American War, and he learned then, I think, that he loved being with men, adventuring.”

Making up the gang on most of the excursions were three adult pals of Greene’s and some combination of Greene’s three sons and the sons’ friends. The boys ranged in age from 10 to 13 when the outings began.

A college graduate with an intellectual bent and an explorer’s curiosity, Howard Greene owned a successful wholesale drug business whose catalog featured a wide range of elixirs popular in the early 1900s, among them linseed oil and turpentine.But come summer every year, he headed for the bush. Perhaps he was inspired by Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1909 at age 50, having already spent two terms as the nation’s president, departed by steamer for a months long African safari.

Or perhaps he simply required respite from his otherwise work-a-day life; an interlude of challenge far from civilization.

“The journals themselves came about almost by accident,” his daughter said. “A son of his by his first wife he called ‘Howard T’ was supposed to be on the first trip, which was down the Wisconsin River. But the boy had become hospitalized with blood poisoning and couldn’t go, so Dad wrote daily letters to him, and partway through that trip had an ‘a-ha’ moment and realized that through the letters he had created a journal.”

Wilderness canoe jaunts today often are studies in high-tech gear that is lightweight, waterproof and durable.

Greene and his Gang bore no such conveniences. Their canoes were unwieldy 18- and 20-foot-long freighter-style models, built canvas over wood. Their clothing was made of wool and cotton, which often attracted rain, rather than repelling it. And their leaden canvas tents had no floors. Instead of protecting their inhabitants against summertime mosquito onslaughts, the primitive shelters often served as traps in which the pesky bugs could better target their victims.

Which is why Greene et al often slept in the open in their bedrolls, or woolen blankets.

“Sometime during the night rain began to fall, the roots of a fallen white pine tree began to blaze from the kitchen fire, and Fred had to get out three times to keep the fire from spreading over the island. The rain fell heavily, and by morning we were well soaked, and still the rain was falling. The nice soft beds of the night before sank under our weight, and each hollow slowly but quite surly filled up with cold rain water. It came faster than we could warm it up with the heat of our bodies.”

Greene’s travels occurred in many cases after loggers had swept through the north country, felling its tall pines. Consequently, they often encountered clear-cut forests, and sometimes bivouacked in abandoned logging shacks.

This was during a period when utilization of the nation’s natural resources was more of a concern than their conservation. Chicago had to be rebuilt after the great fire of 1871, and lumber was needed there and in many other cities and towns across the region and nation.

Another generation would pass before a fellow Midwesterner, Aldo Leopold, would galvanize broad support for land and water stewardship.

Yet for his time, few appreciated the natural world more than Greene. His eight wilderness undertakings chronicled in “Border Country” include:

  • Down the Wisconsin River, 1906. “This was to be our last day as free men,” Greene wrote at that trip’s end, “and no one cared to move out of camp and towards civilization.”
  • Down the St. Croix River, starting near Gordon, Wis., 1907.
  • Down the Presque Isle River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 1909. “The night was warm and the mosquitoes attended us in full force. We were all up and about at five and fought mosquitoes and flies until breakfast was ready.”
  • From the town of Winton, near Ely, to the town of Ranier, on Rainy Lake, 1910.
  • Along the “Dawson Trail,” from Atikokan, Ontario, to Ranier, 1911.
  • Along the Pigeon River on the North Shore, 1914.
  • From Tower, Minn., through Lake Vermilion, the Vermilion River and ultimately Namakan Lake to Rainy Lake, 1915.
  • Down Wisconsin’s Chippewa River, 1916.

Martha Greene Phillips was 13 when her father died at age 93 — too young, she said, to be regaled personally by him about his adventures.

Nor did Phillips’ mother, Carolyn Greene, who was 29 when Phillips was born, talk much about her husband’s adventures.

“The journals were always in our house. We knew they were special, but they were never handled much because they were fragile,” said Phillips, whose undergraduate degree is in philosophy, with a master’s in social work.

“I can’t recall exactly at what point I realized the journals needed to be shared,” she said, “but because I’m the living connection to them, I went from, ‘Someone should get these journals published,’ to ‘I should do it.’ 

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