Paddling The Old Way: Canvas and Woodsmoke in the Temagami Wilds

The aroma is intoxicating: varnish, cedar, damp canvas and a hint of leather. It concentrates in the cavity beneath the overturned canoe and, like a strange analgesic, eases the pain of the tumpline on my neck as I lumber across yet another portage on the Lady Evelyn River, deep in northeastern Ontario’s Temagami region. Finally, I tiptoe down a slope of fridge-sized rocks, hyperaware of the consequences a misstep here would have on my body and boat. It feels good to cradle my 60-year-old Chestnut Prospector canoe in my arms and slide it into the water.

 

words and photos: Conor Mihell

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Perhaps it’s because of the outdoor industry’s persuasive message of “ultralight and indestructible” that I cling so stubbornly to paddling a heavy and relatively fragile wood-and-canvas canoe on wilderness trips. Like most outdoor gear, modern canoes are products of the space age. Some manufacturers have even replaced wooden trim—the final vestige of tradition—with carbon and Kevlar. A few years ago, trippers freaked out when Royalex, a thermoplastic laminate invented by Uniroyal, was discontinued, threatening the generation of paddlers who relied on these bombproof canoes to navigate wilderness rivers.

The cedar ribs and canvas skin of my venerable Chestnut are the antithesis to this modern mindset. Even the staunchest fast-and-light advocate would agree that my old Prospector is gorgeous; in fact, its construction is the closest relative to the Indigenous birchbark canoe. More understated is its performance: it paddles swiftly and silently, its wooden frame offering unparalleled buoyancy in rough water. It may be heavy, especially when it becomes waterlogged on a rainy day, but that’s easily overcome with a tumpline—that ancient headstrap used by people around the world to carry extraordinary loads. Canoeing skill and caution (namely, wet feet) erase its apparent delicateness.

 

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Best of all, wood-and-canvas canoes were designed to never end up in a landfill: dings and leaks are easily patched in the field with cloth and contact cement, and the canvas skin is meant to be replaced, at which point wooden components can also be refurbished, after a decade or so of use. My canoe is as good as new after its fourth rebuild.

Perhaps it’s because of the outdoor industry’s message of “ultralight and indestructible” that I cling so stubbornly to a heavy and fragile wood-and-canvas canoe.

I feel most at home paddling a canvas canoe, packing an old-fashioned grub box known as a wannigan, and cooking over open fires in Temagami because this mosaic of lakes, rivers and tall pines remains a stronghold of traditional tripping. From its base on Lake Temagami, Camp Keewaydin has outfitted youth trips for over a century. After starting out with Ojibwa-built birchbark canoes, their fleet hasn’t evolved past wood-and-canvas.

Keewaydin continues to send girls and boys on multi-week expeditions throughout canoe country, from Temagami’s wellestablished routes to the endless boreal forest of Ontario’s far north and the powerful, unknown rivers of northern Quebec. After all this, it is no stretch to rank Keewaydin alumni amongst Canada’s finest canoeists.

 

 

I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend a canoe camp like Keewaydin, but I feel a kinship with the generations of youth who have experienced the old ways. Handling a wooden canoe in rock-studded waters comes with certain responsibility. It’s similarly rewarding to kindle a cook fire in a driving rain or to master the fickle tumpline to portage an impossible load.

Plastic canoes and gas stoves are prostheses designed to conquer the wilderness; on the other hand, relying on skill and simple, timetested equipment instils a profound sense of humility—and pride at trip’s end. Because of its steep, bouldery portages, the Lady Evelyn River is said to be one of Temagami’s toughest canoe routes. Yet it’s a typical trip for Keewaydin campers in junior high school. Exhausted after a day of hard carries, I set up camp beneath red pines at the river’s edge. Keewaydin’s trip reports often allude to their battered green canoes as living entities, identified by the number stencilled on each boat’s bow. These canoes are great companions, I think, as I begin the nightly ritual of gazing longingly at my canoe, which rests overturned on a smooth rock.

Like nothing else, this triggers memories of past trips and dreams of future adventures. It brings to mind the mariner’s saying: “A ship is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

 

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