Spring freshet

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Wooden toy charts the course of a career

We all got our start as woodworkers somewhere. Somehow. Some occurrence, possibly quite by chance, got us started.

I started by building little toy wooden boats. It was before I started school, so I was young. My experience splitting firewood had familiarized me with handling an axe, so it wasn’t such a stretch to take a short section of 2 x 6 that was lying behind the drive shed and chop on a pointed bow and stern. Fence staples in the stems held the mooring lines. A shorter section of 2 x 4 became the cabin and the bobbin from one of my mother’s spools of thread, hammered amidships as a funnel, completed the superstructure. There might even have been a dab of paint to simulate the brightwork.

Inviting waterways

The whole point was to enjoy the spring runoff. The ditches were full of water. In places the whole road allowance was submerged. The creek overflowed its banks. There was no end to it and it was a small boy’s delight. But how can you have water and not have a boat?

With a length of binder twine as a line, off I went, wading along with my boat following, but more often, darting ahead. Initially my resolve was to not exceed that point of depth, which was barely below the tops of my rubber boots. Eventually, of course, I would misjudge and the ice-cold water would pour in. But this was merely the price to be paid for an afternoon of being my own captain.

“Nice? It’s the ONLY thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke (speaking to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows). “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Imagined destinations

I wasn’t actually in my boat, except in my mind, but that wasn’t much of a disadvantage, not then, not yet. Even so, I traveled far. At the end of a day, and in a particularly brisk torrent of water headed who knows where, I would cast my boat adrift, just for the pleasure of seeing it pick up speed, rolling and twisting in the currents and headed, eventually, out of sight.

I was curious as to where my boats would eventually drift. My mother told me it would be the Arctic Ocean. That caught my imagination. How could that be? This opened a window to maps and atlases. I knew that the water ended up in “the creek.” Then, down to the small lake beyond the summer pasture. From there, another creek took the water on to join up with the bigger creek that was the outflow of Rat Lake. From there to Bear Lake and then the Bear Creek took it to join the Wapiti River, on the other side of Grande Prairie. The Wapiti fed the Smokey and the Smokey had its confluence with the mighty Peace. The Peace, of course, feeds the Mackenzie and from there, it’s north all the way.

It was enough to make my little heart beat faster.

The real thing

It actually turned out to be quite a while before I built real boats and explored distant oceans. After a number of years as a committed wilderness canoe paddler, I helped found a company that built canoes. I made my own paddles and wanigans. But before that, I learned the proper way to work wood. With this skill, I built a lot of furniture. As I began to teach this craft, I also began to travel. Most of my early peregrinations were work related: studying and then lecturing or judging competitions in distant (to me) parts of North America, Europe, Latin America, Australia, Asia. I even crossed an ocean in a boat.

It all started with the mesmerizing influence of spring: the lengthening days of glorious bright sunshine, the shrinking snow, the little wild crocuses poking through, the pussy willows budding and the urgency of the water to be off on its long journey.

Taking up a craft is not unlike going on a voyage. By doing this, we set off on a long journey too. There is a similar allure that gets us started, with the sense of a distant but attainable goal, the exploration and effort in between, plus the boots full of freezing water. There is some curiosity and something curious that sets us in motion.

I always wanted to accompany one of those now distant-in-time little boats on its long journey to its far off frozen sea. That hasn’t happened and it may never, but I’ve traced much of the early stages of the journey on foot and by car. There is a long ways to go yet, and that’s fine with me.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department. Comment below.


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