Wooden canoe evangelism?

Benson Gray

Canoe History Enthusiast
Staff member
I traded a few messages recently with a wooden canoe restorer who has periodically repaired canoes at the summer camp that I attended many years ago. He mentioned that the camp directors had commented that "the councilors had no feeling for the wood canvas canoes and wanted plastic" along with "what a shame it was to lose the wood/canvas canoe and camp connection." I offered to speak with the directors, counselors, or campers but I’m not really sure what to pitch or how to best present it. It occurred to me while deciding which forum category to post this message that this issue is really at the core of what the WCHA is all about. Some other camps have adopted a model of having a select few wooden canoes still around and available for use but their primary ‘daily driver’ canoes are all plastic. This is probably a reasonable approach. So what (if anything) would you recommend in a situation like this?

Benson --

I would talk to Dylan and Emily Schoelzel of Salmon Falls Canoe. In addition to building wooden canoes, they are active in the management and operation of Camp Keewaydin in Canada and in the maintenance of the camp's fleet of canoes. I believe that Keewaydin uses wooden canoes exclusively, and uses them seriously, for wilderness trips of a few weeks at a time for the older campers. I am sure Dylan and Emily have some well-thought-out ideas about using wooden canoes at a summer camp.

And since you were foolish enough to ask, a thought or two of my own --

I suppose that it depends on what the camp experience is supposed to be. If the camp is simply a place where kids are parked for the summer, largely to keep them entertained and out of the way, then I suppose almost any kind of boat would do -- a plastic canoe is just another gadget for having casual fun.

But if the camp is intended to give the kids an appreciation that the world has more to offer them than what they experience in their ordinary day-to-day life, then it becomes reasonable to ask them, and their counselors, to do more than simply entertain themselves in the easiest way they can. For example, in some camps, kids feed and care for farm animals and vegetable gardens that provide some of the food they eat. They have to gather eggs and learn to milk cows. Not efficient, and not "fun" in the usual sense, but something kids can learn to do, and learn from, and even come to value, if not enjoy. Similarly, using and caring for wooden canoes can be a way to get in touch with, and appreciate, a part of the world that most of the kids (mostly from urban and suburban environments, I suspect) don't really know.

Appreciating an environment where water and woods replace paved streets and manicured lawns calls for a certain disconnect from their usual world. Using a canoe that is only one step removed from the birch bark, a canoe that must be cared for if it is to perform, can help disconnect from the modern world of synthetic materials that essentially need no care.

A canoe does not have to be just an appliance -- it can be an experience. And just as cooking real food over an open fire is a different experience than boiling water on a Coleman stove for a freeze-dried meal, canoeing in, and caring for, a w/c canoe is a different experience than paddling and (not) caring for a plastic canoe. A freeze-dried meal and a pan-fried trout can both feed you after a day on the river, and a w/c and a plastic canoe can both get you from point A to point B. Each way gets a job done, but they are just not the same thing, because just getting a job done should not be what camping (or life) is all about.

It's not that there is anything wrong with canoes made of modern materials in a modern factory -- many of us have one or two. They are rugged and don't ask much care from the user -- which is why they are easier to use. But a canoe that is, in large part, made by hand from materials that are not indestructible, does demand attention and care to maintain and use to full potential, and it can pull the paddler deeper into the activity of paddling and traveling in natural (or even wild) surroundings -- in other words, pull them into seeing that the world is wider and richer than they might otherwise know.

A camp's program would have to be shaped to deal with the somewhat different skills needed and the different treatment required for a wooden canoe -- just as any camping trip has to be planned differently if you are going to cook over an open fire instead of using a gas stove. The program would have to be designed to provide counselors and campers with the skills and the extra time and effort needed (just as the camp that had the kids caring for animals and a truck garden made those activities an integral part of the camp program).

Having a mixed fleet of mostly the less demanding plastic canoes along with a few token wooden canoes might not be best for such a program.

I just thought that I would comment that these summer camps that use wood canoes may be a source of future WCHA members.

I recently saw a video about a camp in Minnesota that emphasized the care necessary for their canoes. The kids were reminded that the canoe was their way out of the bush.
Great question Benson, and I look forward to reading other responses.

Greg makes many good points.

My suggestion is to get the councilors into a wooden canoe for a side by side demo.

The wooden canoe 'experience' should sell itself - natural, historic, authentic materials, with a quiet, beautiful look and substantial 'feel' while under paddle. If they don't get the wood/canvas 'positives' of this comparison the rest of the discussion probably won't matter.

Good luck and let us know what about the discussion, regardless of outcome.
Fitz: 'just thought that I would comment that these summer camps that use wood canoes may be a source of future WCHA members'

This is me!
Good for you Benson for taking this on, I'd be interested in hearing how it goes. I agree with Greg, it's not just about finishing things and checking off the list but taking the time to learn from your experiences along the way. Life is short be sure to live it, and for me that includes a wood canoe in some way.
Hope it goes well, Gary
I'd be interested in hearing how it goes.

Well, much has happened in the many years since I first posed this question. This camp recently asked for information about selling their remaining wooden canoes and for a recommendation about which plastic canoes would be best for their camping trips. I responded to their questions and then went on to suggest that there is another alternative for their canoe trips. There are some camps like Keewaydin at https://keewaydin.org/temagami/temagami-overview/ and others who still use wooden canoes for tripping. However, this requires a much more active involvement from the staff to teach things like ‘wet foot entry and exits’ and ‘the bottom of the canoe only ever touches water or air’ for example. Mistakes will happen so they would also need to budget for regular maintenance and repairs. This has not been a longstanding tradition at that camp so it would probably be a challenge to implement now. They will not be opening this summer due to COVID-19 so I don't know what they will do. My guess is that they will probably sell the wooden canoes and only use plastic ones for their camping trips when they open again. I like wood canoes but I'm probably not a very good evangelist.

Benson, there is hardly a thread on this forum where you aren't offering some form of help, you are a great ambassador/evangelist for the WCHA and for wood canoes in general. My bad for not noticing that this was an old thread. I understood this was something you were doing currently. I hate to even ask but I can't resist the temptation to add to my flotilla of, old needing repairs, wood canvas canoes. If they sell them would they be interested in letting us as members know so we can at least have a role to play in the next chapter of these canoes lives? Maybe post a link to them on this site or better yet list them in the classifieds?
Just a thought, Gary
If they sell them would they be interested in letting us as members know

Absolutely, I encouraged them to list the canoes in the classifieds here. They may offer them to the current and former campers first. I will let everyone here know if I hear anything more. Thanks,

Perfect thanks for that, just don't tell my wife that I'm looking at more old wood canoes, ha.
Perfect thanks for that, just don't tell my wife that I'm looking at more old wood canoes, ha.

They know. If you want a hobby you can hide consider collecting stamps, good bourbon, fishing lures, guns, decoys, things you can hide or sneak into the house.
Canoes/boats....not so easy. I've got a few in a buddies barn about an hour away...and that works for now. But at some point they need to wind up here.....then it's time to fees up and pay the toll.
My wife says she has no idea how many boats I ow, which I believe is a side effect of having a constant parade of them going through my shop, most of which are not mine. She hasn't made any comments for quite a while...
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