By Darren Bush
I am convinced we spend the first half of our lives acquiring stuff and the second half trying to get rid of it. I am certainly following this pattern myself.
A few months ago a couple came into my shop with a dilemma. They had three wood and canvas canoes that they were trying to sell, but they realized that the value of their canoes was pretty minimal. The truth is that unrestored Old Town wood and canvas canoes are so plentiful that they aren’t worth a whole lot. Even restored OTCs go for less than a good composite touring canoe, mostly because they’re heavy, and heavy is so 1935.
As we visited, it became clear that these boats were special. One of these boats took them on their honeymoon, and all the canoes had good stories. I asked them what they really wanted. They wanted them to go to good homes. I proposed that I help find homes for them with the following stipulations.
First, the new caretaker would never be able to sell the canoe, only give it away when the next logical caretaker appeared. This is critical, since the point of this exercise is to get the karmic wheels turning, so to speak.
Second, the new caretakers would keep the canoe inside and in good repair. For a few of these canoes, this will be a challenge, but that’s part of the deal. No free lunch, so to speak.
Third, the new caretakers will send pictures of their adventures to the original owners of the canoes, so they can continue to experience the adventure they started so many years ago.
The donor teared up, and I went around to the front of the counter and gave her a hug. She just wanted someone to keep loving these canoes. “We got our use out of them, they don’t owe us anything.” They just wanted them to stay alive.
She had two old ash paddles that were lovely, but the blades were split and they needed some love. I said I would repair them for no charge, since I really like repairing old blades.
They said goodbye and left.
In my inbox the next morning was this letter.
Could you drop a color swatch behind the following email (up through “beyond elegant”)
“I woke up this morning heartful with my first conscious thought the serendipity of our encounter yesterday. And then as I began to put my office in order and file your card, well, I am not sure what to say. Your generosity of ideas for our canoes fit with exactly what we hoped to happen with these vessels that are an intimate part of who we were, and have become over the years.
“I need to write this down because not only was our encounter yesterday serendipitous, it was ghostly. Did that just happen? It did and writing about it makes it more concrete.
“So I anxiously, we anxiously, anticipate warmer weather and your visit to our small livery. Your response to our request for advice on this was beyond elegant.”
I got to work on the paddle repair. A labor of love, truly, as I wanted to do something nice for these people who are so generous. I decided to put a maple key in the crack since it was so long, and to use contrasting wood to make the repair a feature, a battle scar, a badge of honor for years of service.
I finished the paddles, and a few days later I hooked up a trailer and we drove out to their place. The women chatted happily about gardening and grown-up kids while I helped pull three canoes out of a dusty cellar through a narrow and steep staircase, and laid them out on the lawn.
We took pictures, loaded the canoes on a trailer, visited some more, and made a vow to keep in touch.
Two months later, I am here to report on the placement.
Canoe One: An Old Town OTCA 17, mid-’60s vintage, in need of complete restoration. Canvas is rotted at the gunwales, some cracked planks and ribs, but the patina is to die for.
Canoe One went to Dee, the father of a friend who just happened to be visiting town. Dee fell in love with canoeing on a Boundary Waters trip in the ’60s, when he was just a lad, and paddled some wood canvas canoes on his trip. He now lives in Utah, but still has canoes, though nothing vintage. I don’t meet that many people from the desert who love canoes like I do, but Dee was one of them for sure.
I drove over to his daughter’s place with Canoe One on my truck, peeling canvas and all. He came out and rubbed the hull, smiling and whispering “wow….neat….wow.” Then I dropped the bomb on him. “It’s yours.”
I swear his expression was one of a 16-year-old who had just been handed the keys to a Porsche. I told him of the original owners, their wishes, and the three rules he had to follow. Dee agreed to all three with no hesitation. He choked up a bit, shook my hand, then thought better of it and pulled me into a hug. I told him this canoe had been on the first owners’ honeymoon in the Boundary Waters. Given that’s where he fell in love with canoeing, it makes sense.
I am delivering this canoe to Utah in August. He is recently retired and will begin the process of bringing Canoe One back to her full glory.
Canoe Two: 1938 18’ OTCA (a beast), fiberglassed (ouch!), but the wood is in good shape and it’s paddle-able.
Canoe Two went to Kirk, a friend who is an inveterate tinkerer and had recently sold his old beater canoe due to its unaesthetic nature. That is the kind way of putting it. He had an ugly, heavy boat. Now he has a beautiful, heavy boat.
Kirk and Gwen will have to take a lot of time with a heat gun and careful prying to remove the fiberglass so thoughtlessly caked on the beautiful cedar, but it is do-able.
They’re empty nesters, but it’ll still take a few years for them to complete the project, of course, nevertheless they’re excited about it.
Canoe Three: 1950s vintage 18’ OTCA, recanvased in the ‘80s, needing paint and varnish, but otherwise a good paddler.
Canoe Three went to Shane, a friend who happens to be a sales rep for Old Town Canoe.
Shane spends a lot of time on the road, but when he’s not on the road he and his wife are raising a large family, the youngest three adopted from Haiti and the Congo. All his children are kind, polite and delightful. Shane is an exceptional father and the idea of him paddling his kids around in this big old freighter made me smile.
Shane came to the shop for a clinic, but we always spend time catching up on family stuff. We talk about the three-year-old, given the name of Belief, who came to his family last fall, suffering from the effects of poverty and malnourishment, and how he is now healthy and learning English rapidly. Shane speaks of all of his children with pride, and he should be proud.
Shane stayed after the clinic to help us unload a shipment of boats from a competing manufacturer. That’s why Shane is Shane, and that’s why it became clear he needed to be the next caretaker of Canoe Three.
The interesting thing about all three of the new caretakers is their wording when I told them of their new stewardship. Each of them said, without hesitation, “I’d be honored.” Truth is, they are honored, but they’re also honoring the wishes of a kind and generous couple who just wanted the canoes to keep on being canoes, to keep floating, to keep dispensing happiness, as canoes so often do.