Wooden canoe gathering brings out beauty of bygone era

 WCHA member Dave McDaniel, of Oscoda (foreground), and WCHA president, Ken Kelly, of Grand Rapids, enjoy a paddle in wood canoes in early summer. Photo:  Howard Meyerson

WCHA member Dave McDaniel, of Oscoda (foreground), and WCHA president, Ken Kelly, of Grand Rapids, enjoy a paddle in wood canoes in early summer. Photo: Howard Meyerson

By Howard Meyerson

Wood canoe enthusiasts from around the Great Lakes will be gathering in Lake City from Aug. 15-16 for a weekend of fun and festivities. For wood canoe lovers, it’s a show not to be missed.

“We’re hoping to see 400 to 500 people,” notes Russ Hicks, a wood canoe restorer from Eaton Rapids, and founder of the Michigan Chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA), a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping old wood canoes alive.

“Wood canoes engender the ‘When I was young’ comment or ‘At my grandfather’s cottage …’ It always takes (people) back to simpler times,” Hicks explains.

Forty to 50 antique wood canoes will be displayed at the Upper Great Lakes Regional Assembly of WCHA that weekend. The gathering takes place at Crooked Lake Park Campground on the south side of Crooked Lake, in Missaukee County.

Admission is free, and the public is invited to attend and browse. 

An assortment of wooden canoes like these shown at the WCHA Regional Assembly in Marquette in 2013 will be on display this year. Photo courtesy of WCHA

An assortment of wooden canoes like these shown at the WCHA Regional Assembly in Marquette in 2013 will be on display this year. Photo courtesy of WCHA

The show is an opportunity for enthusiasts and canoe-curious folks to talk with restorers and owners. Several demonstrations are planned, including re-canvassing wood canoes, traditional basket weaving, paddle making, blacksmithing and freestyle and other paddling techniques.

“We’ll have contemporary strip-built canoes from the last 20 years and century-old courting canoes. There will be freight canoes from the 1920s and 30s, even the logging era in Michigan,” Hicks said. “People will be showing early, lightweight wood canoes for the (Minnesota) Boundary waters, family canoes and sailing canoes. There will be trailer queens that never see the water and those that are regularly used.”

What you can count on is seeing beautiful wood canoe designs in various stages of life.

The Upper Great Lakes Regional Assembly of WCHA provides a good opportunity for wood canoe enthusiasts and owners to mingle and learn. Photo courtesy of WCHA.

The Upper Great Lakes Regional Assembly of WCHA provides a good opportunity for wood canoe enthusiasts and owners to mingle and learn. Photo courtesy of WCHA.

Hicks recently acquired a Circa-1917 courting canoe; a design made in that era to promote intimacy among couples that would use them. They were wildly popular.

Built with long, covered decks in the bow and stern, couples were not left with a lot of room. Summer evening trips on the pond were guaranteed to be cozy, and the canoes were often accessorized with pillows and phonographs to add a little mood.

“This one has three-foot long mahogany decks,” Hicks said. “It’s an Old Town, a gorgeous-looking boat that is 98 years old. The original paint is gone, but there is no rot, broken ribs or planking. It’s in exquisite structural shape.”

Hicks is also bringing a 1927 Carleton Indian Princess, a boat he restored and had repainted professionally by an artist, who restored the fine, ornate hull graphics of the time — a canoe that spent its life on Higgins Lake, in Roscommon County, until Hicks acquired it five years ago.

WCHA, he said, is a group for people who get wood canoe fever. Some love to paddle them, others want to restore and collect them.

“It tends to be a support group for those that have the affliction,” Hicks said humorously.

He knows the afflicted plan to bring their canoes in from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Ontario.

They gathered in Wisconsin in 2014 and in Marquette the year before.  They hope to infect others with the same love and passion for beautiful wood canoe designs.

And, just maybe, infuse them with enough knowledge to know they too can breathe new life into a fading but beautiful bygone era of canoeing.

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Appears in MLive Media Group newspapers & MLive Outdoors.

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