Timothy J. Kent
Historical Author, Paddler, and Reenactor

 

 

 

 

 

Book Reviews

"For those of us with a hands-on historical bent, Tim Kent is something of a national treasure. The award-winning, maverick author of massive, deeply-researched books on such subjects as Michilimackinac, the early material culture of the French and native populations, and the history of the bark canoe, he has fi erce commitment to a certain style of historical research. Kent 's new book is of a piece with his previous titles: it is big (760 pages), massively researched, and indispensable for anyone with an interest in the fur trade, wilderness, or the idea that family still works.

Before each of the fift een summer voyages, Tim pored over early eye-witness accounts of the route, as well as reams of other early documentation. As a result, the text is chock full of references to the origins of old portage names, the con fi gurations of the waterways before some of them were dammed for hydro-electric power, and myriad details about how they were navigated two to four centuries ago. This alone makes the book an invaluable tool for anyone engaged in research on the fur trade.

It is also a very accessible adventure story. At the beginning, the Kents were not seasoned outdoorspersons, and their journey has a wonderfully Quixotic quality to it. It was on-the-job training with a steep learning curve, and the book describes this process with self-deprecating frankness and o ft en hilarious detail. By the time they had completed their odyssey, they could scout a rapids or read the sky for what the weather might bring like the voyageurs of old. But these were acquired skills, and their acquisition is an important part of the story. Rather than admiring the Kents from afar, as one does in tales of heroics on Mt. Everest , the reader fi nds himself a participant in the undertaking, which comes to seem eminently possible.

Finally, the narrative is a compelling account of a family. In a world where marriage and divorce seem to be running a dead heat, and parents and children apparently dwell in mutually exclusive universes, this long project became a shared mission uniting husband and wife and the generations in a common purpose. It was not always a smooth undertaking, and Doree has some wonderfully droll observations on the adventures. She also o ff ers some profound thoughts on the nature of the commitments people make to one another. By their own account, the journey gave the boys the opportunity to explore the complex business of becoming men. Paddling bow in a rapids on the French River , one of them describes the pride and responsibility of taking on a man's job for the fi rst time in a situation where it ma tt ered. At a time when we have legislated most of the risk out of adolescent lives, have we not lost something? How do young people fi nd their way into adult life without milestones such as these?

As a portrait of the highways of the fur trade, and an account of a remarkable personal adventure, this book succeeds very well indeed. And the DVD accompanying it is an invaluable addition. The pictures of the route provide the reader with a sense of the country which words cannot adequately convey. For scholars, it is an important visual reference for the famous landmarks contained in fi rst-hand narratives of New France and the Northwest Company. For teachers, the photographs o ff er instructional materials which provide students with a sense of the rugged terrain which dictated the nature of the Canadian fur trade for more than two centuries. For arm-chair adventurers, they convey the beauty, grandeur, and menace of the Canadian North. Finally, for those who have traveled parts of the route, the photos bring back memories of days lived intensely and never forgo tt en. Seeing these scenes again, set to the haunting chansons of the old canoemen, I thought of Pierre Radisson's description of the lure of the North, and like him, '...I did wish me in a canoe.'” - Claiborne Skinner, author of The Upper Country, French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes, and paddler on major sections of the mainline route

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"Tim Kent, one of the pre-eminent historians of the fur-trade era, has just released the latest in an impressive collection of fur-trade-related books he has researched, written, produced, and published. This one is again a most impressive creation. Not only because of its 760 pages, but also because it relates, in often minute detail, the experiences of his family of four as they canoed the 3,000 mile length of the mainline voyageur fur-trade route over the course of fifteen summers.

By themselves, the trip reports of the various stages make this a very valuable resource book for canoe trippers looking for interesting and useful information to enrich their paddling adventures. There are numerous insightful tips on the scenery, flora and fauna, geography, good camping spots, rapids, and falls, and much more such invaluable information. Eighteen simple but clear maps help the reader follow the adventurous family on their route. In addition, an extensive appendix presents much information on how the Kents did their canoe trips: canoe (17 ft; 69 lbs), equipment, garments, gear, organization, maps, foods, beverages.

However, this compelling book offers much more than a fine collection of day-by-day trip reports. Anyone interested in the fur trade will find reams of details that make these long-gone times come alive again. Not only active trippers but also non-paddling armchair travelers will surely enjoy this important, entertaining book written in a pleasant, easy-to-read personal style. As with Kent 's other books, the research behind this project has been thorough, meticulous, and extensive, and an excellent, detailed index is provided to help tap this font of knowledge. The book also comes with a DVD illustrating the enjoyment and dedication of the four travelers, especially the two boys, of course." -Toni Harting, author of French River , Canoeing the River of the Stick-Wavers, and editor of Nastawgan, Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association

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"If canoes have ever crossed your path in life, be it as a modern paddler or a history fanatic of the fur trade, this book will inspire you, entertain you, and educate you. It offers a canoe load of historical references teamed up with enjoyable personal reflections, from an enduring and ambitious project. I very much enjoyed the fur trade history that is sprinkled throughout the volume, such as Tim's pairing of certain falls and natural features with descriptive quotes from various early journals. As for modern paddlers, if anyone is traveling by canoe along the mainline route, they owe it to themselves to read this book. At the very least, they can find out where to get burgers, chicken, or poutine en route. (With four chances along the way to consume poutine, I figure it's poutine every 750 miles; get that down to 500, and I might even be inspired to paddle this route myself.)

I found myself engrossed in following the growth of Kevin and Ben from boys to men, and the development of their physical endurance and paddling skills. This comes through very clearly in the book. While reading it, I also pictured Tim during his “peanut butter nights” quietly and solitarily reflecting on the past, as well as on the present job at hand, during serene hours of the night or early morn. Times like those, when one is all alone, often are remembered fondly. Then again, some memories, unexpected and not glamorous, are also remembered for a long time, such as Tim's experience with the open safety pin in the crotch of his pants while running a wild rapids. I did joke with my wife during my reading that, on those trips that Tim needed to keep up his chops, it was a good thing he played the trumpet, and not kettle drums or stand-up bass. In those cases, only a canot du maitre would have worked. I also found myself totally enthralled with the music on the DVD; Lilianne Labbé is such a treat.

Many readers, upon finishing this Kent family trip-book, reveling in the armchair adventures without the black flies or mosquitoes, will undoubtedly have the urge to paddle a canoe or research the fur trade. This volume and its accompanying DVD will turn the modern canoeist into a historian and the historian urgently into a paddler. "- Karl Koster, fur trade researcher, author, consultant, and park ranger at Grand Portage National Monument

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"Timothy Kent's latest labor of love combines a search for his historical roots with the heavy-duty challenges of an outdoor adventure of epic scale. This story of the Kent family's traverse of 3,000 miles from Montreal to Lake Athabasca is a remarkable saga of personal discovery, as they forged far beyond the bounds of comfort and security. The natural world of northern lakes and rivers takes center stage as the members of the family absorb the skills of paddling, portaging, and life in the wild during their journey's fifteen stages. The book and DVD chronicle in great detail their personal encounters with lands and waters populated by modern-day Canadians of all enthnic backgrounds, as well as the spirits of myriad French colonists, including many of Kent 's own ancestors, who served as their guides to the numerous sites of early forts, Native American villages, and natural landmarks along the way. This is a masterwork of a master historian and storyteller." -Gregory Waselkov, author and archaeologist at Ft. Toulouse , Old Mobile, and other early French sites in the Gulf Coast colony of Louisiane
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"This book certainly offers a tale that sheds light on the past as well as the present. While few readers will ever have the time, the energy, or the courage to retrace such a route as the Kent family has done, at least they can share the many moods of the country, the vagaries of nature that the family encountered, and the changes that man has wrought on some portions of the voyageur highway. I particularly liked the insertion of Doree's many comments throughout the book, as we do not often have the opportunity to read the distaff side of canoe trips. Tim did a remarkable job of keeping very detailed notes while on the various segments of the route, in order to be able to put together such a complete narrative as he has created. During challenging voyages, this recording of details takes great dedication and effort, and the book is proof of his success at it. I also loved reading the thought-provoking quotes at the head of each chapter! I realize many readers will just pass over them to get into the text, but they add a note of something I am having a difficult time finding words for. A nice touch!"- Ralph Frese, premier canoe designer and historian, Chicagoland Canoe Base

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"The Complete Wilderness Paddler on steroids! This is an epic project powered by the same passion and perseverance that Tim Kent has demonstrated in all of his other books. Part family narrative about growing up and getting along on the trail, part how-to (with travel tips and recipes), and all of it authentic and accurate, based on a lifetime of remarkable research and on a quarter-century of direct experience in a continuum of places on the Voyageur Highway that few modern paddlers ever see. The intermingling of descriptions, place names, paddling narrative, and historic lore is totally unique, totally Tim Kent!"-James Raffan, Executive Director of the Canadian Canoe Museum , and prolific author on various aspects of canoeing in Canada

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"Cross-continental canoe travel is an extreme form of heritage tourism that is little promoted by travel agents. It is not for the timid or the unprepared. In his new book and companion DVD, noted fur trade historian and adventurer Timothy Kent takes us on a remarkable journey into the past. Tim's passion for research and his love for his wife Doree and sons Kevin and Ben shine throughout this detailed account of how this Modern-Day Voyageur Family conquered the old fur-trade mainline canoe route across Canada and the Great Lakes in a series of annual trips, each well planned and wild enough to make the reader wish they could have gone along."- Douglas Birk, Institute for Minnesota Archaeology, author and archaeologist at Grand Portage , Ft. Charlotte and other fur trade era sites

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"I am deeply impressed with Tim Kent's latest production, a work of great substance which required massive amounts of energy and effort in its creation. I have the highest respect and admiration for all of the research and the publications that Tim has produced over the years, and I highly commend him on his numerous achievements."- David Armour, retired Deputy Director and Historian, Mackinac State Historic Parks

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In order to fully appreciate the hardships of life on the main fur trade canoe route, the first international commercial operation on the continent of North America , one has to live the experience. Timothy Kent, a renowned independent historian based in Ossineke , Michigan , did just that. Kent 's latest work presents a detailed account of his canoe trips over fifteen years, during which he and his family traveled the main fur trade canoe route across Canada and the United States . Inspired by the style of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century journals of actors in the fur trade society, Kent provides a privileged account of his experiences during his efforts to acquireknowledge that is not typically available to historians or to outdoors enthusiasts.

Kent methodically recounts in chronological order the preparations and the realization of his many voyages, demonstrating through eighteen chapters the joys and the hardships of such an endeavor. Using a writing style that mimics that of popular history, Kent enriches his experiences by providing a historical narrative and a raison-d'etre for the areas that were visited. He presents a modern-day outlook on the difficulties and joys of canoeing as a mode of transportation, while honoring its rich history andthe  influences that have reached many generations. The preparations for each segment of the trip involved months of historical and geographical research, and required physical and psychological conditioning so that he and his family could sustain the duress of the travel experiences.

What sets Kent apart from canoe fanatics or outdoorsmen is his profound attachment to history, and his use of it to promote the many faces of fur trade society. The historical contributions that are made by linking Kent 's French and French Canadian ancestors to his contemporary activity deeply enrich the account of his canoe tripping adventures. By providing the reader with such insight, Kent acknowledges both the important role of Francophone individuals and their contributions to the history of North America . Francophone cultures in North America are present and very active in his monograph. Furthermore, it is important to note that Kent pays equal tribute to Native and Metis populations interspersed within the accounts of his travels, thus making his partly autobiographical work accessible and interesting to a broad audience.

Finally, to supplement the content of the book, Kent also produced a DVD video containing over three hundred images from his trips, put to orchestral and traditional French Canadian music. This additional product is a vital component of the experience, which enhances the reader's ability to understand the temporal and geographical scope of the years of adventure presented in Kent 's work. The DVD offers the reader the ability to see some of the landmarks that were visited by the Kent family during their many voyages. The DVD is user-friendly, and an interesting addition to the account of the paddling adventures comprising the book.

Kent 's latest narrative is a fitting title on the shelves of fur trade, military, and French colonial historians and enthusiasts alike. It may even inspire them to leave the comfort of their own work and pick up a paddle.

   -Le Journal, Center for French Colonial Studies

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This is not a resource we read for muzzleloading information; but for anyone who enjoys canoes and wilderness travel, it should not be underestimated. This book is a combination of fur trade history and modern adventure. Tim Kent is a good writer who can make you feel like you are part of the trip. The photography on the DVD is very fine – and the author and some friends perform the musical accompaniment very competently. The book, the DVD, and the rugged paddling trips behind them constitute a huge accomplishment made accessible to all.

    -Muzzle Blasts, Muzzle Loading Rifle Association

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This one is a doozie. I'm having a ball following you and your family on the voyageur trail. Bravo for doing it, and for writing it so that all of us can have the vicarious thrill!

    -Harriet Berg, founder and director of the Mme. Cadillac Dancers

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Tim has a great style. We get lots of history in just the right size bites, and he plants the clues to upcoming action at just the right time.

    -Sonya Titus, actress, drama coach,college and high school teacher

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The book and DVD are very interesting. I love the fact that they are about family togetherness.
- Jenny Kruger, widow of Verlen Kruger, long-distance paddler supreme

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Tim has done a terrific job of recreating the routes and the daily experiences of the voyageurs, including his own ancestors. This is the kind of fine, detailed work that I love, a mix of historiography and anthropology in many ways.

      -Rex Hauser, Writer Services