Thursday, January 12, 2023

JOY AT FOUR CENTS AN HOUR – A Love Affair Afloat

What’s the best, wisest purchase you’ve ever made?

No sooner did I write that question than I realized the peril of answering it. So let me start like this: Among the best purchases I’ve ever made is…my canoe.

Back in 1976, when I was living in Keene New Hampshire, I found the 13-foot Mansfield Osprey canoe sitting in someone’s back yard, crawling with ants and earwigs, parts of its ash gunwales and cherry ribs rotting. Still, most of the wood-and-fiberglass hull looked intact.

I think I paid the guy $100 for it. I cleaned it up a bit, just stabilizing the rotting areas with some penetrating epoxy resin. It wasn’t pretty and there were a few chunks missing, but that little craft provided many hours of enjoyment for me in southeastern Vermont, where I used it mostly on the Connecticut river and a few local ponds.

I eventually moved back to Minnesota, where I got even more use out of my Osprey, paddling the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, and several of the Twin Cities’ many beautiful lakes.

In 1987, reeling from a painful divorce, I decided my summer project—and my redemption—would be some much-needed maintenance on my canoe and then outfitting both it and myself for a solo canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

In a friend’s small back yard, I put the canoe up on sawhorses and got to work. Keenly aware of the metaphorical significance of what I’d be doing. I removed as much wood rot as I could, soaked the rest in more penetrating resin, and then filled the larger voids with epoxy putty.

I removed and replaced the keel, swapping the mixed bag of rusty screws for new ones of shiny brass. I sealed each screw hole and then the entire length of the keel with clear silicone caulk.

My efforts were more repairs than restoration. The epoxy filler I applied is white, so the areas where I used it are pretty obvious. But those repairs, all of them, have proven rock solid for 35 years and counting.

          The current price: about the cost
          of an average car at the time my Osprey
          was made.

I’ve done a little research on the boat. The Mansfield Osprey was originally designed by L.H. Beach in 1954, and manufactured in Vermont by a company called Stowe Canoes, which also produced snow shoes. 

Long after I bought my old Osprey I was Googling the Mansfield name and learned that the Stowe Company had been bought and moved to, of all places, Tennessee, in 1972. The company was renamed Merrimack, after another fine New Hampshire town and river.

At Merrimack’s website, I was delighted to see they were still making the Osprey—nearly identical to my half-century-old craft—and that it was still considered a fine, unique canoe. The price for a new one at that time: nearly $2,000.

I recently checked again and found that Merrimack has since made two more moves, first to South Carolina and, again, just in the past year, to Winona, Minnesota, where the Merrimack name, designs and production methods are still honored—now under the corporate umbrella of the Sanborn Canoe Company.

The current price for a new, 13-foot Osprey: $3,500—about the price of an average car at the time my Osprey was made. While I have no plans to replace it, it’s somehow gratifying to know that if I wanted to, I could save my pennies and buy a brand new one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? That one can become so attached to something very old, very worn, that it takes on greater value than a brand new version of the same thing that has 35 times the monetary value.

In terms of dollars-and-cents, if I take the price I paid for my little vessel, and divide it by the approximate number of hours I’ve spent enjoying it, I come up with a cost of around four cents per hour for all the paddling, exploring, fishing, photographing and communing with Nature I’ve done in it.

           I feel as safe and as nimble in my
           canoe as I do standing on dry land.

The Osprey is not designed as a solo canoe. That is to say, it has both bow and stern seats. So when I paddle alone, my weight causes the bow to rise out of the water, and that makes paddling in any wind nearly impossible.

I simply compensate by filling a five-gallon collapsible water jug with river water and placing it on the floor in the bow.

Once I’m on the water, I experience a deep sense of empowerment and freedom. I can navigate around the tightest turns, through the trickiest currents, and over the roughest bottoms—as long as the water’s three or four inches deep. And if not, I just get out and pull the canoe over the shallows…or portage around them.

I can turn on a dime, and easily move my canoe forward, backward, or sideways in the water. I can paddle silently to sneak up on wildlife. The Osprey’s 39-inch beam makes it really stable, so I can stand up relatively safely to get a better view of what’s ahead, or just to stretch my legs.

After so many years getting to know my beautiful little canoe, I feel as safe and as nimble in her as I do standing on dry land.

It's like I'm paddling a piece of fine wood furniture.

I’ve paddled and portaged many makes and models of canoes, under a wide range of conditions. Each of them—with a few exceptions—was very good for certain things. The beautiful old wood-and-canvas ones, like the Seligas or Chestnuts, are beautiful and fast, but because they’re relatively narrow and have no keels, they’re quite tippy.

Those old classics also have little quirks, like often leaking a little until the wood gets wet and expands.

The aluminum Grummans and Alumacrafts are workhouses, practically indestructible, great for running rapids. But they’re heavy, not the best choice for trips with lots of portages. And they’re noisy.

The first Kevlar canoes came out in the early 1970s. They’re super light and maneuverable, weighing in about 40 percent lighter than canoes of other materials.

They’re billed as indestructible, but that’s not exactly accurate, since Kevlar, originally developed to replace steel fibers in racing tires, is only strong in certain ways. It can absorb the impact of a bullet, but is easily abraded when the canoe is beached on rocks or gravel.

There’s definitely an esthetic element to the interior of a canoe. It has to do not just with how the vessel looks, but how it feels and sounds. There’s nothing at all warm and fuzzy about stepping barefoot into an aluminum canoe, feeling the cold metal against your feet and hearing the loud metallic clunk as you drop your paddle on the thwart.

Kevlar’s a bit warmer, but it’s quite translucent; from inside, you can easily see the water line through the thin amber skin. And I just find that unnerving.

My Osprey, like the other wood-ribbed classics, feels comfortable, secure and kind of organic, as if I were paddling a piece of fine wooden furniture.

After some 46 years of adventuring—and aging—together, I dearly hope my canoe and I can still enjoy a few more. But the reality is that the Osprey will ultimately weather the aging better than I.

There will come a day when even the relatively light weight of the boat will prove too much for me to handle. What’s more, as the inevitable downsizing of our home occurs, there will be the challenge of where to store it.

That will be a sad day indeed, like losing a good friend.

My fondest wish is that one of my clever, caring grandchildren might figure out a way to keep getting Gramps out there on the water now and then. Because I have a feeling that, even when this old coot can no longer walk so well, he’ll still wield a decent J stroke.


Anonymous said...

Very nice story, Jeff. A man and his canoe. You are right about the aluminum canoes, they are heavy. I’m amazed you were able to seal all the slits and slivers in you wooden one. The wood actually expands and seals itself?? Amazing.


Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Chas - I did quite a few BWCAW & Quetico trips after our trips as teens. One of our canoes was a Chestnut, made in New Brunswick. It always leaked a bit when first put in the water. Next day, tight as a drum.

Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.