Review: Voyageur by Robert Twigger

Voyageur: Across the Rocky Mountains in a Birchbark Canoe
Robert Twigger

Excerpt from the book:

What put off most modern canoeists was that the journey went over a mountain range. And to climb that range meant paddling over a thousand miles against the current, largely along the inaccurately named Peace River. Against a current that could be wickedly powerful.

Mackenzie wrote of the Peace: ‘It was with the utmost difficulties that we could prevent the canoe from being dashed to pieces against the rocks by the violence of the eddies – the river above us, as far as we could see, was one white sheet of foaming water.’

Another internet buddy was briefer. ‘Do you want to drown? Because you will.’

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Fifteen years before Lewis and Clark, Alexander Mackenzie tried to open up a trade route between Lake Athabasca in central northern Canada and the Pacific Ocean. Mackenzie travelled by bark canoe aided only by harsh-living backwoodsmen, a crew of Canadian voyageurs (men employed to transport goods between trading posts) and a cache of rum.

Two hundred years later, and several years after completing his successful debut travelogue ‘Angry White Pajamas’, Robert Twigger realised his soul was in trouble. He had a good family life, living on the edge of Oxford with a reliable Japanese car parked in his drive and a fistful of unpaid bills on his exquisite pine-block kitchen table. At night he would relieve himself caveman-style in his back garden and try to recognise stars in the night sky through the sodium haze of street lights. But this was not enough for him.

Twigger had dreams – literally – of paddling a canoe in a vast mirror of a lake wearing a buckskin jacket, and decided to realise those dreams before it was too late. If he were to follow in Mackenzie’s footsteps – in a journey lasting over three years and two thousand miles – could he then renew his acquaintance with that primal part of man? The poet-hunter, who sniffs the air like a dog and understands his place in the scheme of things like every adult man should?

Voyageur describes Twigger’s three year mission to build his own birchbark canoe by traditional means, put together a ragged crew of adventurers comprising seasoned travellers bought off the internet, weed-loving tree planters and a former US navy sailor, and complete Mackenzie’s route. It won’t be giving the game away to say that Twigger’s group succeeded – and were the first to do so since 1793 – but it was at the cost of pride, romantic notions of grandeur and a thumb.

Robert Twigger is an English poet, and he’s not afraid to search for himself on the inside – but what good is self-indulgent internal rummaging to a travel reader? Any poet can rummage. Twigger takes pains to go the extra mile as a writer and traveller by periodically undergoing torturous physical hardships (read: adventures) and creating travel diaries from his hardships that will make the reader feel glad they’ve had a chance to discover Twigger almost before he’s discovered himself.

Twigger is so interested in himself that it stands to reason that he’s equally interested in man and his environment in general. Whether he’s rebuilding his birchbark canoe in torrential downpour, appeasing Japanese gangsters by appealing to their love of reggae or tittle-tatttling about the people he’s travelling with, Twigger says what he has to say in an entertaining, at times superhumanly well-written and above all honest voice. And be thankful as a reader that Twigger doesn’t lie! Travel writing attracts huge egos and Twigger is determined to sidestep his own and tell a well-rounded tale, revealing his failings as well as those of the people around him.

Voyageur is a rewarding, involving book. Crew relationships, the difficulty of living in bleak Canadian backwaters and the desolate glory of the Rocky Mountains are all presented in a way that will make the reader look up from the page they’ve just turned with a new perspective. In fact, Twigger’s writing – and his turn of mind – are always excellent.

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