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A Yankee Notebook

September 26, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – It’s happened again. The local kids are back in school, the sun is up for less than half the day, and the nights are at last cooler. The trails through the woods are already covered with yellow and red leaves – soft maple, popple, ash – and here and there, where once bloomed now-long-gone farms, lie wild yellow apples squashed into pulp by passing feet, or nicked with little tooth marks where the squirrels and voles have been nibbling.

It’s a reflective time of year: What have we accomplished during the glut of daylight, and what have we not? The back porch ceiling that I so dreaded tackling is up, it’s painted, and it’s beautiful. The front porch decking is all screwed down at last, and the bathroom vents will be all hooked up by the weekend. On the other hand, the porch railings still don’t exist, there are a couple of hardwood logs behind the garage still crying for the saw and splitting maul, and the canoes peek at me accusingly from inside the garage. Why, they ask, did we get used so little this summer?

Canoes are among the most beautiful of the gifts we’ve been given by native Americans – or, as they’re called in Canada, First Nation people. Their different hull forms were developed over centuries for the specific needs of the people who used them, and made of the materials they had easily to hand. Birch bark, the preferred material for most northern tribes, grew only sparsely south of the Great Lakes, except for along the Atlantic coast, so the birch-poor Iroquois had to get along with elm and cedar bark – unless they ventured north into the Algonquins’ territory to get the good stuff, and often the finished products themselves, by hook, crook, or robbery. It’s no wonder they weren’t getting along with each other already when Samuel de Champlain arrived and aggravated the relationship with his harquebus and quick trigger finger.

The distinctive designs developed in various habitats are perfect examples of form following function. The Passamaquoddys and Maliseets, living down East, but on fresh water, built the canoes most pleasing to my eye: swift and narrow, with plenty of carrying capacity. Other tribes made canoes with such a pronounced rocker in the keel that both ends hung well above the surface of the water. They were slow in flat water, but could spin on a dime in a rapid. Offshore-fishing natives built canoes with center sections so swollen they looked pregnant; but they could be heeled far over to pull nets full of fish up over the gunwales.

Speaking of unique designs for singular purposes: Hanging on the wall above my desk is a replica poster for the old Peterborough Canoe Company. Besides huge wood-and-canvas freight canoes carrying half a dozen men and many bales of fur, Peterborough made a line of “comfort craft,” beautifully built with varnished cedar strips. A young swain of a hundred years ago sat in the stern and paddled, while his sweetheart reclined in the bow against a back rest, facing him, with a Victrola and 78-rpm records beside one elbow and a picnic locker beside the other. Sweet!

The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, has probably the most spectacular collection of small craft anywhere: dugouts, skin boats, coracles, kayaks, a birch-bark fur-trade canoe 12 meters long, and racing canoes. Its godfather, Kirk Wipper, a recently deceased professor, augmented its collection with several hundred of his own boats. You can’t believe, till you see a photo of it, his odyssey from the west coast of Canada to Ontario with a 54-foot (that’s no misprint) dugout racing canoe on top of his pickup truck.

The silent disapprobation emanating from the canoes in the garage stems partly from being left behind during the trip that five friends and I took this summer. For a little over two weeks we paddled, waded, dragged, and careened down a rocky little river north of the Canadian tree line, watched, as we passed, by the locals – caribou, muskoxen, grizzly bears, and wolves – who seemed more curious than frightened. The canoes, though shaped almost exactly like their First Nation forebears, were made of plastic, which takes a beating impossible for canoes of birch bark or even wood and canvas. One of my canoes here at home, a husky plastic 18-footer, Mother and I wrapped around a rock in the White River on Father’s Day many years ago. Its two ends were touching each other, and I figured it was a gone goose. But it popped back into shape, and it’s still usable today. It shows a little crinkle around its middle to remind us of our long-ago adventure.

Europeans, who think of canoes more as arrow-thin racing craft, call ours “Canadian canoes.” It’s long amazed me how much we can carry in them and still remain pretty nimble when dodging rocks in a fast current. Our gang of six loaded its three boats with six big waterproof pack bags; three waterproof food bags with 16 days’ rations; three tents; a large canvas pack with pots, pans, and utensils; and a big yellow plastic watertight wanigan holding the Coleman stove, cooking oil, condiments, paper towels, and what-have you. Add fishing rods, extra paddles, and small personal packs, and that’s a pretty impressive caravan. But we sailed down to the sea as serenely as Cleopatra in her royal barge. Well, not quite as serenely; my partner and I managed to fill our boat with water once and then, later the same day, dump it upside down. But not much harm done. We continued on with colors flying, if a bit bedraggled. And the canoe got cleaned, too!

Each of us took a camera, and shot and later shared whatever struck his fancy. Thus those weeks, thanks to digital photography, are still as close as a button on my computer keyboard. I cue up a new photo on the desktop each week for frequent resort. But nothing actually compares to the living response of a good canoe to the stirring of your paddle and the tilt of your body. I’ve got to get out there a few more times before, all too soon, the ice begins to creep across the ponds again.

Photo by Willem lange