By Howard Meyerson
It was a quintessential fall day: cool and sunny with color in the trees, bold splashes of yellow and orange lining the banks of the AuSable River. What made it all the more colorful was company I was keeping and the canoes they paddled, each made of wood and rich in history.
Floating close by was Dave McDaniel in his early 1950s Peterborough canoe, its varnished wood ribs finished bright.
McDaniel, a rugged looking man, paddled solo sporting a broad-brimmed hat. He appeared relaxed as he negotiated the river’s obstacles.
Peterboroughs are classic, finely crafted wood canoes, once made by the Peterborough Canoe Co. in Peterborough, Ontario, before it went out of business in the 1960s. The company began operations in 1892, but before it closed, it would become an icon with north woods canoe travelers.
McDaniel’s canoe was one of nearly a dozen vintage canoes on the water this day. He had come out for the fall gathering of the Michigan chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, a national organization dedicated to the preservation, restoration and use of wood or bark canoes.
“At one time, I had 30 boats,” said McDaniel, of Oscoda, as we floated with the current. “I got tired of trying to store them. So, I am now down to 15 and trying to weed out everything I am not totally in love with. But it is hard to let some go.”
To see them on the water, it is no wonder. Each canoe this day had character in spades. Some were finished for show; others were works in progress.
McDaniel’s Peterborough is the one he paddles regularly. His vintage 1800s Gerrish stayed home. Evan H. Gerrish, the man who built it, is credited with building the first commercially made canvas and wood canoes in his Bangor, Maine, shop. You can watch a YouTube video of one McDaniel restored at The Wood and Canvas Canoe: Two By Gerrish
The late Gerrish was featured in a Bangor Daily News story this year. “Exasperated by leaky bark canoes, Gerrish, a Brownville hunting and fishing guide, moved to Bangor in 1875 and started a small business manufacturing fishing rods and canoe paddles,” the story recounted. “He also started experimenting with wood-canvas canoes. By 1884, he was producing 50 canoes annually.”
Fifty canoes is nothing by modern manufacturing standards, but canoes today are largely the product of mass manufacturing, made of synthetic materials or aluminum. Even wood trim and cane seats, while still available, have been replaced by modern materials.
New world canoes may be sleek, slippery and tough, but Ken Kelly, says they lack the
aesthetics inherent in wood canoes with their natural look and quiet, steady ride.
“Aluminum, fiberglass and modern materials don’t create the same sense of appropriateness in remote and wilderness places,” said Kelly, of Grand Rapids, the president of the national WCHA. “Wood canoes provide a connection to the people that built them. You get a real sense of authenticity that only a birch bark canoe can surpass.”
Kelly was paddling his 1915 Kingsbury, built in the Charles River area near Boston, Mass. It is one in his collection of more than a dozen antique canoes. Kelly flew pennants from each end as paddled downstream sitting on a cushion against a varnished wood-fan backrest.
“It usually starts as a need for information,” he said. “Who made my canoe, or what is it worth or how do you fix it? Then, it quickly evolves into friendship with others that share an interest in the history, qualities and craftsmanship of these canoes,” Kelly explained about the appeal of the 1,800-member WCHA.
That camaraderie was evident at Ma Deeters, a restaurant in nearby Luzerne the night before. WCHA member’s stories floated across the tables and filtered through the tavern’s background chatter during its famous Friday night fish fry.
All of that drew Bill and Janette Hart, of Frankenmuth, to WCHA. The couple floated this day in a Baker canoe made in Michigan. It is one of two they own, along with a 1905 Morris they both are excited to restore.
B.N. Morris was another of the Maine-based wood canvas canoe pioneers. He built canoes from the 1880s until 1920, when a fire destroyed his factory. His wooden canoes are considered among the finest built.
“We have seven canoes, but this is the one we paddle all the time,” said Bill Hart, at the take-out point after a delightful four-hour float. “The history is important to us.”
Janette Hart, who doesn’t shy away from the hands-on restoration work, agreed. “They are beautiful and I enjoy saving history,” she said. “Saving the Morris will really be exciting.”
For more information about antique and classic wood or bark canoes, check out wcha.org.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors
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