Messing About At The Canadian Canoe Museum

Image-24-Royal Canoes

A collection of historic canoes presented to the Royal Family.

Now that summer is finally here (even in Michigan) – it’s been another crazy week here at Woody Boater. From historic Lake Hopatcong, to Robinson Restoration in southern California, back to Lake Hopatcong a few times to salute a Lieutenant and a Godfather, to Saint Clair, Michigan to celebrate some big cruisers, then up to Gravenhurst, Ontario as they prepare to celebrate 100 years of classic boat racing – and it’s only Friday!

Today we are going to switch gears (to “low gear” or even “no gear”) to celebrate some slightly slower, slightly quieter wooden classics. When this great story arrived on our (electronic) doorstep from Canadian contributor Cobourg Kid he noted…

Texx – Here’s my report from the Canadian Canoe Museum’s first annual Small Craft Rendezvous… I hope you like it, might get a few grumbles from the go-fast powerboat crowd though… as you know I love old race boats too, but I have not forgotten my roots. – CK

My immediate response to Cobourg Kid was “Hey – If it’s old, made from wood and floats – It’s cool!” – and these boats have all those qualities. And the collectors, historians & restorers are every bit as passionate about their boats as we are for our old wooden powerboats. Here’s his report.– Texx

Messing About at the Canadian Canoe Museum
By Cobourg Kid

Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, contains a scene in which a character named “Ratty” introduces his friend “Mole” to the inordinate bliss of quietly sculling a skiff on a serene river, and wherein the following conversation transpires…

“This has been a wonderful day!” Mole said, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls … “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.” “What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—-you never— I–What have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the ONLY thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he bent forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”


Ratty and Mole simply messing about in a boat.

Hence it was this scene that that was playing out in my mind last Saturday morning as I headed northward through persistent showers (what’s with the rain this year anyway?) to Peterborough, Ontario and the Canadian Canoe Museum’s first annual Small Craft Rendezvous.

Now I know that some of you out there are more like Mr Toad, one of, Grahame’s other characters. Toad is impetuous, often reckless but basically a good hearted dude who likes to drive real fast and hang out on the wild side of things…you know kind-a like Gar Wood. Those of you who sort of fit that profile are probably wondering right now what’s with the coverage of some dull old event dominated by dawdling hand powered craft and small outboards.


Gar Wood at the wheel, doing the Mr. Toad thing.

Truth is that many of us learned to love boating when we were very young by pottering around in ancient weather-beaten skiffs, or canoe with patches. For me it was a beat up and bedraggled plywood punt called the “Shiale”. Bottom line, for many of you small craft are imprinted in our DNA and sometimes we need to be reminded of the slower things that we gave up in the hurry to grow up and go fast.


A wet but warm day for a rendezvous.

Despite the soggy weather and unrelenting downpours, about 2,000 folks gathered at the museum during the day. Many of those in attendance were inveterate portagers and back country campers, used to toting canoes and backpacks across rock strewn trails, in Ontario’s north country battling bugs, rain, cold and heat on a regular basis; so a little rain was not going to keep them away from an opportunity to visit with about thirty exhibitors, get local ice cream for a buck a cone or from exploring the museum on the only day of the year that entry is free of charge.

For those that did not fit the standard “canoe mold” the presence of actor, woodworker, canoe hobbyist, and eccentric funny man Nick Offerman (who plays Ron Swanson in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation) provided an additional incentive to non-traditional small boat enthusiasts to attend. In fact a Q&A with Nick was the only ticketed event at the Rendezvous, and was sold out well in advance. All proceeds going to support the Canoe museum. Thanks Nick.


Nick Offerman strikes a pose amongst the throng… Ok, Ok I confess I photo shopped him in. He was there though, at least they told me he was, and the local paper ran a photo of him…Hmmm?

While I missed the Q&A (no press please) I did take the opportunity to visit with most of the exhibitors and take in two live technical demonstrations.

First up Carlisle Canoe Company of Freelton Ontario (near Guelph). Owner Roger Foster has been building, repairing and teaching canoe and paddle construction for almost 20 years so this was the right guy to provide instruction on how to properly re-canvass you’re a cedar strip canoe.


Carlisle Canoe Company came equipped to teach the traditional art of canvassing a canoe was on site (picture of sign and canoe)

Roger was a stalwart performer providing revolving clinics throughout the day. For those who want to know more he also offers canoe building courses, that is when he’s not otherwise engaged building or repairing canoes using traditional methods.


Roger outlines the proper method of stretching and fastening canvass at the pointy parts.

Shortly after viewing the Carlisle presentation I headed up to view Michael Fortune and his crew’s entertaining two hour demonstration on five ways to bend wood, a skill that is an absolute must for all small boat restorers. Michael resides near Peterborough and has accumulated over 30 years of experience designing, building and teaching woodworking and furniture building in Canada and the United States.


Michael Fortune answers some questions about the technology.


The Fortune Crew passes out samples of their bent work.

Back outside and wondering around the museum grounds I came upon a number of interesting exhibits.

Dr. Tony Wells was in attendance with an absolutely mind-blowing collection of Japanese tin plate boats and matching original boxes dating from 1950 to 1963. He explained that most of the firms that produced these toys had supplied war material to the Japanese Imperial army in World War II and were basically forced to “peaceful” products to stay in business in occupied Japan.


Bet you’ve never seen this many tin plate boats on display, not even in FAO Schwarz at Christmas!

Many of the toys used the same patterns, however, the screen printing was modified to create an array of visually different models. Dr. Well’s pointed out that the distributors mark usually appears on the toys not the maker name, probably because multiple companies were contracted to produce the same models to meet demand.

When not at special events, some of the models are displayed in Dr. Well’s waiting room. Certainly a welcome diversion from the often banal magazines that haunt most Doctor’s offices.


Man these things are cool!

Dick Persson of Buckhorn Canoe Company (of Buckhorn Ontario) also had an interesting display, featuring three pristinely restored canoes, the rarest being a long decked courting Canoe built by J. R Robertson of Boston Mass. between 1895 and 1910. That Canoe had been acquired in very poor shape having been accidentally dropped off the roof of a vehicle at high speed.

When it comes to canoe history, Dick is the go to guy and with a little encouragement, he was happy to tell me J. R. Robertson’s story.

Robertson, the son of Scottish immigrants, was born in upstate New York and some say may have learned the canoe trade as an apprentice to the legendary canoe builder J Henry Rushton.

Image-11 Henry Rushton Boat Shop

The sanding room in the Rushton Boat Shop – Image courtesy of St Lawrence County Historical Association.

Eventually, Robertson moved on to Auburndale Massachusetts establishing a canoe factory and livery business there. Sometime later Robertson, who had an uncle in Peterborough Ontario, was able to draw on family connections to lure George Stevenson, the son of John Stephenson (the man widely attributed as the inventor of the famous Peterborough canoe design) to come and work in his Auburndale facility. Thus the design and building secrets of the Peterborough type canoe stealthily slipped into the United States.


Dick Persson (left) fields a question about the J. R. Robertson courting canoe.

Continuing on I soon discovered that a variety of other local boat builder’s and owners had established static displays showcasing a wide variety of small craft.

My personal favorites were two faultless cedar strip outboards, one a Peterborough, the other an Elgin, both restored by the gifted hands of John Hendren of John’s Little Boat shop in Omemee Ontario.


An absolutely flawless Peterborough cedar strip restored by John Hendren.

The Elgin, brand was sold in Canada through Simpson’s department stores. The boat on display had originally arrived at John’s shop as a rather disheveled early 1960s cedar strip fishing boat. After tackling issues with the hull, and transom John completely rebuilt and reconfigured the Elgin into a very sporty little gentleman’s racer.


John Hendren‘s magical transformation of a former Elgin fishing boat.

Dan McWilliams, a local collector of classic boats, had his 1948 Orkney tender on hand. This sturdy little craft, equipped with an inboard Stuart engine, was originally Sir Douglas Bader’s personal boat. Bader was a famous Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter ace. Both loved and disparaged, as an aggressive, competitive daredevil, Bader flew many sorties during World War II, in spite of the fact that a pre-war acrobatics incident had left him with two amputated legs!


Dan McWilliams 1948 Orkney Tender once piloted by Sir Douglas Bader.

Other notable boats on display by their owners included a 22 foot, 1918 St Lawrence Guide Boat equipped with an early four cylinder Brennan engine manufactured in Syracuse New York, and a 22 foot square stern cedar strip freighter canoe quipped with center helm, and 30 HP 4 stroke Honda outboard. Remarkably this boat is virtually new having been built to order for the current owner by Geisler Boat Company of Powassan, Ontario. Geisler is probably the last company in North America that’s still building cedar Strip boats in a production line environment.


Usually found in the thousand islands area, this 1918 St Lawrence Guide Boat was certainly a rare bird in Peterborough.


Geisler freighter canoe fresh off the line and ready for some camp cruising.

Moving on, I came across Will Ruch – a Canoe builder whose quality work I had long heard about but whom I had never met.


Will Ruch (right) discusses the art of canoe building over an older (but still spotless) example of his work.

Will began his career in the early 1980s as an apprentice to a Muskoka based Canoe shop and was soon assigned primary responsibility of repairing damaged canoes. And it was in the process of mending the products of many builders that he learned where their designs and workmanship had performed well and conversely where they had failed. In the latter case Will devised many procedures that would prevent a reoccurrence of various problems. Knowledge that is particularly useful if you share Will’s goal which is to build a canoe that outlives its owner.

As is often the case the young apprentice ultimately decided to set off to form his own company, but not just any company, to him, canoe building is an art and the level of craftsmanship put into a canoe is more important than throughput.

Will begins each build by selecting, drying and milling only the best handpicked hardwood and softwood lumber, much of it locally sourced from sawmills located near his shop in Bancroft Ontario. After working with his clients to ensure that the selected design will meet their needs the wood starts to come together, structured to last, proportionally correct, properly planked, securely fastened and flawlessly sealed and finished, all to ensure a seamless comingling of art and permanence.

Just behind the Ruch exhibit I found possibly the most inspiring display of the day. Led by their teacher, Pete Tamlin, a group grade 12 students enrolled in I. E. Weldon Secondary School Construction Engineering Technology course proudly displayed the various canoes that they had just completed as independent projects.

Students Liam Karklins and Zack Fleming spoke to me enthusiastically about the program and described how each builder had personally sourced and milled all of the wood themselves using the school’s industrial router and bead and cove router bits. Turns out Mr. Tamlin’s class normally churns out an astonishing 12-14 boats a year. Over 70 have emerged from the program since it began.


Liam, Zack and classmates from I. E. Weldon Secondary School show off their amazing work.

This outstanding program has a number of corporate sponsors including Woodview Forest Products and Bear Mountain Boats which provided the school with a full sets of plans for a variety of its small boat designs.


Rain did not dampen the enthusiastic crew from Weldon Secondary School, nice work folks!

Speaking of Bear Mountain Boats, (one of the major sponsors of the Rendezvous), 2013 marks their fortieth year in business. Over that period Ted Moores, Joan Barrett and their crew of craftspeople have worked tirelessly to design (with the help of Steve killing) and produce, with the help of subcontractor Ron Frenette of Canadian canoes, wooden watercraft, that combine classic lines with the most advanced epoxy strip marine technologies. With such a great team Bear Mountain has in fact become the go to source for plans, kits, how-to videos (one featuring Nick Offerman) and technical support for anyone who wants to craft his/her own, canoe, skiff or sailboat.


Two competitive C15 (war canoes) built by Bear Mountain frame a 14 foot Rice Lake skiff (designed by Bear Mountain but built by Joe Paterson) and a restored 1930 international design sailboat.

In recent years, Ted and Joan have branched out a bit, in addition to building their traditional designs Bear Mountain has produced national sprint racing canoes, restored historically significant craft, and constructed elegant one-off custom boats. An example of the later is Sparks, a thirty foot hybrid- electric fantail launch that runs on solar panels, an AGM battery pack and a small generator.

While Sparks was not on display I have included a photo as its blend of old style displacement design, cutting edge technology and enviable operational economy seem to meld to form the perfect little cruiser.


Sparks visits Kingston during its inaugural shakedown cruise – Photo courtesy Bear Mountain Boats.

Across from the Bear Mountain booth, volunteers of Marshville Heritage Village (located near Welland, Ontario) were busy selling tickets on a brand new epoxy strip canoe replete with outstanding inlaid marquetry. Turns out that the canoe was in fact built during a course offered by Marshville volunteers. The canoe constructed by the students and instructors then becomes the raffle prize.


Marshville Heritage Society volunteers busy hawking tickets for a very cool hand built strip canoe.

Proceeds from the course tuition and the sale of raffle tickets are used to support programming at the heritage village. If you would like to get in on the action call 905-899-9995.

Having stopped in at most exhibits and observed several demonstrations I decided to do a last dash through the museum and shoot a few photos for those viewers who have never seen its remarkable collection.


Part of the extensive Birch Bark Canoe Exhibit.


A variety of very early Ontario built canoes.


A sneak peak of the restoration center.


Peterborough area historic builder’s gallery.

If you have never visited the Canadian Canoe Museum, please consider it. While it’s presently not a federally designated museum (regrettably most of them are sequestered in Ottawa) it ought to be. Within the museum’s walls lie what is likely the world’s largest collection of canoes, dugouts, kayaks and paddled watercraft. For more information on the Canadian Canoe Museum you can Click Here to go to their website.

The vast majority of those craft were saved from the ignominy of the burn pile by the unwavering determination of a humble professor and outdoors educator, named Kirk Whipper. The professor believed that those craft and the nation building stories they harbored played a significant part in forging the Canadian identity; having visited the museum I must concur.


Kirk Whipper, (1923- 2011) sadly, a High Soul has paddled on.

Cobourg Kid

21 replies
  1. WoodyGal
    WoodyGal says:

    Great story Kid. Thanks for the interesting photos and good writing. This story is important because it is the beginning of our lifestyle. Being on the water, not floundering in it, is pure joy!

  2. Chris B.
    Chris B. says:

    what a story. A great start that kept me going. nice start to my day. Matt you need to give the Cobourg kid a raise. I am Sure you could double his pay, ha ha.

  3. Jim Staib
    Jim Staib says:

    What is it that attracts us to canoes? God I wish I knew. Might explain the dozen or so I have in the barn. Anybody ever heard of this brand? I have a pair of 30’s.

  4. tommyholm
    tommyholm says:

    thanks for the story.
    I highly recommend a stop at this canoe museum. it’s near Toronto, and well worth the trip. Paddle Up!

  5. dreed
    dreed says:

    It’s all starting to come together. When I went to college, I lived in a dorm named after Rushton. Now I am addicted to varnish.

  6. tuobanur
    tuobanur says:

    Great story, great pics. I wish now that I had purchased that old Old Town canoe at Tavares. New It!! 🙂

    • Cobourg Kid
      Cobourg Kid says:

      I have no idea where the Lake Dora Old Town went BUT there is an Antique 1925 16′ Old Town Canoe for sale on Craig’s List (Rochester) right now (mind you, the 1911 looks like it needs some work) and a very cool 1964 Old Town on Craig’s List (finger lakes) that looks like it needs no work . Both at reasonable prices
      I would probably check both of them out but they are a long way from me.

  7. Brian S
    Brian S says:

    Another great story from the Cobourg Kid.

    Thanks for covering these nostalgic wooden classics that are attainable and maintainable for the masses.

  8. ian
    ian says:

    do you have any more pictures of the little outboard racer with the 25hp engine and the white seats, looked cool

    • Cobourg Kid
      Cobourg Kid says:

      Hi Ian

      The boat in question had no info posted on it so I have no idea who built it but I suspect it is a Glenn L Squirt, possibly one of there kits

  9. David Wallie
    David Wallie says:

    Love the Peterborough and Elgin, I still have my Grandfathers Peterborough and in the process of restoring it. Always an inspiration to see such beautiful woodys.

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