John J. Rowlands has entitled his introductory chapter “Portage to Contentment.” And that, no doubt, is what he wanted his readers to experience when they curled up with this memoir. Set deep in the woods of Ontario, with a narrative structure that moves from month to month, the author takes us through a calendar year spent on Cache Lake.
Rowlands treats his readers to history and lore, reflections and reminiscences. “With most things in life,” he writes, “I do not believe in looking backwards, but a hindsight when you are working through new country is sometimes the best way of getting ahead.” In fact it seems that the most practical way of getting ahead – and the way that might most appeal to readers at MIT – is to utilize those engineering skills you learned back in civilization. Perhaps this is what appealed to John Ely Burchard, the MIT alumnus, director of MIT Libraries, and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science to whom the author has inscribed this copy.
To be sure, Rowlands devotes a good deal of time to describing the improvised feats of engineering he performed while working through new country. He outlines his “scrap-pile radio,” which makes use of, among other things, tin foil, waxed paper, and a broken bottle. He describes his homemade underground refrigerator. He even shows us how to make a fishing rod out of a fencing foil … because after all, nobody heading into the backcountry would consider leaving his fencing foil at home.