The Inconvenience of a Wood Canvas Canoe

The Inconvenience of a Wood Canvas Canoe by Ben Jacoff ’96

Wood canvas canoes are not convenient. Drag one across a small stone and that sacred green paint and fabric will offer little resistance to the stone’s sharp edges. There is no forgiveness in their planks, no second chance in a cracked rib.

Paddle a wood canvas canoe and you may notice that with each stroke, should you not correct with a well honed “k,” your boat will start to slip off on its own secret path. Travel by canoe is not efficient. There are quicker, easier ways to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another. A canoe trip is an exercise in persistence, repetition, and planning. But not convenience. And yet, year after year, generation after generation, we load our wood canvas canoes onto iron trees, tie them down with synthetic ropes, and drag them behind gas powered behemoths to waters beyond the reach of our cell phone networks and the shadows of our apartment buildings. We carry those wood canvas canoes with tender hands and careful steps and, when we finally slide them from the safety of our arms into a cool, flat pond or a rippling clear river, we delight in the way the weight transfers from our arms to the water. Wood canvas canoes are not convenient, but they are a way of life. And like everything  worth anything in life, they take time, patience, and thought to truly understand. We choose to trip in wood canvas canoes precisely because they are made of wood and canvas – because they are inconvenient. Doing so offers us a model for dealing with the challenges we encounter. Bowman so heavy that your bow keeps flooding when you go down rapids? Just turn around in your seats and take the next set backwards – in a wood canvas canoe, like in life, there is no forwards or backwards. There is only the direction that you are going and the experiences you’ve had. Worried that running a rapid will harm your boat? Take the time to do the hard thing. The hard thing is almost always the right thing to do anyway. Wood canvas canoes teach us lessons about patience, and being mindful. They remind us to take care with our hands, with our feet, and with our choices. That if you truly care about something, you treat it with respect and reverence. They remind us too that we campers and staff, like our wood canvas brothers, need to be treated carefully at times. That we can easily be hurt by an errant stone, or a moment of inattention.

Imagine a trip in a tin canoe, or an evening at boats out in a motorboat. Where would we be without our wood canvas canoes? On screens? On a couch? Waiting for a video to load or a commercial to end? Our lives are so full of convenience, of easy ways out, of distractions, of anything to make our lives a little more smooth, a little more convenient. But when we choose to come to this place, to Keewaydin, to paddle and trip in wood canvas canoes, we say to ourselves that there is something to be gained in experiencing a challenge. That we live for that moment when we slip away from shore, our knees resting between the ribs below us, our hands sliding a paddle along the side of our boat. That wooden hulk that we laid gently against a tree at each campsite, protected from rocks and branches, lugged over beaver dams and sandbars, carried on our shoulders around waterfalls and through forests. We say to ourselves that we welcome the inconvenience of a wood canvas canoe.


The Relationship Between Nature, Humans and Keewaydin

From the Director: Bruce Ingersoll ‘76

At the prompting of his daughter Amelia ’09, Keewaydin Temagami’s Director was pressed to reflect on the relationship between nature and humans and Keewaydin.

My daughter Amelia is a senior this year so I am enjoying the final days of being able to peer over her shoulder as she completes her homework. Right now, she is reading The Yosemite by John Muir which chronicles his seasons in California’s Yosemite Valley. As an activist, Muir was a pioneer in articulating the cause for preservation of wild places with evocative prose descriptions. Muir insisted the human spirit needs the wilderness and wildness to survive.

Amelia had projects associated with the reading, one of which involved digging a little deeper into the relationship between nature and humans and asking me about Keewaydin and what we thought about it. To be honest, I was a bit stumped at first, swirling around in that place of “isn’t that obvious?” Then I had to answer the question.

My first thought is about the slowing of time. While we joke about “Temagami Time,” it is real and the clock out there just ticks a little slower, opening the door for reflection. Whether it is accompanied by the rhythmic thumping of paddles on the gunwhales of a canoe as you and your boat partner traverse a lake, or just sitting by the shore, the slowness invites reflection and chastises impatience. The forest is redolent with the smell of cycles of birth and rebirth and death; and the spruce and birch and lady slippers busting out of the fertile soil insist you acknowledge it and deeply consider it.

The absence of electronics is crucial. It is mighty liberating to put the cell phone down and walk away from the texts, the Facebook, the Twitter and the Instagram and the judgements attached.

In the wilderness all sorts of sh#%$$# happens. Before a trip you make careful plans that drill down to counting the smallest contour line and the metric distance of portages, but, out there, the wind starts to blow hard and won’t stop for three days. Everything changes. Patience is rewarded, impatience is a risk. So, you deal. You figure out how to live with the new plan and work to discover what this natural force has just taught you.

Finally, there is a divine presence (you can call it what you will) in nature and three, six or seven weeks immersed in nature, reflecting upon it, smelling it and breathing it brings you closer to that presence.

The studies are out there about nature and happiness, I will admit I used my “Googler” to read up. There is lots to discover about trees and urban planning and physical health. Lots to know about how extended time in the wilderness enhances creativity, mental health, and reduces depression. For me, on a canoe trip it seems simple, you are connected to the earth, there is time for reflection/meditation, there are moments that teach and there is a small group of people around you who share your highs and lows and whom you trust absolutely. Out there you remember who you truly are.

This is the magic of a Keewaydin summer. It is right in front of us and I am eager for June, but I will be patient while I wait for it.

Testimonials From the Kids

From Keewaydin Kids

Kids say the darnedest things. But they also have the most soulful insights into what makes each of Keewaydin’s camps great. Trying to persuade someone on the fence about a summer at Keewaydin? Looking to remember your own camping days? Look no further, because these kids have hit the nail on the head. Without further ado, words from the kids:

Songadeewin has made me strong of heart and mind in so many ways. I used to be uncomfortable in large groups, always quiet, and I would never introduce myself or make conversations with strangers. I was doubtful about who I was. Today, I am no longer that person. I have learned how to be fearless and speak up. – Seven year Songadeewin Camper, age 15

One thing I especially enjoyed at Keewaydin was the trip I got to go on. My trip was a six-day canoeing adventure on Rangeley Lakes in Maine. I had a great time and I learned things like building fires, setting up camp and how to paddle in three-foot waves!  – Second year Keewaydin Dunmore Camper, age 12 

Trip was beautiful and the lessons I learned were bountiful. I think that being at Keewaydin and spending my summer canoeing has taught me to live with a purpose. At camp everything you do is moving you closer and closer to your goal. Sometimes in life, especially as an adolescent’s, outcomes can be hard to find, decisions about your future can be hard to make. However, my time at Keewaydin has taught me to be more driven and to continue my journey growing up.  – First year  Keewaydin Temagami Camper, age 18

Songa was filled with so many great opportunities. I was excited to try something new and I took advantage of as many as I could. My favorite activity was canoeing, but I really enjoyed “tripping” the most. When I was chosen to go on St. Regis I was nervous because I didn’t have any experience with canoeing, and I didn’t know anybody on my trip. But spending six days with each other really helps people bond, and I became friends with people I never thought I would have weeks before. Even after trip it felt good to have people who you knew you could always go to.  – First year Songadeewin Camper, age 12

Special memories from camp come from the people there. I still remember my first encounter with a Keewaydin camper. It was my first year in Waramaug and I was extremely nervous. I walked into camp, feeling shy and out of place, and then this kid in my tent approached me with a big smile on his face. With his hand out, he shook mine and introduced me to everyone around. I had a really good impression of this person, and today he is one of my closest friends. Because there are new campers every year and because of my experience, I introduce myself to them, being as amiable as I can and welcoming them to a place I think of as my home.  – Fourth year Keewaydin Dunmore camper, age 14

In my mind they have all combined into a huge jumble of memories but there are a few that stand out: getting stuck in quicksand mud called muskeg – yes, really; and portaging a canoe on my head for 1.3 kilometers without any help. The animals and remote locations we saw were truly beautiful. There is something so special about being somewhere pristine and untouched by civilization. We also saw loons, moose, and lots of fish; which we caught, cooked and ate. The stars were so bright and the sky was so big. Keewaydin is such a magical place.  – First year Keewaydin Temagami Camper, age 15