Books: Tilikum, Luxton's Pacific Crossing

Foreword to the Second Edition


By Harvey Locke
Cambridge, Massachusetts
February, 2002

My initial contact with this great Canadian adventure story was inauspicious. I was twelve years old when the first edition of this book came out, and I remember it well. I had been dragged from our home in Calgary to Aunt Eleanor’s book launch. It was a small gathering in the lower level of the Archives of the Canadian Rockies facing the Bow River, in Banff. I wasn’t very interested. Aunt Eleanor was a bit like Miss Havisham to me. A for mal, dark-haired woman, damaged but not broken by multiple scle rosis, she smoked cigarettes from a long black cigarette holder, behind whose smoke was a piercing gaze. She did not suffer clumsy little boys gladly.

Tilikum, Luxton's Pacific Crossing

I survived the book launch, but found it formal and boring. What was the big deal about a canoe trip on the Pacific? My mother told me to read the book. She said it was a story to match Kon Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s well-known tale of a papyrus raft sailing trip. Of course I didn’t read it. A book about Aunt Eleanor’s father, a distant relative who published a small newspaper in Banff, just didn’t capture my imagination.

Thirty years later, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found myself looking for a book to take on a canoe trip down the Thelon River in the wilderness of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. My eyes strayed to Luxton’s Pacific Crossing. My interest in family had grown considerably since Aunt Eleanor’s book launch, as had my understanding of the remarkable Luxtons. So, in the wilds of the Canadian Arctic, I began to read Norman Luxton’s account of his canoe voyage with a man named Voss. I couldn’t put it down. But I still wondered: was it as significant an event in a global con text—this crossing of the Pacific by dugout canoe—as the fore word by George Stanley and introduction by Eleanor Luxton made it out to be?

Sitting around the campfire one night, I happened to mention the Tilikum. John Jennings, one of my companions on the trip, exploded:

“The Tilikum is one of the most famous canoes in the world! Its voy age is clearly the longest canoe voyage in history!” (He pointed out that the Tilikum was sailed not paddled.) Jennings ought to know. He is the vice chair of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, and editor of The Canoe in Canadian Cultures. Another companion, Peter Allen, knew of its significance, too. A passionate sailor from Toronto, he knew all about the Tilikum’s famous captain, John Claus Voss, who along with Joshua Slocum was one of the leg endary mariners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But neither man knew much about Norman Luxton—the mate of the Tilikum—or knew this book existed.

Norman Luxton was the son of the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. Born in 1876, he was among the first western Canadians to come from a leisure class who had the time to learn to write well. He also had the financial ability and class inclination to be an adven turer for the sake of the exploration rather than an explorer for com mercial purposes. He was a literate young man in an era of great romantic adventurers like Stanley and Livingston in Africa and Theodore Roosevelt in the tropics and the American west. Norman Luxton caught the bug of his times.

He voyaged on the great inland sea of Lake Winnipeg in a York boat (a twelve-metre open watercraft used in the fur trade). He canoed from British Columbia to Lake Ontario. He moved from the metropolis of Winnipeg to the frontier town of Calgary, where he worked as a young journalist at the Calgary Herald for eight years.

But Calgary couldn’t hold Norman. He moved on to Vancouver and worked as a journalist there—and it was in a bar in that seaport town that he met Captain John Claus Voss, an accomplished sea man, who bragged that he was a greater sailor than Joshua Slocum. Slocum had achieved great fame by sailing around the world in a tiny yawl, the Spray. Voss claimed that he could best Slocum by sailing around the world in an even smaller vessel. On a spring night in 1901, Luxton dared Voss to prove his bravado, laying $5,000 and his life on it. He said he’d give Voss half that amount if he took Luxton along and they crossed all three oceans. Luxton would also write about the voyage and give half of the proceeds to Voss.

With Luxton’s money, Voss bought a cedar dugout canoe from a Salish Indian, outfitted it, and the two set off. Ten thousand kilometres and six months later, Luxton was a broken man in a Suva, Fiji, sick bed. He and Voss had crossed the Pacific Ocean together in a dugout canoe, but had nearly killed each other out of mutual hatred along the way.

But I won’t spoil the story—a story almost never told from Luxton’s point of view. Voss, whose continuing voyage became very famous, published his account in The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss many years later. This infuriated Luxton, and in 1926, he wrote his own version and gave it to his daughter, Eleanor. Seventy years after the fateful voyage, she published it under the title Luxton’s Pacific Crossing.

Without Eleanor Luxton, this great adventure story would be lost to Canadians. She was a remarkable person. She became a professional engineer in 194Os—at a time when that sort of thing just wasn’t done by women—and got a job designing locomotives for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It’s hard to know what she could have accomplished had she lived without the burden of multiple sclerosis. But even this disease did not defeat her. She fought it for almost fifty years, wrote Banff Canada’s First National Park, saw to the publishing of Luxton’s Pacific Crossing, and made provisions for the upkeep of the Tilikum in Victoria. It is now permanently dis played on the main floor of the Royal Canadian Maritime Museum of British Columbia, which also republished The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss in 1976.

Eleanor also left a sizeable estate to create the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation. The Foundation preserves the Luxton resi dences on Beaver Street in Banff for public tours and makes grants to support work on western Canadian history connected to the Banff area. Through the Archives of the Canadian Rockies (operated by The Peter and Catherine Whyte Foundation), the Luxton Foundation has also made Norman Luxton’s papers available to researchers. Together with Anna Porter of Key Porter Books, the Luxton Foundation has made possible the re-publication of this epic story of one of the great canoe adventures of all time.

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