My high school physics teacher — who taught me a little about science, but more about the fine art of canoe paddling — owned a small canvas-covered cedarstrip that he let me take out onto a lake whenever I asked.
She was a beautiful boat. She had only one wicker seat fixed towards a slim middle. Her canvas shone a clean forest green. The wood planking, gunwales and thwarts glowed a healthy deep brown, varnished with age and polished with use. Her lines were so perfectly drawn, she handled on water with the barest of movements — not like sitting in a boat; more like the boat becoming an extension of will.
Paddling my teacher’s canoe was pure joy, and I would have given anything to own her. I never said a word, since I had nothing to give, but my teacher must have seen my desire.
“One day, you’ll see a dusty old canoe hanging on the rafters of a garage somewhere,” he said to me, describing how he had found his little Peterborough. “You’ll make an offer for it and the owner might even give it to you for free. He’ll just want to get it out of his way.”
My teacher’s prediction came true almost 30 years later — only the canoe wasn’t hanging under rafters. I could see she, too, was a beautiful boat, even though she was sitting upright amongst some alders, gathering leaves and filling with water, even though her canvas is torn and some rotted wood needs replacing.
The owner was happy to be rid of her, even though his own father was the builder and his mark is visible in the unique turns of her bow and stern. She had been saved from the Guy Fawkes bonfire of the previous year only because her owner hadn’t tossed her into the pile in time.
My second rescue — before I’ve even had time to repair the first — made it all the way to the bonfire pile before I got to her. A friend told me of seeing a boat like mine on top of it and when I investigated (the fire was not to be lit for another two days) I found a small freighter canoe.
That’s the goal for all three of these broken canoes — not just to store them safe from the weather, but to repair them, rebuild them, recanvas them, and release them back to the water where they belong. -
She’s in only slightly worse shape than her predecessor, with canvas that also needs replacing, but with a whole stern board that’s all rotted out. This boat was easy to transport home, since she’s wondrously light for a freighter. A solitary man can lift her and portage her a good distance.
The third canoe — which was recovered earlier this year, found not abandoned on the fire pile, but wrecked on a treacherous shoreline — does not have the quality of being light. Quite the contrary. She’s a heavy, square-backed monster. It took two of us (and three trees tied as splints) to drag her off the beach where she had washed up after waves bashed her through boulder-strewn shallows.
Two gaping holes in the hull didn’t make the long canoe any easier to half-drag a kilometre to a 26-foot boat trailer. Then it took three men to wrestle the stricken craft into a proper shelter for the winter. Since this canoe has only recently been lost, the owner is welcome to come and take her back, but not if I manage to repair her first.
That’s the goal for all three of these broken canoes — not just to store them safe from the weather, but to repair them, rebuild them, recanvas them, and release them back to the water where they belong.
My physics teacher was right — acquiring a beautiful old canoe only takes a little time and patience.
Unfortunately, he didn’t say what to do if I collected too many at once. With summer over and fall already rushing to its end, the promise of deep winter snow becomes a threat to old wooden boats. There’s no time to mend even one of them yet, but there’s time to put them to bed before the cold settles in.
Restoring these canoes must wait, but at least they’ll sleep safe for one more winter.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.