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Worshipping at the keel of a traditional canoe

Think of it as the Nike-ization of sports and recreation.

Nike is hardly alone, but it is surely the most recognizable of the multitude of businesses that make it their business to endlessly re-invent the wheel – and the ski, skate, club, stick, broom and, perhaps most absurdly, the apparel one wears to engage with these items.

There was, believe it or not, a world before Lycra, before branding, before men in their 50s began dressing like NASCAR drivers before heading out on their two-wheelers for a gentle pedal through the park.

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Some would argue, with evidence, that today's bicycles are faster, skates are sharper, golf balls fly longer, curling brooms are cleaner, even that today's cross-country ski style is more effective because of modernization.

But one key piece of recreational equipment – the canoe – has all but defied marketing and composite construction when it comes to the actual experience of the sport.

When Bill Mason, Canada's best-known paddler, said that "There is nothing that is so aesthetically pleasing and yet so functional and versatile as the canoe," he was talking about his own beloved red canvas cedar strip – essentially a canoe that has remained the same since builders stopped stripping birch trees of their bark.

Mason, who died in 1988, also believed that God first created the canoe and then set about to conceive a land in which it could flourish – Canada. So it is not much of a stretch to see how he came to believe there could be no improving on the original.

Others agree. Last weekend at Lower St. Regis Lake in New York State's Adirondack Park, more than 300 members of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association gathered to … well … worship at the keel of the traditional canoe.

Mason's daughter Becky was even there to give elite-level instruction – in, of course, a red canvas cedar strip. For five days, participants showed off their varnished treasures, some more than 100 years old, and talked about and demonstrated every nearly-lost art from seat-caning to paddle-making.

They were of a certain demographic: A fair number of the men could pass for the inventor of the Tilley hat. And perhaps one needed to have seen the 1972 movie Deliverance to appreciate the elderly gentleman walking about with the sweatshirt that read: "Keep paddling! I hear banjo music!"

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But there were also younger people, newer members who have come to appreciate why, in a CBC contest a few years back, the canoe could be named one of the Seven Wonders of Canada.

Will Ruch, a traditional builder from Bancroft, Ont., says the canoe was the ideal mode of transport for the earliest canoeists: "They didn't need the wheel. The wheel required all this infrastructure in order for it to work. All the infrastructure needed was already there for the canoe."

In many ways these paddlers are purists – they deplore people who turn old wooden canoes into bookcases, and they consider today's paddleboard craze a sub-canoe experience. But it would be wrong to think of them as "collectors" who merely look, admire and lust after their chosen passion.

Rollin Thurlow, a 66-year-old near-legendary builder canoes from Atkinson, Me., brought the 1,000th canoe he has built to the Adirondack gathering and offered it up, free of charge, to the person who could convince him, in 300 words or less, that they were an appropriate receiver of such a fabulous gift.

He had but one requirement: The gorgeous, 17 1/2-foot Atkinson Traveller had to be used, not stared at in awe.

"If I sold this canoe," he says as dozens rushed to complete their short essays, "the customer would be picky. It would be the customer's boat, not my boat. I built this for myself and now I want someone to use it. And it must be used – it's got to get scratched, muddy and dirty. It will look even better that way."

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Thurlow is convinced that if Nike, Adidas, Reebok and all the other re-inventors of sport took on the canoe, they could not possibly improve on the original wooden structure.

"You might as well be in a can when you're in an aluminum boat," he says. "And plastic canoes are like opaque oil tanks. Sit in a wooden canoe and you are instantly relaxed. You can feel the canoe when you go over fast water. You can see the ribs move like it's breathing. You cringe that they're going to snap, but they're okay. They give. It's like it's alive."

One entrant by Zip Kellogg of Portland, Me., says: "If I've learned anything over these 40 years of paddling, it's that canoes need exercise."

And, with a little tender loving care – even if it requires a little of the epoxy the traditionalists prefer to call "frozen snot" – they can exercise forever. "You can find a Lakefield canoe built 120 years ago in Canada," Ruch says, "and it's still equal to the task."

After sorting through more than 100 essays, Thurlow made his decision: His 1,000th canoe would go to Canada. Mark Dagenais and Anne Swideski of Chelsea, Que., artists who have previously restored canoes, promised to treat Thurlow's creation like a "member of the family."

The canoe, they said, would be well used, beginning with a trip to Lake Superior.

"The abrasions and scratches that accumulate will be more than our memories," they wrote, "they will become part of her stories and myths. She will then be a Storied Traveller, one which will be lovingly passed on to our daughter Lia, and eventually, to future generations of trippers….

"It is humbling that this canoe will outlive most of us who will paddle her."

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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