On two sunny days in May, my friend Marty and I, two older guys, enjoyed a truly Canadian experience. The first day, we built a 16-foot, red canoe from scratch. Yes, in one single day! The second day we paddled it down the Thames River through the centre of London, Ontario. Who says seniors can’t have adventures?
When the opportunity arose, I was thrilled, for canoes are famous symbols of Canada. Birch bark canoes were used by Native peoples and then by voyageurs and courier-du-bois in the fur trade, to explore and to open up this mighty land. Today, the canoe continues as an icon, a connection to the rugged and vast wilderness that forms much of Canada.
Marty and I arrived early at the
Nova Craft Company in London. About 20 workers were in various stages of canoe construction, racks of canoes lining every wall. The place was busy for this was Nova Craft's peak season, and they produce over 2,000 canoes each year.
Historically, birch bark was commonly used, but today's canoes are made of a seemingly endless array of materials including canvas and wood, fibreglass, HDPE (High-Density PloyEthylene), Kevlar, carbon fiber and various plastic composites.
Ray, a stocky young man with short brown hair and a perpetual beaming smile, explained that our canoe would be made of Royalex, a plastic composite, a tough, low-cost, rigid material with high impact strength and easy to drill, saw and work. "Don't worry," he said, "I've built hundreds of canoes. Just follow my instructions and it'll be a snap."
We chose to build a Prospector canoe based on the old Chestnut lineage dating back to the late 1800s, and today with its ability to carry large amounts of gear yet maneuverable in rough water, a popular canoe for wilderness tripping. We wanted a bright red canoe, of course, the colour of a maple leaf in Indian summer.
Under Ray's watchful eye, we started by hauling a heavy sheet of Royalex, about six feet wide by 17-feet long into a large oven. After about 20-minutes, once the heat had softened the plastic, we pulled the sheet out the opposite end of the oven and onto the bottom half of a mold in the shape of a canoe. The top half of the mold was lowered and clamped to the lower half. After cooling for about an hour, we removed the plastic, now hardened, into a canoe shape. It was like magic, a flat sheet of plastic had transformed into a canoe.
"There's still a lot of work to do," Ray reminded us. We started by trimming off the excess plastic with a router. Then we riveted on the gunwales and installed the seats and yoke. With Ray's instructions, we drilled holes, cut pieces of wood and carefully attached them. Luckily, pre-made pieces were available for most tasks. Ray constantly measured and checked alignment.
The final touch was to attach a decal with the Nova Craft name. When Ray explained that people can custom design their decals, I silently vowed to return one day and build a canoe covered in gold, red and yellow maple leaves, or perhaps with brilliant racing stripes or a Viking theme with dramatic horns and axes. I felt a nudge in my ribs. "Stop daydreaming and get back to work. You're almost done," Ray admonished with a smile. After five hours of work, our canoe was complete. Marty and I posed and preened beside it like proud, new parents.
Next morning greeted us with a cloudless sky. Marty and I portaged our bright red, new baby from truck-top to the edge of the Thames River, upstream from the forks in downtown London. Gingerly, we stepped in and pushed off. Happily, our canoe was seaworthy and behaved perfectly. It felt wonderful to be afloat in our own creation.
Paddling lazily with the current under an azure sky, we passed the Jet d'Eau with arcs of water streaming high in the air, creating sparkling little rainbows. We continued downstream, surrounded by greenery as though in the countryside. Fish jumped. A goose family paraded past with a flotilla of more than 20 little fuzzy goslings. Birds chirped and the river water gurgled. Even the graffiti decorating a bridge pylon was bright and attractive, assuming urban art. A fisherman cast a long looping line into the water.
London has grown around and incorporated the meandering Thames River such that today the tree-lined river offers a continuous oasis in the city's heart, and one reason why London is called the Forest City
We pulled over to rest and enjoy cool gelatos at Springbank Gardens, where Glen Miller and Guy Lombardo played on sultry summer evenings. Nearby, a plaque marked the site of the sinking of the pleasure boat Victoria, with the loss of 182 lives. Who would have guessed that one of Canada's greatest maritime disasters happened in inland London? We pressed on, paddling lazily with the flow of the river. It was soothing and we felt inner satisfaction that we were not only carbon-free but had built this conveyance with our own hands. Too soon it was over. At Storybook Gardens, we pulled our canoe from the water and carried it to the waiting truck. No voyageurs could have been happier!
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is an environmental consultant.
London is a city in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, situated along the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor. The city has a population of 366,151 according to the 2011 Canadian census. London is at the forks of the non-navigable Thames River, approximately halfway between Toronto, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. The City of London is a separated municipality, politically separate from Middlesex County, though it remains the county seat.