A Book Review

Skiing with Henry Knox – A Personal Journey Along Vermont’s Catamount Trail by Sam Brakeley (Yarmouth, ME: Islandport Press, 2019)

Mountainous terrain south of Mt. Manfield, Vermont traversed by Sam Blakeley

Sounds incredulous! On the surface, skiing and Revolutionary War Generals don’t go together. How did the author make this association?

Captivatingly, Sam Brakeley, in his new book, forms a novel connection. The author embarks on a mid-winter cross country ski trek the vertical length of Vermont on a quest to decide whether or not to follow a long term girlfriend to Utah or remain in pastoral New England. He compares his modern-day journey with Henry Knox’s epic 1775-6 winter march to bring heavy cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston during the opening stages of the American War of Independence. 

On the surface, these two trips were completely different. Knox’s expedition was a massive logistical feat employing 42 sleds driven by 80 oxen to transport 59 cannons and ammunition weighing over 120,000 pounds over faint trails to Boston. Brakeley’s embarked upon a solo trip, with 30 to 45 pounds on his back with modern backcountry skis and camping equipment. The two treks did not even cover any of the same ground.

However, there are many parallels. Both trips faced the immense perils of wintertime travel in northern New England. In subzero and windy conditions, sweaty clothing can easily lead to deadly hypothermia. On several occasions, dampness and the bitter cold edged Blakeley close to the extreme danger zone. Likewise, Knox’s team suffered weather privations. At the start, temperatures were too warm to support the cannon traversing a thinly frozen Lake George and too frigid crossing the summit of the Berkshire Mountains. So reliant on modern transportation, we forget how hard it was to move the heavy artillery over lakes and through mountains from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.

While the mechanics of intrepid wintertime travel are engrossing, the most insightful aspects of the book are Blakely’s descriptions of Knox’s and his relationships. Both men are deeply committed to their missions. Overcoming many obstacles, Knox is an ardent patriot seeking the means by which to dislodge the British from their Boston fortress. Likewise, Blakeley’s love for New England and its countryside is palpable. He espouses quaint views on hitchhiking, crossing private property, and meeting people in general stores associated with hardy, friendly rural New Englanders.

Most interesting to general audiences are Blakeley’s comparisons of Knox’s and his love for their partners. Recently married, Knox’s pens multiple poignant letters to his pregnant wife professing his love and describing the pains of separation during his arduous journey. Likewise, Blakeley explains his deep and evident passion for his girlfriend, Elizabeth. Each had to figure out what is most important. Sam faced a stark decision to follow Elizabeth to Utah and continue their relationship or follow separate paths. While Knox and his wife Lucy had already committed to each other, they struggled with life for death decisions during an uncertain conflict. 

Readers will learn the trials and tribulations of living outdoors while traveling over 300 miles in Northern New England during the dead of winter. But with any epic saga, the most insightful aspects are the personal revelations. Often, seminal events such as these trips shape our lives and help engender our most important decisions.

I recommend Skiing with Henry Knox to those interested in learning more about Knox’s mission and what it was like for a vast siege train of artillery to be carried through the outback of New England before there were roads and mechanical transportation. Revolutionary War enthusiasts will learn interesting facts such as Knox’s brave decision to find alternatives and dismiss his teamsters when they asked for too much money. Knox continually worried about keeping his costs down and did not receive reimbursement by the Continental Congress until 1779.

More generally, Blakeley’s book will appeal to those facing difficult relationship decisions. It will inspire people to spend the requisite time in whatever is the most appropriate setting to think through the decision criteria to make the most suitable choice. While Blakeley’s last chapter remains unwritten, his approach to employing historical analogs is an excellent guidepost for us all.

Northernly view from Mt. Mansfield depicting the wintery conditions faced by the book’s author

Copies of Sam’s book can be purchased from his publisher, Islandport Press.