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"This terrible Karl May" in the Wild West, Kanada im Faltboot.


Carl Schwerla (1) was a German journalist who visited Canada in 1929 where his goals were to travel through parts of the West, reporting on his experiences, and at the same time investigating the state of German emigrants. This would enable him to collect material for future publications. (2) One result was the book Kanada im Faltboot (Canada in a Collapsible Boat) published the year after his return.

Schwerla arrived in Canada on May 27, 1929, on the North German Lloyd ship, the Koln, and remained for several months. With him on the ship were three hundred European emigrants, many heading west. They wanted a piece of land to call their own, something that was difficult to do for the poorer classes. From their port of entry, most went to Winnipeg initially; from here they were dispersed amongst the three prairie provinces. Schwerla warned such newcomers they must be prepared to work hard. Canada was a young country with potential, but many tough years were ahead before one would see the fruits of their labour. (3)

The journalist observed that some Germans had a romantic interest in Canada because of its wilderness, wildlife, and nature. (4) Their knowledge of North America came from reading the novels of Karl May, a famous writer in the German-speaking world known for his Wild West books set in the United States. He invented the characters of Winnetou, the wise Indian, and Old Shatterhand, the German immigrant. He encouraged his readers to link the adventures of Old Shatterhand to himself. May's influential accounts were pure fiction, derived from his creative imagination, but he was widely accepted in Germany as an authority on the United States. (5)

Other authors were influenced by May. For example, Max Otto, who lived in Alberta from 1912 to 1921, claimed to be a hunter, trapper, and big game hunting guide living in a remote area. The truth was that Otto was a hired hand labouring for local Germans in the community of Brtiderheim, and not six hundred kilometers north of Edmonton as he claimed in his books. (6) In contrast to Otto, Schwerla actually did experience life away from civilization but readily admitted being influenced by May. He wrote,
 Such adventures I was experiencing now in
 the Wild West. It was not a dream and no fairy
 tale. Prairie, primeval forest, Indians, tent and
 campfire--all this had become reality and I
 part of it. How had this come about? Why had
 I undertaken this? Why was I sitting in this
 wilderness? Perhaps "this terrible Karl May"
 was to blame. Often enough my teachers
 predicted the worst for me, when they caught me
 reading one of those thick green volumes under
 the desk. (7)

Schwerla freely admitted to having a Utopian view of the North American Indians. He often made humourous comparisons of life in Bavaria to that of the Canadian West. Many of his experiences were based upon what had happened in his childhood; for example, he explained how he would yell out to find people in the forest, just as he did during the "Indian time of my childhood" while playing in the English Garden in Munich.8 Some of the tips he gleaned from May were both practical and helpful. On one occasion, he explained that "in order to find my way back, I noted every tree and bush just like I learned from Karl May." (9) Generally he reveled in his outdoor experiences; with a "bonfire in primeval forest, I sat in front of my tent observing the red glowing embers. At one time this had been a dream of my childhood." (10)

Schwerla had a number of adventures in Canada, ranging from meeting strange and interesting individuals in the bush, to visiting German emigrants in Canada, and having wild water escapades which always resulted in his victory over the elements of Mother Nature. One of his many thrills was meeting Indians, which only enhanced his enjoyment "in the Wild West." (11) He relished his experience, something most Germans would cherish especially based on their romantic, Utopian views of May and the noble Indians. (12) In one account, Schwerla related how a group of men, which included an Indian, planned to play a practical joke on him. The men had intentionally let him overhear their mock plans to see how he would react. Schwerla, not knowing it was a jest, was anxious and edgy,
 I stayed lying down where I was. Now the
 situation became really tense. An Indian with
 a revolver called me a 'white dog,' a bonfire
 deep in the forest, a mysterious babble of
 voices--this was more romantic than I could
 have wished for. I had to again think on my
 Karl May. How often had he crept up on his
 enemies to listen to their intentions? (13)

When the joke was over and the group of men sat around the fire Schwerla noted "with a childlike joy they explained how the entire Karl May story had taken place." (14)

On another occasion, while traveling alone in the forest, Schwerla met a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, who accused him of murder. During a question and answer session the RCMP officer finally concluded that Schwerla was not the man he was seeking. But he remarked, "I believe that you are a German because you are running around alone in the wilderness. When a foreigner does that, it is usually a German." (15)

At one point when Schwerla was looking for his traveling partners at dusk, he was in danger of being lost. According to him, he was able to maintain his composure.
 It was romantic. It was almost too romantic.
 I had already been in the primeval forest for
 a long time, but I never found the solitude
 so threatening. Usually I had my boat or my
 tent but this time I was entirely alone, I had
 even forgotten my pistol. I had to go through
 the deep forest as if I was not in the Canadian
 wilderness, but rather out for an evening stroll
 on the Theatiner Street in Munich. (16)

As he travelled west by train, Schwerla noted that the landscape was dominated by wilderness; hour after hour the train traveled through stretches of land that varied from huge forests to pristine lakes. Some Canadians found his plans of canoeing down ice-cold mountain rivers a stupid and uncalculated risk, but for a German, the wildness of the water deep in the Canadian bush was almost Utopia. Schwerla described the Fraser River as a wild beast that raged deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It had immense power, pulverizing stones and destroying trees. But parts of it were tame where grizzly bears came to its waters' edge while mountain goats ambled cautiously about. As he travelled, Schwerla referred to western Canada as the 'wild west' which conformed to many German images of life, wilderness, animals, and adventure in North America. (17) Such stereotypes conformed to German assessment of Canada.

Another adventure in the forest included encounters with bears. He wrote about one bear that stole his cache of meat, which he had cautiously hung from a tree. He sat terrified in his tent but slowly crept out; while doing so he thought back to his life in Bavaria. He wrote about the teddy bears that one could win in the shooting galleries at the Munich Oktoberfest. If one was a good shot they could win a blue, green or pink teddy bear; all had silky pelts and soft paws. The bear outside was quite different; it was a huge beast with shaggy hair that resembled an old blanket that had been energetically trampled upon for years by a chorus of dancers. Schwerla debated about shooting the bear with his pistol, but instead he tried to hurl his hiking boot against the tree where his meat cache had been hanging. Instead, it hit his cooking pot, and the subsequent noise scared the bear oft'. Although the beast was gone so was his meat supply! (18)

Schwerla wanted to visit the Rockies along the Athabasca River. He spent some time in Jasper, Maligne Canyon, Mount Unwin, and Mount Robson. In Jasper Park, he visited a German acquaintance, Karl Gerber. There he saw many log cabins where the residents lived; some of them were mere shacks. Gerber was a former German army officer. He had been wounded three times during World War One. After the war he had worked as an administrator in a factory and in 1928 he emigrated to Alberta, his wife following shortly thereafter. In Jasper he worked at the Park Lodge Hotel; one of his many jobs included spreading manure on the golf course. His wife worked as a maid in the same hotel. In Germany, she had employed her own maid and he had been a well-paid official, but inflation and problems in post-war Germany forced them to emigrate. They did not search for their new professions in Canada, but were prepared to do whatever work they found to get ahead. In Germany, due to the rigidity of the social class system, such work would have limited them socially; others would look down upon them. (19)


In Jasper, Schwerla met other German speakers who, like Gerber, were content with their new lives in Canada. Schwerla also went hiking in the mountains with other German acquaintances and spent time admiring Maligne Lake and Medicine Lake. He met Alberta cowgirls who, according to Schwerla, looked like they belonged to a Wild West film. As well as hiking in the mountains around Jasper, Schwerla was able climb Mount Edith Cavell along the Athabasca River and Astoria River valleys of Jasper National Park. He found that hiking in the Rocky Mountains was totally different from hiking in the European Alps. According to Schwerla, the mountains in Germany had blue, green, or red markers giving details of distance, altitude, and paths one could take to their ultimate goal. In Canada no such markers existed; one must forge their own trail. (20)

In his book, Schwerla told of his own adventures and follies abroad to a German audience hungry for foreign travel stories. While he and other German speakers found the Canadian Rockies entertaining, there was one German national who found them threatening, cold, and sterile. Karl Gotz's offered an assessment that was in sharp contrast to Schwerla. He was a fervent Nazi, advocating the supremacy of the Germanic race. He travelled in Canada in 1936, which culminated in a book entitled Bruder uber dem Meer (Brothers over the Sea, 1938). In this publication he did not approve of German speakers living in Canada and encouraged their return migration. He tried to demonstrate how Canada was incompatible for Germans as a land of residence as he found it to be a mongrel nation lacking unity and a national conscience. (21)

His negative assessment of Canada extended to the Rocky Mountains. Gotz emphasized that Germany's mountains were simply better. Certainly there were rugged, wild, and dangerous corners in the European Alps, but one had to only turn their head and could gaze upon green meadows and valleys. From there one could see cottages and sparkling lakes with children playing along the shores. This was in sharp contrast to his appraisal of the Rocky Mountains. He found them to be dark, cold, hard, and oppressive; their peaks were hostile and shrouded in clouds. Mountain forests were filled with oppressive gloom, their rock formations bizarre and lonely. Through their vile canyons rushed wild waters yet the lakes were eerily silent with no trace of man. (22)

This ruggedness and lack of a human influence on the Rockies was exactly what Schwerla and many others found so refreshing and adventurous. But too many people, or the wrong kind of visitor, could ruin the natural settings. Schwerla wrote about a hotel in the Canadian Rockies and scoffed that;
 this was also a piece of the new wild west, in the
 middle of the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains,
 here were an oasis of culture. Out in the park,
 just in front of the hall, untamed and uncared for,
 stood an old Indian totem pole as remembrance of
 a time when the primitive peoples knew nothing
 from civilization and progress. Where at one
 time, the Indian hunted the buffalo, where tents
 stood and bonfires blazed. This was disturbed by
 greedy people looking for gold. Now they play
 golf and in the evening smoked around a table.
 I had to think of the solitude of Mount Gewinn.
 Two days ago I stood up there, far away from
 people that clamber for wealth and power. Many
 come here with their bags of money into the
 wilderness for a few days to dream about another
 way of life that they do not even belong to. (23)

Schwerla respected nature and wanted it to remain wild. In this sense Schwerla's adventures in Canada can be compared to that of Grey Owl, another European seeking what they could not find at home, namely open spaces, large forests, wild waterways and unspoiled lakes still untouched by the advancement of man and his technology. Grey Owl was in reality an Englishman, Archibald Belaney. (24) In 1906 he immigrated to Canada and invented the name Grey Owl. He claimed to be an Apache half-breed and gained worldwide attention in the 1930s posing as an Indian nature writer and lecturer.

By comparison, Schwerla was factual in his tales and history. Some European writers described their travels and experiences in Canada, embellishing their accomplishments and feats. (25) Some told falsehoods and exaggerated their experiences. (26) Although Belaney lived in the bush and experienced the Canadian wilderness, he did lie about his ethnic heritage and background. (27) Doubts about his identity appeared shortly after his death and it was ultimately revealed that he was an imposter. (28)

Sigrist described Schwerla as a person that was possessed by adventure, a regular thrill seeker. His book was in some ways typical of German travel and outdoor literature on Canada written between the two world wars. (29) Boeschenstein noted that many German writers "who, more expert in wielding a gun than a pen, have done their share in reducing Canadian wildlife and then felt compelled to embalm their victims in literary from." Schwerla was atypical in that he only brought a small pistol on his travels, not hunting rifles. Boeschenstein also noted that some German authors commenting on Canada "felt themselves commissioned--to see and say what Germany wanted to hear." But Schwerla never needlessly fired his weapon and respected the nature he observed. He was a man of the pen not of the gun; he did not hold a grudge against Canada's wildlife. (30)

As well as his book, articles in Canadian newspapers contained information derived from Schwerla in which he "recounted thrilling adventures." (31) Although challenged by the natural elements, Schwerla was equal to the task and succeeded in his journey undaunted. (32) Along the way he gained outdoor savvy, and was in touch with both nature and himself. He faced many obstacles such as mosquitoes, waterfalls, wild animals, portages, and a fear of the unknown while traveling largely alone in the backwoods of western Canada. Throughout his book, Kanada im Faltboot, he peppered his account on outdoor life with his observances of the isolated forests and rivers of Canada. He often used whimsical and humourous comparisons to add flavor and wit to his writing. Recollections of May and childhood recreation were intertwined as the solitude, Indians, camping, bonfires and the beauty of Canada entranced him. His kayaking trip moved him to explain his inner self; at least part of this was affected by his boyhood dreams and adventures. His 1930 publication would certainly confirm to his German audience in Europe that Canada was a large country with huge tracts of land with untold adventures awaiting its European guest. (33) Schwerla left in the fall of 1929 for Germany on a North German Lloyd ship, the Bremen. After returning, he continued writing and became an popular author of many plays, articles, television programs, and books. (34)



(1) Carl Borro Schweria was born in Munich, Germany, on April 2, 1903 and died on January 13, 1986.

(2) Schwerla, Carl B., Kanada im Faltboot. Berlin: August Scherl GmbH Vedag, 1930, 16-17; Schwerla.htm.

(3) Ibid., 21-28.

(4) "Young German Canoeist Will Paddle to Coast," Edmonton Journal, June 13, 1929.

(5) Frayling, Christopher, Spaghetti Westerns, Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: Routledge and Keagen Paul, 1981, 103-12; Ritter, Ernst, Das Deutsche Ausland-lnstitut in Stuttgart 1917-1945, Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH, 1976,6.

(6) Otto, Max, In kanadischer Wildnis, Trapper- und Farmerleben. Berlin: Verlagbuchhandlung Paul Parey, 1923, 119-23); Ein reichsdeutscher Gast in Edmonton," Der Courier und der Herold, 14 Oct. 1936; Gutensohn, c.A., "German's Absurd Picture of (:anada," Edmonton Journal, 7 Feb. 1925.

(7) Ibid., 14-15.

(8) Ibid., 48.

(9) Ibid., 72.

(10) Ibid., 74.

(11) Ibid. 104-17.

(12) Ibid. 96-105.

(13) Ibid., 109.

(14) Ibid., 115.

(15) Ibid., 125-39.

(16) Ibid., 156-58.

(17) Ibid., 6-23, 48-71

(18) Ibid., 12-13.

(19) Ibid., 36-42.

(20) Ibid., 151-64

(21) Wagner, Jonathan, Brothers over the Seas, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 198 I, 24-26, 46-50; Grams, Grant: "Was Eckhardt Kastendieck one of Saskatchewan's most active Nazis?" Saskatchewan History, 2007, 89.

(22) Gotz, Karl, Bruder fiber dem Meer. Stuttgart: 1. Engelhoms Nachf. 1938, 150-51.

(23) Schwerla, 182-83.

(24) Seliger, Helfreid W., "A Record of Difficult Times for German Immigrants: Ilse Schreiber's Books on Canada,", in Begegungen--Connections, German-Canadian Studies, University of Victoria Symposium VII May 19, 1990,55.

(25) Sigrist, Gisela, "Zwischen Hoffnung und Verzweiflung. Deutsche beschreiben ihre Kanadaerfahrung 19061943," in Hartmut Froeschle (ed.) The German-Canadian Yearbook, volume XIV, 199561-74; Seliger, 55-65; Ropp, Manfred, "Kanada als Ansiedlungsland, Beobachtungen eines deutschen Auswanderes," in Der Auslandsdeutsche 1928. Stuttgart: Deutsches Ausland Institut Verlag, 7-9.

(26) Otto, 110-33.

(27) Grace, Kevin M., "Reinvented in Canada: Grey Owl, the discredited English fraud, is lionized by another English mythmaker," Report Newsmagazine, vol 26 (40) 0 25, 1999,52-53; Smith, Donald B., From the Land of Shadows, The Making of Grey Owl. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1990,84-92, 18487; Belaney, Archibald, Pilgrims of the Wild. Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada, 1968, IXXVII.

(28) Grace, 52-53; Smith, 84-92, 184-87; Braz, Albert: "The White Indian: Armand Gamet Ruffo's Grey Owl and the Spectre of Authencity," Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 36 (4), 171-87.

(29) Sigrist, 69.

(30) Boeschenstein, Herman, "Is there a Canadian Image in German Literature," Seminar, volume 3, 1967, 7

(31) "German Canoeist Tells Adventures," Edmonton Herold, July 11, 1929, 11.

(32) Schwerla, Carl B., "Mit deutschen Auswanderem nach Kanada," Berlin-Wilhersdorf: Der Canadische Herold: illustriette Zeitschrift fur Landschaft, Handel, Industrie and Jagd in Canada, 1930, 179-84.

(33) Schwerla, Canada im Faltboot, 151-94


Dr. Grant W. Grams graduated from the University of Saskatchewan (BA 1989), Albert Ludwigs University, Freiburg, Germany (MA, 1990), and Phillips University, Marburg, Germany (PhD, 2000). He currently is a history lecturer at Grant MacEwan College and at Concordia University College, Edmonton.
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Title Annotation:Carl Schwerla
Author:Grams, Grant W.
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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