YOU CAN DO IT
by Andre G. Germain
"Sidartha" completed July 9, 1989.
Why would anyone in his right mind consider taking on the arduous task of building his own canoe? The catch-phrase here is 'right mind'. For the practical canoeist in his right mind, there is a canoe available off the rack to meet any requirement. Models offered include solo, tandem, cruising, racing, white-water, and square-stern. Construction materials range from traditional canvas-covered cedar to high-tech composites that are virtually indestructible and completely maintainance-free. The true purist can even find builders that will construct a birch-bark canoe on demand.
But die-hard canoeists are far from practical. We live for the excitement of risking our lives in some treacherous stretch of white-water. We drive hundreds of miles to find lakes and rivers where we can escape from all the conveniences of every-day life, seeking instead the rigors of the outdoors with its unpredictable weather and all manner of biting insect. We trade comfort for muscles aching from miles paddled against strong head-winds and long strenuous portages over impossible terrain. Practical? Hah!
I've owned a few canoes over the years. One was crushed by snow during the infamous "Blizzard of '77". One was swept away from the beach in front of my house by a freak windstorm in the middle of the night. Another was stolen from my front yard by someone who obviously was not a canoeist, because any who enjoy the passion of canoeing know that a canoe is not a thing, a possession, but an obsession. Stealing someone's canoe is tantamount to kidnapping. Anyway, these had all been good canoes, dear friends that had carried me many miles into wild and secret places. But they were all manufactured canoes. In the end run, they were all replaceable.
Then one day, a few years back, I met a gentleman who was paddling a stripper canoe. It turned out that he had built it himself, in his spare time, from plans ordered from a magazine. I had never seen a canoe to rival the beauty of this man's craft. I commented that such beauty must come with a compromise in terms of strength or durability. He assured me that in fact the canoe, with its monocoque hull and wood-epoxy construction, rivaled the light weight and strength of one made of Kevlar. I was impressed, and intrigued. When he offered to let me try it out, I gladly accepted, and after only a few strokes of the paddle, was amazed at the canoe's response.
The thought occured to me that maybe I could construct such a canoe, but I dismissed the idea almost at once. After all, what did I know about canoe-building? Absolutely nothing!
As the years went by, however, the thought kept recurring, nagging at me like some dizzy fly buzzing around my ears. Each time, I'd come up with another rationalization to still the thought. Believe me, I went through every excuse. No wood-working skills. No workshop or garage, therefore, no place to carry out such a project. No tools, save for an old hand-saw, a hammer, a couple of screwdrivers and a pair of vise-grip pliers.
I argued with myself that I'd rather be out paddling than working on a canoe. Besides, where would I get the materials? I rationalized that manufactured canoes were better, stronger, more funtional than anything I could hope to build. A chronic back condition from which I'd long suffered, not to mention abused knee, elbow and shoulder joints, would probably protest at all the physical labour involved. Being short on patience, I would probably botch the job, wasting time, money and materials, and end up being the laughing-stock of the neighbourhood.
"It's probably just an ego-trip anyway," I told myself. An attempt to impress family and friends. Lacking tool-handling skills, I'd probably end up cutting off one of my fingers or worse.
In spite of all these arguments, I found myself going to the local library and borrowing books on boat-building and design, everything from Chapelle to the Gougeon Brothers, Vaillancourt to Stelmok. I kept telling myself that this was just a way to pass the time of day, that the growing fixation to build a canoe would disappear, that I'd wake up to reality and forget the whole thing. But the more I read, the greater the urge became. I started losing sleep over it, picturing canoe designs and construction techniques instead of counting sheep like anyone in his right mind.
I found myself talking about canoes to anyone who would listen and even to those who wouldn't. It got so that anytime I opened my mouth, my wife would roll her eyes heavenward with a deep sigh of "Oh no, not that again!"
Obviously, I was bemused, besotted, under some wizard's evil spell. I just couldn't shake it. Cold showers didn't work. I doodled canoes while talking on the phone, for gawd's sake. I wonder what Sigmund Freud would have said about that!
Finally, after a few years of excuses, I decided to go ahead and do something concrete to exorcise those devils that kept plaguing me. I bought a piece of chip-board which I jury-rigged into a drafting table of sorts. I also purchased a T-square, an engineer's rule graduated in 64ths of an inch, and a roll of graph paper. Not having studied drafting, I reasoned that my attempt to design a canoe would be enough to discourage me from going any further with the project.
I already had a pretty clear mental image of what I wanted in a canoe, in terms of length, beam, depth, rocker, tumblehome, etc... Getting it on paper, to scale, well, that was something else again. After a couple of tries, and a few feet of wasted paper, I had something that resembled a canoe. At least, it was pointed at both ends. This was encouraging. Some of the knowledge in those books must have sunk in.
A couple of weeks later, after five or six more attempts and more wasted paper, I managed to come up with a set of plans that more or less mirrored the image in my mind's eye. Next came the demanding task of 'taking off' the measurements, trying to be accurate to a 64th. of an inch so that, working on a 1 : 4 scale, the actual measurements on my table of offsets could be accurate to a 16th inch, crucial if one is to achieve a hull without humps or hollows.
So! The whole scheme had backfired. Instead of discouraging myself from ever building a canoe, here I was faced with the prospect of finalizing what had begun as a pipe-dream. I mean, there it was, in front of me, on paper, my dream canoe. No longer a figment of my imagination, but a contract in black and white, demanding to be fulfilled. Everytime I looked at the drawing, it said, "Build me!"
I called upon all the well-worn excuses, a last-ditch effort to talk myself out of this foolishness, hoping that I could just fold up the plans and shove them deep in the dresser-drawer behind the kids' Grade 3 report cards and the love poems I had written to my wife twenty-some-odd years ago when I was courting her. Who was I trying to kid anyway? I was no canoe-builder.
Right about that time, my neighbour, Ken, dropped in for a coffee. Seeing the plans on the dining-room table, he remarked, "Gonna build yourself a canoe, eh?", a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Nah," I replied, "I just wanted to see if I could manage to draw up some plans of something that looks like a canoe. Besides, even if I wanted to build it, where would I do it?" I figured that his agreement would help me put an end to this madness.
"Well, why don't you use my boat-house? I'm only using it for storage anyway. It should be big enough. It's full of junk, but it wouldn't take too much work to clear it out."
I then went through all my time-worn rationalizations and arguments. Ken was a professional couselor and motivator at the time. He'd heard them all before. It didn't take him long to punch holes in every one of my excuses. Worse, with his encouragement, I actually started to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could pull it off after all. Dangerous thinking, that!
Next thing I knew, there we were, Ken and I, moving flower pots, window frames, lawn ornaments and cardboard boxes full of forgotten treasures out of the boat-house. This concrete-block building, roughly 20' by 8', sits about 30' from the water's edge on the shore of Lake Erie, right next to the property line of my front yard. I mused that the canoe, as it was being built, would have a clear view of its home-to-be. Somehow, this romantic notion got the better of me.
What really amazed me in the days that followed was how everything just seemed to fall into place. I lucked into some beautiful clear red-cedar planks, 18 and 20 footers, that had been shipped to a local lawn-furniture builder by mistake. Instead of sending them back, he'd stored them in the loft of his shop, on the off chance that some day he could put them to good use. After all, they were of much too good a quality to waste on picnic tables. Another friend of mine with a wood-working business put his shop and his power tools at my disposal for cutting the molds, decks, stem-bands and seat-frames. Another friend helped me cut the planks on his table-saw to the 3/4" x 1/4" size required. I borrowed what tools I thought I'd need from generous friends and neighbours. I even managed to borrow a 'micro furnace' and a de-humidifier, items I needed to keep the boat-house at a constant temperature and humidity.
I had previously purchased "Canoecraft", a book by Ted Moores of Bancroft, Ont., which outlined in great detail the constrution of stripper canoes. This book proved invaluable. Referring to it, I compiled a list of necessary materials and then purchased the glass cloth, the epoxy resin, the solvents, the sand-paper (reams of it), the brushes and fasteners, in short, everything required to build a canoe. In the immortal words of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the die was cast, my Rubicon had been crossed.
The first plank was laid on May 23, 1989, with some trepidation. True, I encountered some problems along the way. True, I had some grave moments of self-doubt when things didn't go exactly as planned. True, I ate a lot of saw-dust. True, my wife had to put up with my moaning and groaning as my back and my joints reminded me I was too time-worn to be doing this sort of thing. True, my kids felt neglected because I was spending all available free time on my project.
But finally, about six weeks later, the final coat of varnish was dry. July 9, the launching date, a red-letter day for the rest of my life. It is impossible to describe the joy, the pride, and yes, the relief I felt when I carried the finished canoe out of the boat-house and into its rightful home, the waters of lake Erie.
That canoe has since tasted waters in New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Brunswick and Northern Quebec. It has experienced lakes, rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. I've paddled it in summer heat and amidst ice-floes. It has bounced off rocks and deadheads in shallow streams, and surfed in six-foot waves. It has proved to be everything I envisioned and more. And each time I climb aboard, the feelings of that launching day come rushing back. I gained a lot of self-confidence in the process. I can truly say that the canoe built me as I was building it.
I've owned many canoes in my time on this earth. None has been as sweet. Truly a dream come true. In short, the greatest canoe trip I've ever had the opportunity to enjoy.
So, any of you out there who are not in your right minds, listen: If you've ever entertained wild thoughts of building your own canoe, get to it! If I could do it, anyone can. Another thing... Sure, my canoe requires some maintainance from time to time, a touch-up of the varnish coat every now and again, but that's not work. It's a labour of love. It's like caressing your sweetheart. My wife gets jealous at times of the attention I lavish on my canoe.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, I didn't even lose any fingers.
Copyright © 1992 Andre G. Germain, all rights reserved.
Like me, Michael Bryan of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, managed to
overcome self-doubts. He built this beautiful creature that he named
"Sea Cat", from plans from David Hazen's excellent book, "The Stripper's Guide to Canoe-building", and is now well along in the building of Rushton's "Wee Lassie", another canoe 'becoming'.
(photo copyright Michael Bryan)
I've always paddled "Indian style", ie. kneeling in the canoe. But
my knees have taken to protesting too much, so I had to come up with an
alternative. I rigged my canoe up with oars, but that was too
mechanical, and facing backwards, I could only see where I'd been. So,
I came up with another idea. I built myself a seat that fits amidships,
and fashioned a double-paddle. The seat is somewhat like an "Adirondack
Chair", without the arm-rests. So now, I'm paddling kayak style, and
find that very comfortable and efficient. It's like sitting in my
favourite lawn-chair, except that I'm mobile and on the water.
Necessity, it has been said, is the mother of invention. How true, how
(And I guess, when I get right down to it, the only poetry I really need is the quiet rhythm of the dipping of my paddle or the shushing of my cross-country skis on freshly fallen snow)
MAY 2006: I recently made the acquaintance of a gentleman, Art Kennedy, who shares my passion for canoes and tries to get in at least one canoe trip a year. Here is an account of canoe trips he and his daughter undertook a couple of years ago. Enjoy!
Back in 1991, I wrote a book, which I recently self-published. My book, "The River Rats", is a narrative of the exploits of my friends and me on and around the Welland River in our leaky old boats back in the years 1956-58, when we were young and sometimes foolish. We fancied ourselves pirates, the scourge of the Welland River...
A picture, it has been said, is worth a thousand words. Here are a few pictures of canoes and such. Unfortunately, at the time I digitised these pix, all I had at my disposal was a low-resolution scanner so the picture quality is not the greatest.
Just about everyone has a conspiracy theory regarding John F. Kennedy's assassination. A few years ago, I did a lot of research on the subject, and here's my own pet conspiracy theory. Be forwarned, though, it's heavy reading!
In my younger days, I was a hunter and along with that, somewhat of a "gun nut". Check out guns I've owned over the years.
And finally, if you want to read about Wainfleet's water woes, check that out here.
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