Proud Canadian heritage

Paul Epp

I grew up on the Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta, an anomalous patch of grassland deep in the Boreal Forest. It takes only a moment of reflection to understand that it was unlikely that watercraft were a part of my youth. But that changed.

As a young man in Toronto, I shared a wood studio with Stephen Harris. He had gone to those posh summer camps that featured wilderness canoe tripping as part of their programs and he had liked it. He decided to reacquaint himself and, much like myself, every aspiration turns into a project. He built himself a canoe. I was fascinated in seeing it take shape: a traditional canvas-covered cedar plank on cedar rib construction. A year or two later, he invited me to be his annual summer canoeing partner. This had more to do with the pickup I had just acquired, which could carry the canoe to our northern put-in, than my nonexistent skills. He was an impatient, grumpy and demanding instructor and I learned a lot in a hurry. But I really liked it.

A couple of years later, my girlfriend and I took an extended trip into the backcountry of Killarney. I rented an aluminum canoe. A Grumman. What a pig. Never again. But there was an old cedar-canvas canoe at my friend’s family cottage. It had been mail-ordered in the early ‘60s from Eaton’s. How very Canadian. It had been used roughly and not been looked after and was almost at the end of its useful life. But I thought I could rescue it. That required the splicing in of new stem-ends, new gunwales and decks, new seat caning, new canvas and a few new planks. It was pretty flat bottomed and retained little rocker but at least it wasn’t hogged. To offset this, I added a keel and ended up with a very useful canoe-tripping craft.

Lots of use ensued.

I had enjoyed all of this enough so that when I was invited to join a new canoe-building venture I scrambled aboard. I was to be the general manager and as such built a new workshop, a new store, equipped the shop, hired workers, created a supply chain and so on. We built traditional cedar canvas canoes and what are called Strippers: rib-less cedar strip hulls covered inside and out with a clear fiberglass skin. We built some pretty nice boats. Eventually, issues arose and I elected to jump ship.

But I took a couple of these fine watercraft with me and I still have one; a traditional cedar-canvas boat that is slim enough to be fast, and rounded enough at its bottom to give me some very satisfying secondary stability. It’s a delight to use and I look after it very carefully. I’ve used it a lot, including a back-country family trip with my then six-month old son. He has grown up with canoes and understands and perpetuates my enthusiasm.

Canoe wisdom acknowledges the beauty of this type of boat, attributing it to the absence of straight lines. And the curved lines are gentle, natural and organic, arising from the lines a bent piece of slender wood takes. These lines do not only look good, they work well, moving though the water in an efficient and graceful way. One of my greatest canoeing pleasures is the silent gliding along, with water minimally disturbed and up-turned bow pointing at the far shore.

There is a great Canadian attachment to these craft. Just note the number on top of cars on any day of the summer, heading north up Highway 400 in Ontario or any other cottage destined road. We also have a strong history in canoe building and even canoe design. The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., is a wonderful repository and illustration of this. There are now canoes made in lots of materials and they have their attributes, from ruggedness to low maintenance and in some cases, a low price point. But they don’t have the beauty of the traditional wooden versions. The ones that I consider to be the acme of canoe building are those that use pattern shaped planks on narrow half-round ribs. It seems that the necessary skills to build these boats has been lost, or at least the market for this type of inevitably expensive version is not economically viable. A pity. But the cedar-canvas version is still being built and it’s delightful.

I’m proud to have been involved with canoes in the various ways that I have been and proud to have helped keep this tradition alive.

Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.