Miles and memories under the keel

The author (in back) with his siblings and parents around the family canoe at Gregg Lake in Antrim, N.H. in the mid-1970s. Peeling paint can be seen on the canvas hull. Photo by Jonathan Jay

I watched as the canoe was lashed to the truck. The new owner used a long length of heavy rope he threw over the upturned hull and pulled down and around the truck’s racks, knotted at various stages. This was repeated until the boat was secured in a massive web. It definitely wasn’t going to fall off. The buyer handed me a small fan of shiny new bills, and then shook my hand and drove off into the deepening gloom of an early January evening. The canoe was gone; left behind were a pair of empty sawhorses frozen solid to the groun in the back yard, half a can of red epoxy paint, and nearly a half-century of memories.

My family is originally from the Midwest. We moved from Ohio to New Hampshire in the 1970s, when I was seven. My parents had become weary of the flat landscape in Ohio, and its “poor aquatic environment.” Where we lived, in Akron, the only place to swim was at a private club with a small, muddy, man-made pond. My father bought the canoe prior to our move to New Hampshire. It was a 16-foot Old Town Yankee, built in 1947 of wood and canvas, and painted a deep blue. I have no memory of it until we moved to New Hampshire, probably because it was so rarely used in Ohio.

After our move, however, the canoe became a prominent part of our summers. There were dozens of bodies of water, large and small, near our home in Antrim. Lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and bogs – we were dazzled by the wealth of clean, beautiful water available to us, and managed to drop the canoe into much of it during my childhood.

One of our favorites was a lake about 10 minutes from home. We were there several times a week during the summer, and often brought the canoe with us, cinched tightly to the car’s roof on a pair of steel racks with pieces of chain encased in garden hose. An “S”-shaped hook on one end, and a turnbuckle on the other, completed the rig. This was an extremely secure arrangement that both applied sufficient pressure to keep the boat in place and generated a small cracking sound as the turnbuckle was tightened.

Getting the canoe on the roof required finesse. At 80 pounds, it was easiest with two people. My father did it solo. With the boat sitting upright on the ground, he’d grab the gunwales near the stern. Then he’d lift and twist so that the boat was now hull-up, bow on the ground, the stern over his head. He’d walk his hands forward until he reached the yoke fastened in the center of the boat and settle it on his shoulders. Leaning back, he’d raise the bow, then walk the boat over to the car and slide it from his shoulders onto the roof rack. It was an impressive sight to my young eyes, and I remember clearly the day when I’d grown enough to do the same. I was so enthralled that I once turned down the assistance of a lovely young woman who offered to help me place the canoe on the car. “No, that’s OK, I can handle this myself,” I told her. I was so proud. And so stupid.

As young children, my siblings and I sat on the ribs in the bottom of the boat while our parents, on the cane seats, paddled. As we got older, we’d eventually graduate to paddler in the bow, and then, finally, we were allowed to take the canoe out on our own. It was a rite of passage that marked our growing independence. There was no formal training, just the “OK” from our parents the first time we asked to take the boat out. The canoe was also our first opportunity to take someone on a “date.” While we were too young to drive, we were old enough to bring the objects of our summertime affections on a cruise around the lake, out of sight of our parents.

Despite its pedigree, the canoe was not treated gently. When not in the water, it was stored outside, upside down on a pair of sawhorses. It was dragged over rocks. As teenagers we delighted in repeatedly swamping it.

The rough use and lack of maintenance extracted a toll on the vessel, particularly the canvas, which eventually began to rot and leak. Replacing the canvas properly required skills we lacked, and money my father didn’t want to spend. The thought of preserving the historical accuracy of a 30-year-old wooden boat was never considered.

So, one fall, we brought the canoe into the basement, removed the shredded canvas and spent the rest of the winter applying fiberglass cloth and resin to the canoe’s wooden planks. Although we’d never worked with fiberglass, we figured out the basics. Mix the resin with hardener, place the cloth, and apply the mixture as quickly and smoothly as possible before everything sets.

The results were better than one might expect, yet far from professional. The hull ended up with a slightly bumpy appearance, similar to the rind of an orange. The paint we’d mixed ended up being more raspberry-colored than pure red. We didn’t get around to replacing the partially rotted decks fore and aft, and instead stiffened and filled them with Bondo.

But, in the end, the boat was solid, waterproof, and back in service.

As our family matured, the canoe spent more time on the sawhorses and less time in the water. I graduated from high school and went to college, as did my siblings. Our parents divorced and the canoe went with my father to his new house, where it was relegated to the ground behind the garage.

Several years after leaving college and working at my first job in Maine, I visited my father, where I saw the canoe languishing in the weeds. I asked if I could take it home with me. “Sure,” my father said, and helped me put her on top of the car.

She was in bad shape. While our fiberglass job had held up, several years on the ground had rotted the gunwales. The decks, which we had never repaired, were in even worse shape. Fortunately I live only three hours from the Old Town factory in Maine where she’d been built, and where replacement pieces could be purchased. Once again, the canoe spent the winter in my basement for an overhaul.

My boatbuilding skills had not improved in the 20 years since my father and I had done the fiberglass job, but the results were adequate, if not elegant. Everything fit. A few extra screws were required to lock things in place, and, when I ended up with a few gaps that couldn’t be closed by skill, I filled them with wood putty, an improvement, I thought, over the Bondo. I also sanded and painted the lumpy hull, covering the now translucent purple color with a true bright red. She looked fabulous.

After the “restoration,” the canoe transported my wife and me on many adventures along rivers, and through lakes and ponds. We were particularly fond of boggy areas where we could push through a stand of lily pads and watch herons. We beached her for picnics and raced thunderstorms home. We watched dragonflies alight gently on the gunwales as we glided upon dark water. We drove along dirt tracks, looking for secret places where we could drop her in the water.

When we bought a summer cabin, we brought the canoe to the home inspection and paddled along the shore of the pond to explore the body of water before closing the deal.

The canoe had been a loyal and relatively undemanding part of our household. But time and the elements aren’t kind to wooden vessels – or people. The boat was still stored outside, and even with occasionally painting the hull and applying more polyurethane, the gunwales and decks began to rot again. We didn’t get out as much, either. My wife has arthritis, and I have back issues, which made it difficult to get the 80-pound boat to the water. The days of hoisting the canoe over my head and onto the car were gone. I purchased a small trailer to tow her, and an electric trolling motor to extend our “cruising range,” but, even with these concessions, she was used less and less. And, the older I get, the more I realize how much my possessions own me, instead of the reverse.

So, one fall, I hauled the canoe into my garage, flipped her over, and for the last time sanded and painted the lumpy hull my father and I put on 40 years earlier. I applied a fresh coat of polyurethane to the gunwales. Then I posted pictures of her on craigslist. I wasn’t particularly optimistic, or concerned she might be leaving my yard anytime soon.

Two months later, I received a call from a potential buyer. He’d driven up from Rhode Island to deliver a wooden launch and didn’t want to go home empty-handed. He gave her a quick once-over and the deal was sealed. “She’ll be well-used,” he told me, noting that he enjoys winter canoeing along the tidal rivers in Rhode Island.

I watched her leave with mixed emotions. Sad to see a significant chunk of my childhood gone. Relieved of the duty to maintain her. Guilty that I hadn’t checked with my siblings about selling the boat (sorry Martha and Tom!). Pleased by the cash in my hand. And also comforted, knowing that the memories she’d helped create – the real significance of the canoe, after all – were still with me, and that in her new life she’d be used, and, in turn, create memories for someone else.

John Gold is Points East’s Art Director and co-founder of the Portland, Maine-based Custom Communications, a company that provides content creation, graphic design and publishing for online and print media. He and his wife Sue live in Saco, Maine, where they enjoy canoeing and kayaking in a variety of waters near their home. Their vessel of choice is “someone else’s boat.”