Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Up-North Wood and Canvas Canoe has Earned its Boundary Waters, MN Chops.

Paddlers everywhere recognize -- and revere -- a classic wood + canvas canoe like this baby. 

Take this example: it hangs in a Long Lake garage, awaiting the annual launch into the chilly waters of a nameless lake Up-North.   The gunwales are beat-up, need sanding, caulking, and re varnishing; canvas skin shows age and length of service, but no visible rips; and the copper skeg is likely in urgent need of attention as well. Can only imagine what the ribs and seats look like inside the boat.

The cool thing about classic wood/canvas canoes like this one is that they CAN be brought back to life.  They can live nearly forever -- longer than any bowman can paddle deep into Minnesota's incomparable Boundary Waters.

And for flatlanders like yours truly, old time canoes like this one can teach unforgettable lessons of self-reliance, water safety,  adventure, serenity, respect for Mother Nature.

As a boy, and for two summers running -- 1956 and 1957 -- I was a camper at Camp Ahmek in Ontario's pristine Algonquin Park.  How Mom and Dad found that camp (long way from my Chillicothe, OH home) is beyond me, but what a choice they made.  A big part of our summer experience was a long, cabin-by-cabin, canoe trip through many of Algonquin's (then) undiscovered lakes.

We'd be gone 10+ days out of the thirty we were at camp.  All food, water, changes of clothing, pots and pans, first aid supplies, tarps, tents, etc., etc. traveled with us in 70# packs. Three boys to a canoe in same cases. Always two counselors along for the ride.

When we got off the lake, and came to the portage, most boys schlepped those massive packs.  Some of us bigger campers -- like me -- were expected to portage the canvas/wood canoes between the chain of lakes.

As the trip wore on, the canvas skins became waterlogged, the boats doubled in weight,  and the young portagers, eventually, a bit more skilled at moving gear along mucked trails and across skimpy "bridges" made of the odd birch logs thrown down over deep mud.

"Ouch" story from one particularly challenging portage (and before I'd earned my stripes). I remember hauling the empty canoe out of the lake and onto shore.  Tied a pair of paddles between the seats, and parallel to the gunwales, leaving enough room for my head to pop through.  The blades of the paddles would rest on my shoulders, providing some comfort and balance as I tried to navigate a 17-foot, 100-lb.  behemoth across slippery logs.

You can probably imagine what happened next.

Since it had been raining for most of the day, the log "bridge" was wet and oh, so slippery.  Ground was soggy, and mud went deep.  Intrepid camper (me) slipped off the logs, went down into the mud canoe still on his shoulders. Up to my waist as I recall.  I started to cry . True confession. 14-year old boy, exhausted, overwhelmed, scared, and feeling super-inadequate, burst into tears.

To the rescue!  My counselor Dick Charboneau. He unhitched me from my burden, helped me and the boat out of the muck.  A little Mercurochrome on my scrapes and cuts, pat on the back, much-needed "atta-boy" -- in English and French, most likely.  And then off we went across the portage, my confidence and self-esteem restored.

That's my canvas and wood canoe story.  Many years later I bought a fiberglass 14-footer, but the paddle-and-portage experience was never the same.

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