A 120 Year History of Wood-Canvas Canoes
Canoes: The Boat Upon Which We Float Our Philosophy
by Bruce Ingersoll and Dylan Schoelzel
Ask anyone who has attended one of our camps what they remember most, and one of the first things they will tell you about are the canoes and the canoe trips. Founded by A.S. Gregg Clarke, Keewaydin first began leading canoe trips for young boys and men through the north woods of Maine in 1893. The focus of Camp Kah-Kou, as it was known then, was wilderness canoe trips. Clarke believed that on these adventurous expeditions, boys and young men, would grow strong, learn about courage, teamwork, and independence and develop an appreciation for wilderness. That mission remains at the center of the Keewaydin experience and has broadened to include multiple camps and girls and young women. Today, Keewaydin is home to the world’s largest fleet of working wood-and-canvas canoes which continue to be the heart of the Keewaydin experience.
Keewaydin has an enormous fleet of canoes designed to do one thing: carry campers out into the wilderness with hopes and expectation for adventure and then safely return with a newfound sense of the world and themselves. Each canoe may travel anywhere from 200-600 miles a summer all over Ontario, Quebec, Labrador, Manitoba, northern New England and eastern New York. They cross vast lakes through all types of winds and weather. They are paddled and poled upstream to cross heights of land, and they nimbly navigate whitewater. Our canoes hold loads in excess of 700 pounds as they travel downstream on some of the wildest rivers Canada has to offer: the Eastmain, Rupert, George, Koksoak and Great Whale rivers. They even ply the salty waters of Hudson Bay.
The early fleet; pre 1925
No information survives to tell us what types of canoes were used when Keewaydin started in Maine in the 1890’s. They were most likely locally built wood-and-canvas and birch bark canoes.
When the camp moved to Temagami, a more permanent fleet of wide board (rib and batten) canoes, bark canoes, and wood-canvas canoes built by EM White, was established. During the first few years, wide board and bark canoes were bought directly from the Hudson Bay Company. EM White canoes were supplied through Henry McCleod who was the only Maine guide to follow Clarke from Maine to Temagami. McCleod was instrumental in constructing the early camp buildings on Devil’s Island and he was also known as the canoe foreman (caretaker of the canoe fleet). In the off-season McCleod returned to Maine where he was gainfully employed by EM White, the canoe builder who had set up shop in 1885 in the Old Town, Maine area.
The Chestnut era; 1925-1979
By this point in time Keewaydin on Lake Dunmore was firmly established and canoes and canoeing were at the heart of the Temagami and Dunmore camp experiences. In about 1925, McCleod retired from canoe building, and Temagami folks began purchasing canoes from the Chestnut Canoe Company in New Brunswick. This marked the beginning of a relationship that lasted more than 50 years. Keewaydin Dunmore stayed with the EM Whites for a longer period of time, preferring the eighteen-and-a-half foot canoe that was a dream to paddle, but ferociously heavy to portage. But by the early 1950′s both camps were buying almost exclusively from Chestnut.
During the Chestnut era the canoe fleet became standardized with two models; the Chestnut Cruiser and the Chestnut Prospector. One of the more unique features of the Keewaydin canoe during this time period was the wannigan rib. The ribs were created by Keewaydin and installed in their canoes by Chestnut at the factory. These narrower ribs were clinch nailed over the main ribs in the canoe. There are typically 6 of these ribs per canoe, 3 on each side of the center thwart, positioned on every other rib starting with the two center ribs. Their purpose is to add overall strength to the hull, particularly where the wannigans are loaded, and to keep the main ribs from prematurely breaking.
Wannigans, sometimes weighing upwards of 100 pounds each, are almost always loaded two to a canoe, one on each side of the center thwart. The ribs beneath the wannigan are subjected to unusual wear and tear from loading and unloading. Also, wannigans are known to literally hop or bounce up and down in rapids and on windy lakes.
Keewaydin became one of Chestnuts largest retail purchasers with a standing order every year until Chestnut closed their doors for good in 1979. Canoes were shipped from New Brunswick via rail to Vermont and to the town of Temagami. In the town of Temgagami they were loaded onto a large steamer that made deliveries on the lake.
The Chestnut canoe became embedded into the camp as an icon of durability and performance. As the last few years of the Chestnut Canoe Company dwindled along in the late 1970’s the camps had a hard time buying the models they wanted. The last year Chestnut was open Keewaydin purchased the final remaining inventory of Guide Specials (a model built on the cruiser form but constructed with nearly twice the number of ribs as a regular cruiser model). It was all they could buy.
This period, the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, was a rough one for canoes and Keewaydin. The traditional vessels were no longer available but the impetus to canoes trip was as strong as it ever was. Camp leadership scrambled to find someone out there to build canoes. Old Town sold wood-and-canvas canoes, with the 18′ Guide model being preferred especially for the Wauramaug Wigwam at Keewaydin Dunmore. But they were very expensive. At the same time plastics were taking hold and ABS presented a durable and inexpensive alternative to wood and canvas. But at what point is durability traded for the grace and flex of a wood-and-canvas craft? More importantly, would the use of synthetics change the way business was done on a Keewaydin canoe trip? Would the essential teachings sacred to Commodore Clarke be diminished? The conversations were very similar at both camps and in the end, the solutions were remarkably the same and preserved the essence of the Keewaydin Experience.
As the supply of wood-and-canvas canoes dried up in Temagami, Fred Reimers, then director, looked around at the world of synthetic canoes and purchased first a set of six early model ABS canoes and then twenty-four Kevlar canoes for use in the youngest boys wigwam: Manitou. The big Kevlar canoes were a better compromise and could carry a big load – ideal for Manitou where each canoe carried a non-paddling mojo. Those canoes remained in service into the ’90′s.
But the rest of the camp still needed canoes and Reimers was able to avoid moving the whole camp to Kevlar when hope presented itself in the form of Donald Fraser of Fredericton, New Brunswick. When the assets of Chestnut were sold off, some of the canoe forms were purchased by Fraser, who was Chesnut’s sales manager at the time. He began working for Chestnut in 1951 and knew that Keewaydin was a steady customer that relied on the Cruiser and Prospector. Fraser chipped away at his retirement endeavor by building his shop in the early 80’s. His first canoe came to Devil’s Island in the summer of 1982. For the next 25 years Fraser continued to keep the Chestnut/Keewaydin relationship alive by supplying the camp with seventeen foot Cruisers and Prospectors.
A new era of builders
A girls’ program was introduced on Temagami in 1999. Around the same time the canoes used in the youngest boys sections, the Manitou wigwam, were old and tired. The camp needed a new fleet of canoes for the girls program and they needed to do something about those in Manitou. Fraser was capable of building only so many canoes a year in his small New Brunswick one man shop. This, coupled with the fact that Fraser would not be able to build canoes forever, set the camp looking for new canoe builders again.
For the girls program, Keewaydin turned to Dylan and Emily Schoelzel of Salmon Falls Canoe in Shelburne, Massachusetts. Both Dylan and Emily had deep backgrounds at Keewaydin. Dylan was a long time camper and member of the staff and Emily, also an veteran tripper and who’s family was no stranger to Keewaydin, was hired to start the girls program in 1999. Both understood Keewaydin and requirements for their canoes. The Schoelzel’s delivered their first canoe, the Chicot (pronounced Shee-koh), to the camp in 2000.
For the younger boys of Manitou the camp turned to Glenn and Dianne Toogood of Garden Island Canoe in Temagami . Both Glen and Diane are longtime residents of Temagami and have a long history with the camp which among other things included rebuilding canoes. Their Mojo model, named after the Ojibway word for a canoe carrying more people than its two paddlers, was a natural fit.
On Lake Dunmore the same debates raged around campfires. The Wilderness Trip was the focal point for the canoe conversation. When the EM Whites were no longer available, the Wilderness Trip used Tremblays, a big sturdy Prospector sized canoe built in St. Felicien Quebec. Tremblays were workhorses and into the 1970′s were accessible to the point that a trip could swing by on their way to Misstissini and pick one up if a canoe was damaged. They were perfect until the shop was abruptly closed in the mid-1970′s leaving the camp without a supplier.
Waboos Hare and Abby Fenn presided over the transition and wound up with two very neat solutions. The first was to begin using ABS canoes. Abby Fenn, in particular, was an experimenter and wanted to give ABS a try. They were able to find nice seventeen foot tripping canoes at Old Town, the Tripper and it was adopted into the fleet to be used on longer river trips where there was more whitewater to be run. In 1977 one ABS canoe went on the Wilderness Trip and the other four were wood-and-canvas, most likely a mix of Chesnuts and Tremblays. In 1978, it was four ABS canoes and one wood-and-canvas and by 1984 the change was complete. The design was perfect and the price was good. But most importantly the canoes were able to continue to serve the mission.
As for the wood-and-canvas fleet, Schylur Thompson stepped into the void much the same way Don Fraser did up in Temagami. A long time trip leader and camper at Dunmore, Thompson became interested in canoe repair in the 70′s and began his apprenticeship with long-time Dunmore maintenance man Chuck Conard. They began by repairing one of the great war canoes and for Thompson the rest was easy. He set up his own business outside of Keewaydin, took on rebuilding the Dunmore fleet and all wood canvas canoes. By the late 1980′s Thompson began to build and supply new canoes for Dunmore and continues to do so today.
Present day; the fleet today and the future outlook:
Keewaydin’s fleet consists of roughly 350 canoes, 232 of which are wood-and-canvas. At Temagami there are not many historical examples as far as age and maker is concerned, since these are hard working canoes. Most are 20-40 years old with the bulk having been built within the past 20. At Dunmore the history comes with the canoes named in honor of staff who served at Keewaydin for 20 years. 10 of these are Chestnuts.
By today’s standards it is easy for the fleet to be viewed as rather unusual. Unlike most camps that have abandoned their wood canvas canoes in favor of synthetic materials, all of Keewaydin Temagami’s trips are done in wood canvas canoes. At Dunmore the Wilderness and the Moosalamoo trips are all done in ABS because they encounter so much white water. The rest of the trips head out in the trusty wood-and-canvas canoe.
Keewaydin keeps the wooden canoe not just for the sake of nostalgia, but because it provides so much of what Keewaydin offers. The wooden canoe teaches
invaluable lessons in taking care of your gear and teaching a set of highly refined paddling skills that no other canoe can teach.
Over the last 120 years canoes at Keewaydin have been bought and sold, traded and lost, buried and burned, left behind so trips could get home on the train or an airplane, and they have all been paddled thousands and thousands of miles. Carrying their passengers through thick and thin, cold and warm, dry and wet, the Keewaydin fleet is capable of telling canoe trip stories that most of us can only dream about. We may never know how many canoes Keewaydin has used over the years, hundreds if not in the thousands, but one thing will always remain true – the wooden canoe is strong and alive and accounts for a large part of what makes the Keewaydin Way so unique and special.