June 26 is National Canoe Day and I thought I would take a quick look at Prisoners of War and Canoes in Canada during the Second World War.
Prisoners of War in Canada spent the early war years in internment camps behind barbed wire but this changed when the Canadian government approved their employment in May 1943. Over the next three years, thousands of POWs were sent out to woodcutting camps across the country, most in Ontario but with some in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec. Logging in the 1940s relied on water to move logs so most camps next to lakes and rivers. Bush camps were remote, had no fences, and had limited opportunities for recreation, so POWs turned to their surroundings to help pass the time. The result: POWs started building canoes.
After seeing a photo of a birch-bark canoe on the cover of a magazine, POWs working in the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (now more commonly known as the Whitewater Lake POW camp) in Riding Mountain National Park wanted to build their own but, lacking the skills, instead crafted dugout canoes. They built a small fleet and sailed their canoes (some seen below) around Whitewater Lake.
POWs in other camps even ordered boat kits and folding boats from the Eatons and other mail-order catalogues. Kayaks built by POWs near Kenora were used to paddle around Lake of the Woods and were even raced in small regattas. Some employers also allowed POWs to make use of company canoes or boats and it took little time before sizeable fleets could be found at many bush camps. Although most POWs loved canoeing, inexperience and unstable craft took its toll. Four POWs drowned in boating accidents between May-June 44, leading to a temporary ban on boating. This was lifted after authorities believed the ban would likely result in POWs refusing to work.
When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them. But before a group of POWs left their #Kenora-area camp, they offered 10 POW canoes to the local YMCA camp on Lake of the Woods (likely Camp Stephens) in appreciation of the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA’s wartime relief work. It is unclear whether the canoes made it to the camp but the rest of POW canoes across the country were left behind. Exposed to the elements, the last 75 years have not been kind. This is one of canoes near Whitewater Lake in Riding Mountain National Park I photographed in 2010.
Fortunately, some have survived. Two canoes from Riding Mountain National Park were removed from the site in the 1970s and are now in the collection of the Fort Dauphin Museum (Dauphin, Manitoba) while another dugout canoe from a camp in Northern Ontario is in the care of the Thunder Bay Museum (Thunder Bay, Ontario). A kanu-style kayak (seen below), is also in the collection of the Canadian Canoe Museum (Peterborough, Ontario). This vessel is believed to be from a bush camp near Longlac, Ontario and was removed from the camp sometime after it was abandoned.
If anyone has any stories or photos about POW canoes and kayaks, please comment below or send me a message!
On November 1, 1943 – 75 years ago – newspapers across the country announced a mass escape from a POW camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park.
On October 31, 1943 – only five days after their arrival – nineteen German Prisoners of War (POWs) were found missing from the newly completed camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. With no barbed wire fences or guard towers surrounding the camp, the POWs had been allowed to roam within the camp camp area while not at work but the nineteen men failed to appear at the evening roll call. As guards scrambled to find the missing men, the camp commandant notified local police and military authorities to help in what was billed as the second largest mass escape of POWs in the country.
Meanwhile, the nineteen men had no idea they were considered escapees. Having left the camp that afternoon, the group had only intended on going for a hike to explore their new surroundings. Unfamiliar with the terrain – and the weather – the POWs had left camp in their army uniforms and had taken no provisions. Following the old logging roads and game trails that dotted the area, the POWs soon became lost. Snow began to fall, and the storm escalated to a blizzard, covering all trails and tracks. Realizing their predicament, the POWs settled down for the night.
Back at camp, local RCMP officers arrived to assist in the search while all detachments surrounding the park were put on alert. Camp authorities also notified Brandon and Winnipeg City Police as well as Border and Rail police to be on the lookout for the missing men. Patrols of guards and police officers were dispatched around the camp but were unsuccessful in locating the POWs that night.
In the early morning, the POWs – cold and hungry – decided to try find their way back to the camp in small groups, a task that some succeeded. The first POWs wandered back into camp that morning and were immediately taken into custody. By the end of the day, all of the missing POWs had returned to camp on their own accord or had been found by patrols. Questioned individually, each POW emphatically stated they had not tried to escape but had simply gotten lost while hiking. Camp authorities eventually believed their stories and threatened reprisals against any POWs who considered leaving camp boundaries again. However, the RCMP leading the investigation suspected the POWs may not have tried to escape this time but were instead conducting a reconnaissance of the area for a future escape.
As the POWs returned to work the following day, the matter seemed closed. However, the camp interpreter did have to dissuade the other POWs in camp from beating their nineteen comrades in a misguided attempt to show how much they valued the opportunity to work in the camp.
While the papers continued to claim it was the second largest POW escape in Canada (the largest haven taken place at Angler in April 1941), all evidence suggests they were telling the truth and had gotten lost. I was fortunate to correspond with one of the 19 men who, seventy years later, assured me he had never tried – or considered – escaping for he greatly appreciated the opportunity to live and work in the relative freedom of Riding Mountain National Park.
Today (June 26) marks National Canoe Day so what better way to celebrate than a post on PoW-made canoes!
In May 1943, the Canadian government approved the use of prisoner of war labour to help boost the struggling lumber and agricultural industries. From 1943 to 1946, thousands of German PoWs, Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS), and civilian internees were employed in almost 300 labour projects and farm hostels across the country. The opportunity to work came with increased freedom as remote bush camps had no barbed wire fences or guard towers to contain PoWs. Many of these PoWs turned to their natural surroundings for recreation and hiking, swimming, and boating soon became some of the more popular ways to spend free time.
The camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, known today as the Whitewater PoW camp, opened in October 1943 with the arrival of 440 PoWs from Camp 132 (Medicine Hat). Located on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs spent their winter working, hiking around the camp, skating on the frozen lake, or reading, but when the lake thawed in the spring, enterprising PoWs turned their attention to building canoes. Apparently the idea for building a canoe came from a Canadian magazine circulating through camp that featured a birch-bark canoe on the cover.
Lacking the skills to build such an intricate craft, the PoWs instead turned to the large spruce trees scattered around the camp. Although the Park warden had told them to save the spruce trees, some were not spared the axe. With these huge logs, groups of PoWs started carving out dugout canoes. Measuring between twelve and sixteen feet in length, the PoWs built one and two-man versions, launching them in the creek that ran along the camp’s southern boundary. The guards and camp commandant permitted PoWs to paddle on Whitewater Lake so long as they stayed away from the shoreline and returned before roll call. Eventually a small fleet of these canoes lined the creek shoreline but not ever PoW took up canoeing for a hobby. One former PoW recalled the canoes were not particularly stable and after falling in the water a number of times, he gave his away to one of his comrades.
Riding Mountain was not the only camp to have canoes. With logging camps scattered across Northern, Ontario, and many situated on lakes or rivers, dugout canoes and more advanced boats appeared throughout the region. But relatively unfamiliar with canoeing and boating on open lakes, a few PoWs drowned and orders from Ottawa restricted canoeing at all camps. At Riding Mountain, the commandant restricted access to those only under the direct supervision of a guard but was eventually prohibited.
When the PoWs left these camps, their canoes remained. Some of them were taken by locals for their own use or as water troughs but most sat where they had been left. Storms and rising water levels carried many away while nature claimed those left behind.
Some of the canoes made at Riding Mountain were still floating in the creek thirty years after the last PoWs left the camp. Two were pulled from the creek and taken to the Fort Dauphin Museum for preservation where they remain to this day. But if you look closely along the creek today, you can still find the remains of one canoe near the creek and others scattered in the reeds. However, every year I revisit the site, they get harder and harder to find.
This post is long overdue but better late than never!
About a year-and-a-half ago, I started using iGIS, an iOS app that allows you to visualize geospatial data on your mobile device. My Professor, Josh MacFadyen, had demonstrated the possibilities of this app in our digital history class and I was eager to find ways to apply it to my own research. I had fiddled around with the app outside of class – see my post here – but didn’t have a chance to test it in the field.
In late summer, I finally had a chance to put it to the test. Using maps and aerial photographs I had georeferenced and converted, I uploaded my files to both my iPhone and an iPad and set off. Now the PoW camp I was visiting is somewhat remote – the nearest cellular signal was ten kilometers away and, needless to say, there was no wi-fi. Not sure how the program would work just using the devices’ internal GPS, I pre-loaded the satellite imagery (from Google) – a handy feature when you are in the bush – which would let me compare the historic imagery and maps with what the site looks like today.
An hour by bike and I was at the site. I pulled out my phone and was pleasantly surprised to find that my phone’s internal GPS was accurate enough to show my location. As you can see from the image below, there are only a few signs hinting at the site’s history – all the more reason to find new technologies to fill in the gaps. The rectangular shape to the upper right of my position is the foundation of the camp’s powerhouse.
Things kept getting better for I discovered that the iPad worked as well – I was surprised for I wasn’t entirely sure that the iPad I was using had an internal GPS to begin with!
Having thrown in an aerial photograph from 1949 (above) and a forest inventory map from the 1930s (below) and I was in business! Adding a layer to show the physical layout of the camp as it appeared from 1943-1945 helped visualize the site and pinpoint some of the camp’s buildings and locations of interest.
While this is fantastic for my own research – I was able to identify tree stands cut by PoWs and see how the area has in some cases recovered or in others changed – it has important applications for public history as well. That same week, I led an interpretive PoW wagon tour, taking thirty people out to the site. As part of the tour, we provide visitors with a guidebook listing the buildings and explaining the history. Along with this we include a traditional map showing the layout of the site. While some of the footprints of the former buildings are visible if you look closely, it isn’t always easy to visualize the camp’s layout. However, with me leading a tour with an iPad, visitors were able to see exactly where they were standing in relation to the camp’s layout in the 1940s. Combining this with historic photos of the site and screenshots from my 3D model, visualizing the site became a whole lot easier!
That same week I visited the former PoW camp near Mafeking, Manitoba with the Beranek family, whose father/grandfather worked there in the latter war years. As I had only been to the site once before and was therefore much less familiar with this camp’s history than Riding Mountain, I relied pretty heavily on iGIS and an aerial photo to orient myself. I was also able to add the GPS waypoints I had taken on my handheld GPS the year before, seen as yellow dots in the image below.
Needles to say, using geospatial data on a mobile device opens up a realm of possibilities for both studying and sharing the past. While my use of the app and sources were fairly basic, I was able to visualize the site’s history, explore areas that I may have otherwise overlooked, and use non-traditional sources to better understand the relationship between history and the environment. Combining this with the ability to allow visitors to interact with landscape in new ways and let them explore on their own terms, I am eager to see how historians can use these technologies in the future.
With a major research trip (and some field work) planned for the summer, you can bet I’ll be bringing iGIS to help me explore and share the history of PoWs in Canada.
Bear with me for a bit of shameless self-promotion!
Friends of Riding Mountain National Park (and myself) are pleased to announce the return of the “From North Africa to the North Woods” Interpretive PoW Wagon Tour!
In Riding Mountain National Park this September Long Weekend? Why not take a tour to PoW Camp! Loaded onto four wagons, visitors become new prisoners heading out to the former site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (also known as the Whitewater Lake PoW Camp) under the strict supervision of the guards. Learn what life was like at the camp as the guards and prisoners (interpretative staff) bring history to life through stories and photographs. Once at the camp, enjoy a traditional German meal, similar to that served to the prisoners at the worksites. After lunch, explore the site of the former camp with the aid of a GPS and myself. This year will also bring some new technology to the tour as I hope to be showing off some of my GIS and 3D modelling research in the field! Through the use of mobile devices, visitors will be able to see the spot they are standing as it appeared over seventy years ago!
Tour date is August 31.
Tickets are $62.00 each or $55.80 for Friends members and are available at the Nature Shop (RMNP Visitor Centre) or by calling (204) 848-4037. Tickets are already selling and they will fill up a few weeks in advance!
For more information, please visit the Friends of Riding Mountain National Park’s website.
This may be one of the last times the tour runs so if you have been holding off on it, now is the time to do it! It is a blast!
Bit of a delay since my last post, my apologies! As I get back into the swing of things, I hope my posts become a bit more regular.
Just a quick post today – a short video showing off my project for the Interactive Exhibit Design. Fellow PhD Candidate Steve Marti recorded and produced a series of videos showing off the class projects. Here’s mine:
Be sure to check out my classmate’s projects by clicking here (and scrolling to the bottom).
Having presented our exhibits to the class this past Wednesday, we were asked to provide a brief reflection on our projects. While I was happy with how it turned out, there are definitely some things I’d like to change for any future versions.
On the physical model, I think a list of the buildings would have helped viewers orient themselves to the layout of the camp. While each of the buildings are mentioned in the video, I’m not sure that it was clear which building the video was talking about.
One of the difficulties I encountered was the limited amount of time I had to share the history of the PoW camp. With the Makey-Makey, I was limited to five buttons and I just wasn’t able to tell as much as I would have liked in five videos (totaling five minutes).
As for my model, I found that Sketchup, or at least the computer I was using, was not able to handle the detail I had hoped to include. As I added more features to the model, I noticed that SketchUp began to slow down considerably. For example, turning on the shadow feature caused the computer to take a significant time to load an individual scene, and trying to export a twenty second video with shadows would have taken about twelve hours. Needless to say, I opted for the shadowless option, which only took five minutes!
While not the easiest of tasks, I would have liked to import the model into a better engine, perhaps something like the CryEngine. As the creators of this model of 17th Century London have demonstrated in the historic reconstruction of London, it definitely has the potential to bring the camp to life! However, I have a feeling that would require quite a bit of work.
Nonetheless, I hope that I’ve demonstrated one rather simply way of exhibiting a historic site that no longer exists!
Today, the Interactive Exhibit Design class is presenting exhibits. For those who are unable to attend, I thought I’d let you know how it turned out.
I have to say I am pretty happy with the way the bunkhouses look with Sketchup’s shadow/fog settings turned on (even if they did slow the computer down to an impossible-to-do-anything level). Note the most unusual of the camp prisoners, a black bear, in the middle.
Now for a view of the physical model with the text panels.
Now you may be asking, “how is this interactive?” If you look closely at the image above, you will notice a series of five black dots. These are actually buttons that are hooked up to a Makey-Makey hidden below. The Makey-Makey is controlled with a Max patch so that when a button is pushed, it triggers an attached computer to play a video of that specific area of the camp. All together, it looks something like this…
As of yesterday afternoon, my exhibit is up and running without any hitches! As I was going through my images, I found that I still had some that I hadn’t shown yet.
One aspect that I wanted to show in some detail was the interior of the buildings. This, however, is rather complicated as, for the most part, I have no idea what the interiors looked like. That being said, the architectural plan that I had for my bunkhouse provides a sense of the interior layout and I tried my hand at a re-creation.
I did include a brief interior view in the previous version of my model but I had used some stereotypical bunkbeds obtained from Sketchup’s Warehouse. As I was going through my photo archives, I rembered that I had a photo of the bunkbeds at Riding Mountain, taken while the camp was under construction and the bunkbeds were stacked outside. From this, I was able to create the model below. The texture for the bedding was adapted from a photograph of a WWII Canadian-army issue blanket.
Another building that I had some information about was the mess hall. In a recently acquired collection of photographs from the PoW camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec, I have a picture of the interior of the same type of mess hall used at Riding Mountain. Making some estimations regarding the dimensions, I built myself a basic table and bench. I also cropped out a not-so-happy PoW and included him in the model to provide some sense of scale.
Stay tuned in the next few days as I post some images of the final stage of my model!
While I knew I wanted to add some detail to my model, I had to narrow down what would be noticeable and, arguably more important, what I was actually able to model.
While they may not be the most glamorous or exciting, clothes lines were a necessity and they camp and they also offered me the opportunity to show off some of the uniforms and other items of clothing the PoWs would have been wearing at the camp. Fortunately, I did some research at the Canadian War Museum a few years ago and photographed, among others, some PoW uniforms with their distinctive red “target” on the backs. After a little bit of work, I was able to come up with this:
As wood-carving was a popular activity at the camp, some of the PoWs tried their hand at building their own furniture and garden fences to decorate their bunkhouses. From historic photographs of the camp, I was able to re-create some of the benches and fences that welcomed visitors to the PoW bunkhouses. Combined with the clothes lines, I think they help give a better sense of what the camp looked like in 1944.
Another aspect that was missing from my previous model was signs of any trees at the site. While nearly every tree around the camp had been removed in an effort to reduce the danger of a forest fire, the Parks Bureau wanted spruce to regenerate in the area and therefore a number of spruce trees were spared the axe. Luckily, I can make out the position of most of these trees from the aerial photograph and, using an existing model from Sketchup’s Warehouse, this is how it turned out!