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David F. Pelly Writer, Researcher, Historian, Photographer

The Old Way North:
Following the Oberholtzer-Magee Expedition
Published in 2008
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Much has been written about the early exploration of the Northwest Passage and some of the overland routes used to map and explore the northern reaches of Canada. But the central travel corridor into what remains today the heart of Canada’s northern wilderness—the old way north—remains shrouded in mystery and uncelebrated, its natural and cultural history largely unknown.

Long before the arrival of the first whites, the Chipewyan (Dene) used the old way north to follow the herds of migrating caribou. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this travel corridor, which stretches from Reindeer Lake in Manitoba north to the barrenlands in what is today Nunavut, was an important access route for those intrepid travelers who opened the North.

In the spring of 1912, Ernest Oberholtzer—largely responsible for the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Ontario and Minnesota—and Billy Magee, an Anishinaabe companion, set off on a five month canoe expedition following the old way north, a route that was still largely unmapped. Oberholtzer’s observations provide us with a window into the way it was, before the changes that came shortly after his passage.

Using Oberholtzer’s journals as a narrative thread, author David Pelly transports readers through the history of this wilderness and introduces them to the mapmakers, fur traders and trappers, missionaries, and Native peoples who relied on this corridor for trade and travel. Among the many surprises he explores is the contact, unique to this region, between the Dene and Inuit, who both lived and traveled here. Through journals, historical records, personal interviews with Dene and Inuit, and present-day canoeing accounts, Pelly reconstructs the many tales heretofore hidden in this land.
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“David Pelly’s meticulous research and easy style of prose take us along on the journey … This is a well written, extremely interesting and multi-layered book.”

“The Old Way North will be of interest to those who love tales of northern travel … reminding us how much of the history of Canada is about the journeys taken on its rivers. As Pelly says, they are ‘the threads that tie our geography together.’”

The Beaver
"Pelly captures the spirit and history of the land [and its] aboriginal mysticism"

Canadian Geographic
"The book is like a medieval tapestry, filled with people and incidents, all connected by different-coloured threads of relationship.  Pelly set out to celebrate the natural and cultural history of one of the least known areas of the North, and he has achieved his aim magnificently....  Beautifully produced for the Minnesota Historical Society, this multi-layered book is a fine addition to the cultural history of the eastern Barrens."

 “I'd like to draw your attention to another great book containing oral history of a little-known part of Canada's north in the twentieth century: The Old Way North by David F. Pelly, published by Borealis Books (2008).  This fascinating book includes Dene and Inuit memories and photographs of northern Manitoba during the last, very active days of the fur trade.  Based on the 1912 diary of one of the first modern canoeists to venture into this country, at a time when York boats still plied the waters of the Saskatchewan River, it relates the stories of Oblate priests, Dene chiefs and independent traders living on remote lakes close to the tree-line in one of the most ethnically complex and interesting parts of Canada.”

Christopher Moore’s “Canadian History” website
“What a spell-binder!  It is classic Pelly – impeccably researched, cleanly and compellingly written, a wonderful contribution to both wilderness lore and Canadian history.  I loved everything about it – especially the seamless way he wove Oberholtzer and Magee's journey around and into other historical material, the informant interviews, and the modern canoeist accounts.  The vivid descriptions of the landscapes and the physical challenges of their journey literally resonated in my bones.  Sometimes I ached to be with them; other times I was definitely glad it was Oberholtzer and Magee, not me!”

Monte Hummel
WWF Canada
“What a huge amount of research – the detail is fantastic and yet it flows along.  This will go down as a classic because the history is so detailed and all-encompassing.  It's beautifully written, never boring – a spectacular job.”

Alex Hall
Canoe Arctic Inc.
“A fine read, an insightful and respectful account of the Native ways and traditions of that part of our country.  [It] resonated deeply – I think it is a great tribute to the land and its people.”

David Payne
Quetico Foundation
“In The Old Way North, David Pelly both delivers a narrative of Ernest Oberholtzer and Billy Magee’s 2,000-mile exploratory canoe voyage of 1912 and examines the lives and customs of the Cree, Chipewyan, and Inuit through whose territories the intrepid Americans traveled. His research into the records and lore of Native groups and individuals, from the 1850s to the present day, is rigorous, tellingly detailed, and sympathetic. This account of those peoples and of the vast region reaching from Reindeer Lake to Nueltin Lake, and from there to Hudson Bay, will commend itself to anyone who is drawn to the history of the sub-Arctic north.”

R. H. Cockburn, Emeritus Professor of English
The University of New Brunswick
“David Pelly’s The Old Way North is a richly-textured book—a combination of Oberholtzer’s 1912 expedition account, historical commentary on the people and places, and the author’s experiences and reflections, all arranged against the backdrop of the barren lands. The research is impressive, the story engaging. At times, I wanted to head out in a canoe myself.”

Bill Waiser, Professor of History
University of Saskatchewan
“One smiles to think of the enthusiasm with which Ernest Oberholtzer would have greeted this work that so ably reveals the historical dimensions of the landscape through which he and Billy Magee traveled on their epic 1912 canoe journey.”

Joe Paddock, author
Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer

Bibliographic data
The Old Way North: Following the Oberholtzer-Magee Expedition
Minnesota Historical Society Press , 2008
Cloth • 224 pages • 6"x 9"
20 B&W Photos, Map
Index, Bibliography
Hardcover: ISBN 978-0873516167
EBook: ISBN 978-0873517485
Paperback: ISBN 978-1681340722