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.
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.
I first heard about Keewaydin in 2010 when my wife and I were looking for a summer camp for our eldest daughter. Fast forward to the beginning of this year, my wife and three daughters had accumulated 16 years of Keewaydin canoe trips between them. My three daughters were looking forward to their Keewaydin summers, one as a first-time staff member and the other two their Bay and Section 3 trips. My wife was also looking forward to a reunion weekend with her section mates that she had been tripping with for the past two summers on the Missinaibi River. As for me, I was looking forward to another few days at Ojibway at Endseason. With this and my only real claim to canoeing fame being a trip with my mother-in-law along a portion of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, I always felt left out of the family Keewaydin conversations. I even felt a bit of a spare wheel at the Keewaydin recruiting events we had hosted over the years at our home.
So it was with this background and the enthusiastic encouragement of my wife and three daughters that I got the last spot on the Men’s Adult Trip of 2016. Once Bruce gave me the OK I eagerly waited for the trip details to be finalized and very quickly started to bombard my wife and daughters with questions about all things Keewaydin and canoe tripping. Much to their amusement, it became evident very quickly that all the talk I had heard over the years about tumps, rolling, wannigans, Dickies, trip/dry clothing etc. had gone over my head.
After promising my daughters that I would not embarrass them by questioning the Keewaydin Way (and a wry smile from my wife) I headed to North Bay to meet my section mates. From there we flew to the First Nation Settlement of Webequie where we put in on the Winisk River and paddled for two weeks, covering approximately 250 miles, ending up in Peawanuk, a few miles short of Hudson Bay.
My section mates were a diverse group with ages ranging from the late teens to early 70s. I was privileged to be with them and experience “the majestic, mysterious, mystical, magical Winisk River.” Together we all welcomed the outstanding weather, marveled at the array of birds, oooohed and ahhhhhed at the polar bear with her cubs, the list could go on and on. We all jumped in with both feet (metaphorically and literally) and immersed ourselves in the spectacular beauty and wilderness of Ontario. For two weeks we lived and for the most part loved the Keewaydin Way. (Some folks had questions about pot black and the wisdom of pot scrubbing after every meal.) Memories of these shared experiences will stay with me for a long time and I hope the friendships I made during these two weeks will last even longer.
Selfishly, I hold my own personal thoughts, memories, and experiences most dear.
Each night I would think about my three daughters who were, like me, at that same moment in time coming to the end of their day of paddling. It was beautiful to think I was somehow sharing the same moment with them. (Personal note to Anna, Kyra & Sadie: Telepathy works!).
Having completed my first and hopefully not last Keewaydin canoe trip I finally have a sense of why my daughters’ have wanted to do this for weeks on end, (rather than days like me), year in, year out since before they were teenagers. As a parent, being able to glimpse into my children’s world is a real gift. More precious is the sense of indescribable pride I have for my daughters now that I know what is involved in a Keewaydin wilderness canoe trip.
Thank you Keewaydin.
For more information about Adult Trips, please contact Bruce Ingersoll at [email protected] or 802-352-4247.
It is with great pleasure to announce that Lauren Geiger will be joining the Keewaydin Foundation team as our new Development Director! Many of you already know Lauren from her work with us during the campaign as a consultant with Demont and Associates. Currently, she is a senior development officer at Norwich University.
Lauren officially begins on October 1. I feel very fortunate to have Lauren directing our development operations. She has rich experience, terrific people skills, great instincts, and an abiding appreciation of Keewaydin.
Canoes: The Boat Upon Which We Float Our Philosophy
by Bruce Ingersoll and Dylan Schoelzel
Ask anyone who has attended one of our camps what they remember most, and one of the first things they will tell you about are the canoes and the canoe trips. Founded by A.S. Gregg Clarke, Keewaydin first began leading canoe trips for young boys and men through the north woods of Maine in 1893. The focus of Camp Kah-Kou, as it was known then, was wilderness canoe trips. Clarke believed that on these adventurous expeditions, boys and young men, would grow strong, learn about courage, teamwork, and independence and develop an appreciation for wilderness. That mission remains at the center of the Keewaydin experience and has broadened to include multiple camps and girls and young women. Today, Keewaydin is home to the world’s largest fleet of working wood-and-canvas canoes which continue to be the heart of the Keewaydin experience.
Keewaydin has an enormous fleet of canoes designed to do one thing: carry campers out into the wilderness with hopes and expectation for adventure and then safely return with a newfound sense of the world and themselves. Each canoe may travel anywhere from 200-600 miles a summer all over Ontario, Quebec, Labrador, Manitoba, northern New England and eastern New York. They cross vast lakes through all types of winds and weather. They are paddled and poled upstream to cross heights of land, and they nimbly navigate whitewater. Our canoes hold loads in excess of 700 pounds as they travel downstream on some of the wildest rivers Canada has to offer: the Eastmain, Rupert, George, Koksoak and Great Whale rivers. They even ply the salty waters of Hudson Bay.
The early fleet; pre 1925
No information survives to tell us what types of canoes were used when Keewaydin started in Maine in the 1890’s. They were most likely locally built wood-and-canvas and birch bark canoes.
When the camp moved to Temagami, a more permanent fleet of wide board (rib and batten) canoes, bark canoes, and wood-canvas canoes built by EM White, was established. During the first few years, wide board and bark canoes were bought directly from the Hudson Bay Company. EM White canoes were supplied through Henry McCleod who was the only Maine guide to follow Clarke from Maine to Temagami. McCleod was instrumental in constructing the early camp buildings on Devil’s Island and he was also known as the canoe foreman (caretaker of the canoe fleet). In the off-season McCleod returned to Maine where he was gainfully employed by EM White, the canoe builder who had set up shop in 1885 in the Old Town, Maine area.
The Chestnut era; 1925-1979
By this point in time Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore was firmly established and canoes and canoeing were at the heart of the Temagami and Dunmore camp experiences. In about 1925, McCleod retired from canoe building, and Temagami folks began purchasing canoes from the Chestnut Canoe Company in New Brunswick. This marked the beginning of a relationship that lasted more than 50 years. Keewaydin Dunmore stayed with the EM Whites for a longer period of time, preferring the eighteen-and-a-half foot canoe that was a dream to paddle, but ferociously heavy to portage. But by the early 1950’s both camps were buying almost exclusively from Chestnut.
During the Chestnut era the canoe fleet became standardized with two models; the Chestnut Cruiser and the Chestnut Prospector. One of the more unique features of the Keewaydin canoe during this time period was the wannigan rib. The ribs were created by Keewaydin and installed in their canoes by Chestnut at the factory. These narrower ribs were clinch nailed over the main ribs in the canoe. There are typically 6 of these ribs per canoe, 3 on each side of the center thwart, positioned on every other rib starting with the two center ribs. Their purpose is to add overall strength to the hull, particularly where the wannigans are loaded, and to keep the main ribs from prematurely breaking.
Wannigans, sometimes weighing upwards of 100 pounds each, are almost always loaded two to a canoe, one on each side of the center thwart. The ribs beneath the wannigan are subjected to unusual wear and tear from loading and unloading. Also, wannigans are known to literally hop or bounce up and down in rapids and on windy lakes.
Keewaydin became one of Chestnuts largest retail purchasers with a standing order every year until Chestnut closed their doors for good in 1979. Canoes were shipped from New Brunswick via rail to Vermont and to the town of Temagami. In the town of Temgagami they were loaded onto a large steamer that made deliveries on the lake.
The Chestnut canoe became embedded into the camp as an icon of durability and performance. As the last few years of the Chestnut Canoe Company dwindled along in the late 1970’s the camps had a hard time buying the models they wanted. The last year Chestnut was open Keewaydin purchased the final remaining inventory of Guide Specials (a model built on the cruiser form but constructed with nearly twice the number of ribs as a regular cruiser model). It was all they could buy.
This period, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, was a rough one for canoes and Keewaydin. The traditional vessels were no longer available but the impetus to canoes trip was as strong as it ever was. Camp leadership scrambled to find someone out there to build canoes. Old Town sold wood-and-canvas canoes, with the 18′ Guide model being preferred especially for the Wauramaug Wigwam at Keewaydin Dunmore. But they were very expensive. At the same time plastics were taking hold and ABS presented a durable and inexpensive alternative to wood and canvas. But at what point is durability traded for the grace and flex of a wood-and-canvas craft? More importantly, would the use of synthetics change the way business was done on a Keewaydin canoe trip? Would the essential teachings sacred to Commodore Clarke be diminished? The conversations were very similar at both camps and in the end, the solutions were remarkably the same and preserved the essence of the Keewaydin Experience.
As the supply of wood-and-canvas canoes dried up in Temagami, Fred Reimers, then director, looked around at the world of synthetic canoes and purchased first a set of six early model ABS canoes and then twenty-four Kevlar canoes for use in the youngest boys wigwam: Manitou. The big Kevlar canoes were a better compromise and could carry a big load – ideal for Manitou where each canoe carried a non-paddling mojo. Those canoes remained in service into the ’90’s.
But the rest of the camp still needed canoes and Reimers was able to avoid moving the whole camp to Kevlar when hope presented itself in the form of Donald Fraser of Fredericton, New Brunswick. When the assets of Chestnut were sold off, some of the canoe forms were purchased by Fraser, who was Chesnut’s sales manager at the time. He began working for Chestnut in 1951 and knew that Keewaydin was a steady customer that relied on the Cruiser and Prospector. Fraser chipped away at his retirement endeavor by building his shop in the early 80’s. His first canoe came to Devil’s Island in the summer of 1982. For the next 25 years Fraser continued to keep the Chestnut/Keewaydin relationship alive by supplying the camp with seventeen foot Cruisers and Prospectors.
A new era of builders
A girls’ program was introduced on Temagami in 1999. Around the same time the canoes used in the youngest boys sections, the Manitou wigwam, were old and tired. The camp needed a new fleet of canoes for the girls program and they needed to do something about those in Manitou. Fraser was capable of building only so many canoes a year in his small New Brunswick one man shop. This, coupled with the fact that Fraser would not be able to build canoes forever, set the camp looking for new canoe builders again.
For the girls program, Keewaydin turned to Dylan and Emily Schoelzel of Salmon Falls Canoe in Shelburne, Massachusetts. Both Dylan and Emily had deep backgrounds at Keewaydin. Dylan was a long time camper and member of the staff and Emily, also an veteran tripper and who’s family was no stranger to Keewaydin, was hired to start the girls program in 1999. Both understood Keewaydin and requirements for their canoes. The Schoelzel’s delivered their first canoe, the Chicot (pronounced Shee-koh), to the camp in 2000.
For the younger boys of Manitou the camp turned to Glenn and Dianne Toogood of Garden Island Canoe in Temagami . Both Glen and Diane are longtime residents of Temagami and have a long history with the camp which among other things included rebuilding canoes. Their Mojo model, named after the Ojibway word for a canoe carrying more people than its two paddlers, was a natural fit.
On Lake Dunmore the same debates raged around campfires. The Wilderness Trip was the focal point for the canoe conversation. When the EM Whites were no longer available, the Wilderness Trip used Tremblays, a big sturdy Prospector sized canoe built in St. Felicien Quebec. Tremblays were workhorses and into the 1970’s were accessible to the point that a trip could swing by on their way to Misstissini and pick one up if a canoe was damaged. They were perfect until the shop was abruptly closed in the mid-1970’s leaving the camp without a supplier.
Waboos Hare and Abby Fenn presided over the transition and wound up with two very neat solutions. The first was to begin using ABS canoes. Abby Fenn, in particular, was an experimenter and wanted to give ABS a try. They were able to find nice seventeen foot tripping canoes at Old Town, the Tripper and it was adopted into the fleet to be used on longer river trips where there was more whitewater to be run. In 1977 one ABS canoe went on the Wilderness Trip and the other four were wood-and-canvas, most likely a mix of Chesnuts and Tremblays. In 1978, it was four ABS canoes and one wood-and-canvas and by 1984 the change was complete. The design was perfect and the price was good. But most importantly the canoes were able to continue to serve the mission.
As for the wood-and-canvas fleet, Schylur Thompson stepped into the void much the same way Don Fraser did up in Temagami. A long time trip leader and camper at Dunmore, Thompson became interested in canoe repair in the 70’s and began his apprenticeship with long-time Dunmore maintenance man Chuck Conard. They began by repairing one of the great war canoes and for Thompson the rest was easy. He set up his own business outside of Keewaydin, took on rebuilding the Dunmore fleet and all wood canvas canoes. By the late 1980’s Thompson began to build and supply new canoes for Dunmore and continues to do so today.
Present day; the fleet today and the future outlook:
Keewaydin’s fleet consists of roughly 350 canoes, 232 of which are wood-and-canvas. At Temagami there are not many historical examples as far as age and maker is concerned, since these are hard working canoes. Most are 20-40 years old with the bulk having been built within the past 20. At Dunmore the history comes with the canoes named in honor of staff who served at Keewaydin for 20 years. 10 of these are Chestnuts.
By today’s standards it is easy for the fleet to be viewed as rather unusual. Unlike most camps that have abandoned their wood canvas canoes in favor of synthetic materials, all of Keewaydin Temagami’s trips are done in wood canvas canoes. At Dunmore the Wilderness and the Moosalamoo trips are all done in ABS because they encounter so much white water. The rest of the trips head out in the trusty wood-and-canvas canoe.
Keewaydin keeps the wooden canoe not just for the sake of nostalgia, but because it provides so much of what Keewaydin offers. The wooden canoe teaches
invaluable lessons in taking care of your gear and teaching a set of highly refined paddling skills that no other canoe can teach.
Over the last 120 years canoes at Keewaydin have been bought and sold, traded and lost, buried and burned, left behind so trips could get home on the train or an airplane, and they have all been paddled thousands and thousands of miles. Carrying their passengers through thick and thin, cold and warm, dry and wet, the Keewaydin fleet is capable of telling canoe trip stories that most of us can only dream about. We may never know how many canoes Keewaydin has used over the years, hundreds if not in the thousands, but one thing will always remain true – the wooden canoe is strong and alive and accounts for a large part of what makes the Keewaydin Way so unique and special.
Live the thrilling rapids, breathtaking vistas and wildlife, melt in your mouth foods and tremendous teamwork of Section A on their 50 day adventure to Hudson Bay with Keewaydin Temagami in 2013.The group traveled in northern Quebec and Nunavik with their journey ending at the village of Kuujjuarapik on Hudson Bay’s coast. Many thanks to staffman John W. Frazier V who shot and edited the video footage.
Give a Keewaydin L.L. Bean Flannel to Your Favorite Keewaydinessi!
L.L. Bean’s Scotch Plaid Flannel Shirts are some of the softest, longest wearing, most comfortable flannel shirts you can buy, and now they are complete with Keewaydin’s moose and paddles.
Perfect for staying warm and feeling light in the dark and blustery months ahead.
Visit the Camp Store for that unexpected holiday gift or for one of your very own! https://www.keewaydin.org/parents/camp-store/