Before Sigurd Olson, and before Calvin Rutstrum, there was Howard Greene.

Camp scene from 1915 at Lake Vermillion, in the mist.

Because there is a difference between the history we know and the stories we keep, the experience of this book is magical.

from the Foreword to Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906–1916.
Over the course of ten years, Milwaukee businessman Howard Greene, along with his young sons and some friends, would take several month-long journeys to canoe and camp in the north woods of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada. The first journey was in 1906. Here is an anecdote, written by Martha Greene Phillips (daughter of Howard Greene), about one of The Gang’s last epic trips.


Tower, Minnesota, on Lake Vermillion, was the put-in point for The Gang’s penultimate canoe trip. The trip began on August 14, 1915, with camp the first night at Hoodoo Point. They began the next day’s paddle in rough weather, and when they finally landed for the night, they realized a pair of problems. Their canoes were overloaded, and one of the hired men wanted to quit. Dad returned to Tower the next morning to buy birchbark and to hire a new man.

Dad, middle-aged and balding, with a trim mustache, and still neatly dressed in his fairly fresh camp clothing, would have quickly been noted as an outsider in Tower. He inquired about town, and after hearing of a person he might want to hire, approached Merrill, a clean-cut man of fifty, who had worked as a timber cruiser.

Merrill hesitated.

“Are you a tenderfoot or not?”

Dad replied that he “didn’t know but that I had been in the woods somewhat and that he might consider me a tender-foot but that I thought I could take of myself under ordinary circumstances.”

Merrill asked:

“Have you been in these woods before?”

Dad told him he had gone from Ely to Ranier and from Windidgoostigwan, Ontario, to Ranier.

Merrill negotiated a $4-per-day wage, and shortly after, met Dad at the landing with a pack on his back.

Dad was a Milwaukee businessman, yet chose not to stay in a lodge or to find one of the few guides operating in the Northwoods for his trips. He had field experience during the Spanish–American War, had spent time in the country as a child and young man, and had extensive knowledge of nature. His travel partners, the Doc, Billy Mac, and Bill, were each knowledgeable and experienced outdoorsmen. They knew how to outfit their own trips, which was no small feat during those years. The men they hired were there to help in camp, and often had less knowledge of the proposed itinerary and conditions than the campers.

Howard Greene.

Dad’s descriptions of their apparently effortless planning and outfitting for their trips belie what they had to know and how much preparation went into their trips.A look at the customs documents listing the “Camp Outfit for 1911” tells much more detail about how they camped and canoed in the early 1900’s, and how different it was then. Now people enter a designated wilderness carrying maps, guidebooks, outfitter-supplied convenience foods, Kevlar canoes, pop-up nylon tents, and wearing fleece and Gore-Tex clothing to meet whatever weather conditions one encounters.

What did a group of men take along for four weeks in the woods in 1915? They took their wood and canvas guide canoes; extra paddles for each; white lead and shellac for repairs; large canvas amazon, or “A,” tents; 5 1/2 x 8-foot ground cloths; ropes; and poles. They carried pack straps, axes, rifles, provision bags, canvas buckets, a sewing outfit, “doctor shop,” twine, leather conditioner, and a repair kit that included “tools, wire, nails, cloth, screws, tacks, etc.”

The men carried bedrolls made up of wool blankets; their pillows were rolled-up clothing. Dad used his rough gray wool Hudson’s Bay blankets from his Spanish–American War years. Included in the commissary were such provisions as yeast and 100 pounds of flour and other baking ingredients, all so that they could bake bread in camp along the way; a case of evaporated milk; 30 pounds of bacon; many pounds of “dehydro” vegetables and fruits; several dozens of cans of tinned meats, such as deviled ham, sardines, and corned beef; dried beans; and a case of pilot bread, spices, sugar, corn meal, breakfast cereals, candles, and clothesline. The list is quite detailed and extensive, the amounts staggering. Most interesting of all, the lists included foods now a mystery to most of us, like Erbswurst.

Erbswurst, a dried vegetable-and-bean packed sausage casing, dates to the Franco-Prussian War, when it was a protein-packed ration for the soldiers. Later, when in use by outdoorsmen, it was nicknamed “dynamite soup” because of the sausages’ semblance to sticks of dynamite.

Beyond the provisions and supplies that comprised their “outfit,” the Gang had their own personal “tool kits” of survival skills that they had developed over years of experience in the outdoors. Doc was the master canoe patcher, while Dad led the group in orienting and trail reading skills. Each knew how to cook in camp, how to pack through a portage, and how to “rope” a canoe through rapids.

On one of the Gang’s earlier trips, Dad taught one of the hired men how to rope a canoe down a rapids – the man was apparently tickled to learn this skill, a new one even though he had already been in the woods for years.

Before each trip, the men created their own route maps based on USGS survey maps, many of which they later found to lack clear or accurate details and place names. When they came across a new and interesting feature in the landscape it was not something they recognized from a guidebook. The petroglyphs they encountered were a complete mystery and surprise; coming across the petroglyphs is now, to a modern traveler, a powerful experience – I can only imagine what Dad and the Gang must have thought as they saw them and began to puzzle them out.

Along all the rivers and lakes they paddled, the Gang appreciated much of the natural history they encountered. Dad was well schooled in geology, due to his having grown up with a father who was an expert amateur geologist and fossil collector. Doc was the quintessential naturalist, with an excellent sense of flora and fauna. Billy Mac and Bill were well-versed in natural science and in outdoors skills. The Gang brought a pretty full complement of knowledge and skills to each trip.

While they may have been Milwaukee businessmen, they were not amateur outdoorsmen.


Martha Greene Phillips spent several years researching her father’s canoeing and camping adventures and editing and annotating his journals of those trips for Border Country: The Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906–1916. She is also the author of The Floating Boathouses on the Upper Mississippi River and lives near Madison, Wisconsin.

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