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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 ...

In his workshop near the Tobique River in northern New Brunswick, Bill Miller lovingly crafts canvas-covered cedar canoes in the tradition established by his grandfather in 1925.

That, he maintains, qualifies Miller Canoes as the oldest canoe builder in the country.

Not so fast, says Langford Canoes, based in Ontario’s Muskoka cottage country. After 70 years, Langford calls itself the oldest canoe manufacturer of any significance in Canada, making up to 1,000 boats a year.

Both are right, in a sense. These two businesses represent two distinct streams of Canadian canoe making that are battling for the soul of the country’s oldest industry – and for the pocketbooks of hard-pressed North American consumers. Making love in a canoe is hard – as any true, hot-blooded Canadian knows – but making money from canoes is even harder.

Langford’s response to the tough economics of canoe making is building a brand, outsourcing production and deploying varied materials, from wood to plastic – as well as achieving some degree of scale. “Unless you are building a couple of hundred boats a year, you don’t count,” insists Steve MacAllister, president of the company.

Those are fighting words for Mr. Miller, 64, a small-scale artisan who might build a half dozen of his wooden masterpieces a year in Nictau, N.B. “I have no interest in building a plastic canoe,” he says.

All canoe makers agree that the recession has eroded the incomes of middle-class consumers, leaving less money for luxuries such as $1,000 to $5,000 canoes. Baby Boomers are aging, and their children often prefer more nimble kayaks, or motorized watercraft, to the lumbering canoes of their parents. In addition, canoe making remains a highly seasonal business, which makes it hard to manage the ebb and flow of workers and inventories.

Once lucrative U.S. markets are jeopardized by the high Canadian dollar, and the continuing economic woes south of the border. Even the industry’s mega-player, Old Town Canoes of Maine – which sells a lot of canoes in Canada among its output of 200,000 boats a year – slowed production in the recession.

Striving to survive

Canoe making has been in a state of constant evolution since native people assembled the first birchbark models in the years before European settlement. The first canoe factories of any scale used cedar plank and rib construction. After the Second World War, plane maker Grumman Corp. directed its surplus war materials, and labour, to pioneering the production of clunky but carefree aluminum canoes.

As tastes changed, companies adjusted or died. Casualties of the past 50 years include iconic cedar builders such as Ontario’s Peterborough Canoe Co. and New Brunswick’s Chestnut Canoe Co., which still inspire rhapsodic tributes decades after they closed their doors.

The death of Chestnut in 1978 sent the Canadian industry tripping off in two different directions – toward modern production methods and lightweight synthetic materials, such as fibreglass and Kevlar, and to a cottage industry of lone artistes, eking out a living making one wooden canoe at a time.

Langford survives on savvy marketing and, in recent years, contracting work to canoe makers in the Shawinigan area of Quebec. Up to 20 per cent of its production in any year is still devoted to wooden canoes, but the chief craftsman is Alain Rhéaume of Grandes-Piles, Que., who also makes canoes for the American Trader label in the United States.

Mr. Rhéaume, a former cabinet maker, has the workshop capacity to turn out 300 to 400 wood canoes a year, but his numbers are down considerably in this depressed economy. “The U.S. is slow these days,” he says.

He has adjusted by taking contracts to put wooden gunwales and other fixtures on boats otherwise made of composite materials. And he has became a supplier to the MacAllister family who bought Langford Canoes 25 years ago, having made their money in plastics injection moulding in Toronto – a background that rankles the wood canoe purists.

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