An intimate history of a canoe. Words :: Leslie Anthony.
Before Neegik sailed across the Prairies, tacking west against a 20-knot wind. Before she suffered the indignities of a crusty veteran attempting to reclaim his youth. Before she resided near the sandy beach and played with laughing children. Before she traversed Algonquin Park south to north and south again one year, then south to north and onward to Temagami the next. Before the years spent mentoring a city boy in the ways and means of bushcraft. Before all of that, Neegik was but a blueprint on a drawing board.
Since 1914, Les Canots Tremblay Ltee. of St. Felicien, in the Lac St. Jean area of Quebec, had manufactured classic cedar-strip canoes ranging in length from 14 to 20 feet, collectively known as the Chibougamau line. The sixteen-foot model was called a Huron. In 1972, I was gifted a red Huron for my 15th birthday. I named it Neegik (“otter” in Ojibwa). And it changed my life.
As the oldest manufacturer of canvas-covered canoes in Canada, Tremblays were of surpassing quality, in my day coated in a tough new vinyl-canvas laminate known as Verolite. Appropriately for the territories it would ply, Neegik was built to handle rough or fast waters, with a 36-inch beam, 12.5-inch depth, and 1-inch keel to effect maximum stability. I’d eventually replaced its rawhide-lattice seats with woven lace versions, and swapped out the center thwart for a mahogany carrying yoke.
In the mid-1980s, after a decade of rugged canoe tripping and abusive whitewater had left Neegik bruised and beaten, a crafty friend who never let any project intimidate him led us in an amateurish restoration. We tossed the heavily scarred and UV-faded Verolite, replaced broken ribs and re-covered the boat in standard heavy canvas, painting it forest green; we also removed the mangled keel, rationalizing that the craft worked better as a fast-turning solo boat (as she was mostly then employed). As a non-essential element, a keel could always be replaced sometime in the future. (Some 25 years later, I did just that prior to a two-week canoe trip with my daughter.)
Neegik—whose name I inexplicably fixed to the bow with the kind of brassy, peel-and-stick letters one might find on a rural mailbox—was my first real possession. It also became my companion, and canoeing—both act and history—my adolescent obsession. I revered Bill Mason, the great doyen of Canadian canoeing, whose book, Path of the Paddle, summed “The canoe is the simplest, most functional, yet aesthetically pleasing object ever created. In my opinion this is not a statement that is open to debate.” So immersed was I in this craft, that in bowed homage I undertook a semester-long project of building a scale-model birchbark canoe in Grade 9 art class to understand the process.
As a marvel of easy, low-drag propulsion, the canoe is humankind’s default watercraft. Dugouts are most common because they’re the easiest to render, requiring only a single tree of floaty, workable wood. Otherwise, the Inuit skin-covered kayak and umiak, as well as a range of moosehide- and bark-covered canoes found among the First Nations of North America, reflect the various eco-logic of the lands in which they were conceived. Offering lightness and mobility that dugouts cannot, they are the perfect means to navigate a geography that is truly terraqueous—part liquid, part solid.
The featherlight birchbark canoe is the acme of this art: Though you can snap any of its components easily in your hands, when these same elements are well assembled the vessel is as sturdy as any—a model of fragile materials made strong through strategic bonds and parts that seem naturally to go together but require attention and care to make work. This is a metaphor for pretty much anything of value, in which the sheer beauty, effervescence and élan of the finished product belie an inherent resilience.
Though the origins of its bauplan are lost in prehistory, one quality of a wood-framed canoe is obvious to anyone who contemplates such things—the striking similarity of its hull to the thoracic structure of a vertebrate animal. Bark, skin or canvas are stretched over wooden ribs braced by sternum thwarts and anchored by a central, spinal keel. Planking is the flexible musculature; sinew and root lashings, brass screws and nails the ligaments and tendons. Given the many animal-skin boat designs worldwide, one can even imagine the not-so-far-fetched notion of paddling an empty carcass that may have preceded it.
As a form of nature incarnate, canoes can also bring you deeper into surrounding nature than cruder, more robust watercraft, where observations and understandings otherwise unattainable amass. First Nations hunters knew how this immersion helped their cause. In my own case, seeing firsthand how the interactions of wildlife played out and integrated in places like marshes, shorelines, bays and moving water became key to my understanding of the biological world—and de facto driver of my curiosity around it. From frogs lying in ambush on lily pads, turtles sunning on logs, moose feeding on underwater vegetation, and the interplay of myriad insects, fish and birds at the air-water interface, the lessons were all delivered in a canoe.
For the 20 years I’ve been based in Whistler, B.C., Neegik resided at the family cottage in Haliburton, Ontario. In summer I’d head back east for a few weeks and a reacquaintance paddle or two, sometimes even a full-fledged trip. And though I’d often thought about bringing her home with me, the logistics somehow never worked out. Or perhaps deep down I didn’t want them to, aware that this land of lakes on the Canadian Shield was truly her home.
A few summers back, however, my brother sold the cottage and forced my hand. Arming myself with a roof rack, I drove east from the Pacific in mid-September, strapping a now-battered, somewhat neglected Neegik to the roof for a return trip in early October. Four mad-driving days later we were in Whistler. Together again in a new and different home.
The Tremblay Canoe Company is long gone, victim of a government attempt to scale up production of an artisan process that couldn’t be rushed. But from a century-old blueprint in Quebec to the west coast, Neegik was nevertheless ready for a new chapter to begin.
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