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William Miller paints his canoes with three to four coats of varnish. (Cole Burston/COLE BURSTON/FOR THE GLOBE AND M)
William Miller paints his canoes with three to four coats of varnish. (Cole Burston/COLE BURSTON/FOR THE GLOBE AND M)


The Canadian canoe runs into rapids Add to ...

Entrepreneur Ken Langford launched the Langford operation in 1940, but it had been passed on to new owners and fallen on hard times by the 1980s. At that point, Keith MacAllister, Steve’s father, bought land around Muskoka’s Lake of Bays for development and discovered the property contained a canoe factory.

The MacAllisters didn’t care much about canoeing, and thought about selling the business, but they discovered the Langford name had a cachet among hard-core paddlers. They concluded there was a bigger business that they could build around the brand.

Now based in Dwight, Ont., Langford Canoes sports an attractive website with a strong appeal to boating nostalgia. The company shows up at the major boat shows. It has turned out limited edition cedar canoes for Hudson Bay Co., complete with the Bay’s trademark stripes of indigo, yellow, red and green, and has just finished a plaid canoe for Roots.

Even the G8 summit in the Muskoka area proved to be a marketing opportunity. Langford was contracted by Ottawa to provide a gift, in the form of a 58-inch solid cherry paddle, to each of the heads of state.

William Miller paints his canoes with three to four coats of varnish.

The old and the new

Steve MacAllister says Langford’s canoes are based on its traditional designs, updated for modern safety and comfort. But after a period of running its own production in Quebec, the company shifted its work to independent contractors, such as Mr. Rhéaume, who understand the province’s labour laws and practises.

Mr. MacAllister has little time for his small-scale detractors who say they have been around much longer than his own company. “There are probably 100 guys in Canada that have been building canoes in their garage for years, but they don’t really count as companies,” he insists.

“Every year, we get some farmer come in and say ‘Well, we’ve been building canoes for 250 years.’ We say, ‘Great, and so have the Indians, but are you building thousands of them a year for 40 straight years?’ The answer, of course is, ‘No, we build one a year if we’re lucky.’ ”

Roger MacGregor, a canoe historian who has written a book on the Chestnut Co., says it is a stretch to say Langford Canoes is the oldest canoe builder, given its changes in ownership and its current model of outsourcing canoe production.

But he agrees there is little left of the old companies from canoe making’s golden age of wood. Chestnut died, he said, because its wooden models were swept aside in the move to newer materials. Even though it made its own fibreglass and aluminum boats, the brand loyalty wasn’t there. Indeed, the Chestnut name has gained stature in retrospect, like artists who achieve renown after their death.

He finds it fascinating, though, to see the tradition carried on by clusters of entrepreneurial lone wolfs, in areas like Shawinigan, Northern Ontario, Muskoka, the Ottawa Valley and New Brunswick. Some of these torch carriers are former Chestnut employees and devotees, who make small numbers based on the old moulds and designs.

To Mr. Miller, Chestnut, with its annual production of hundreds of canoes, was a big player that he claims copied his grandfather’s designs for one of its best-selling models.

At its peak, in the early 1970s, Miller Canoes made as many as 50 boats a year with three tradesmen. Now, Mr. Miller is labouring alone in his workshop, with works in progress of 24- and 26-foot canoes priced at $200 a foot.

He built his first canoe at 15 and “I’ve got 36 more years before I retire,” he jokes. “I will gladly build my last canoe on my 100th birthday.”

Contrast this with Bill Swift Jr. who has been making canoes and kayaks for 21 years and has a factory in South River, west of Algonquin Park, but doesn’t claim to be an old-time craftsman. He turns out 1,200 canoes a year in synthetic materials, many based on a production process similar to that used in building the Space Shuttle and the new Boeing Dreamliner aircraft.

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