A Canoe Passage

Marie and I slip St. Joseph, our newly completed cedar strip canoe, off the VW and carry it to the water’s edge, a steady southwest breeze in our faces. It is 37 degrees with a bright, hazy sun shining through the high cirrostratus clouds. There is snow on the ground, left over from the heavy lake effect dumping we got last week. We wear our winter jackets, hats, and gloves rather awkwardly, unaccustomed to the combination of bulky clothing and being about the business of preparing to paddle. 

Boardman Lake is a fitting location to launch the canoe: Part of the 300 mile Boardman River system, it flows north and west into Grand Traverse Bay. Clear and cold, the river system is a blue-ribbon trout waterway, hosting brook, brown, steelhead and lake trout, as well as a sizable annual salmon run. Boardman Lake would not exist but for the Union Street Dam, which was built in 1867 after the logging boom was over. There is no boat traffic on the lake today, and there hasn’t been for a few weeks. The fisherman are waiting for first ice, the skiers for snow, and the canoeists and kayakers…well, they are hiking or sitting at home watching college football, much too wise to be on the water today. But I will not wait. As much as I enjoyed building the canoe, I love being on the water more. And as ships were not meant to be in port, St. Joseph was not crafted to be on its cradle in our storage garage. 

Lowering the canoe gently onto the lake grass washed up at the launch ramp adjacent to the Traverse Area Community Sailing building, I am hoping to delay putting the first scratches in the beautiful spar varnish finish. We spend several minutes doing our best “I have never done this before” act while adjusting the straps on our brand new life jackets and putting them on.

Ready to go at last, we experience what has been dubbed the “cedar delay.” That is when you cannot leave right away because people have spotted the canoe and want to ask questions about it. A pair of silver haired ladies, ready for a chilly walk along the lake in Hull Park, approach and ask if “that is a hand-built” canoe. After a short conversation about the project and the beauty of the wood, they go on their way.

Marie and I launch parallel to the shore, a process I learned from Dick Proenneke and his Alaskan wilderness life at Twin Lakes. We are much less likely to spill or hurt the canoe by launching this way than perpendicular to the shore. The only hindrances to our efforts are the wind and the short chop of the waves washing on shore. The wind has pushed up waves of half a foot or more. While not much for a regular boat, even short waves can cause canoes to dance smartly.

With Marie seated in the contoured ash and cane bow seat, I shove off just a bit and step to the center of the canoe at the stern seat. Settled and ready, excitement etched in the smiles on our faces, we paddle tentatively at first, the waves and our own relative inexperience calling for caution. I have no desire to swim. Stroking more confidently after the first 50 yards or so, we head south and east along the Boardman River trail, part of the TART trail system we have walked, bikes, or run so many times before. I like this view better.

The canoe is tender and lively, and turns easily, all characteristics of the heavily rockered, shallow arched hull form. But the tenderness, we quickly find, is caused as much by the waves and our learning to paddle together again.

We pass by a small flock of bufflehead ducks, resting on their journey south, but they are skittish, as always, and fly at our approach. We turn more westerly and out into the lake proper, not wishing to go far, but wanting enough time afloat to get a good feel for our new friend. We pause, rocking gently in the waves, and take the requisite pictures of each other from the bow and stern.

We are making good time now, not paddling a bit! The wind on this day, November 28, 2008, is carrying us north, back toward the launch at a good clip. The canoe has significant depth and freeboard, that is to say almost 12 inches from waterline to gunwale. This freeboard is sometimes referred to as “sail area” because of the way it catches the wind. The wind generator at the University Center testifies that the wind is not slacking, but if anything freshening. Pulling for shore, I am sad that our short voyage will be over so quickly. But I am so filled with passion that the canoe my father and I have built together is a living thing now, moving and reacting with unique characteristics, as quirky and individual as we who made her. And this indeed is but another page in our canoe passage.

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