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Building a pastime


If you’ve ever had somebody tell you to “paddle your own canoe,” it mostly likely was a blunt piece of advice on how to live your life.

But for Owen Johnston and Guy Donaldson, the old adage means putting their homemade cedar-strip canoes to glide on Rainy Lake.

Johnston, an art teacher at Fort High, built his canoe last July. Now he’s helping Donaldson, co-owner of Robin’s Donuts here, build his while continuing to hone canoe-carpentry skills.

“I have been interested in [canoeing] for as long as I can remember,” Johnston said Monday.

“I decided to build my own. It was the most ambitious thing I’ve ever built. And I fell in love with it at the moment,” he smiled.

Donaldson began to build his canoe in October, and credited his wife with nudging him to take up the challenge.

“Kelly pushed me to do it. She knew I was interested," he said. "And it’s been immensely satisfying.”

The canoe design chosen by both men is found in a book entitled “Canoecraft” by Ted Moores and Merilyn Mohr.

The building process began last fall for Donaldson using a 17’, 2" in. canoe mold (crafted by Johnston), which represented the canoe upside down. A piece of steamed ash was fitted vertically to the front and back of the mold and clamped there.

“The canoe has to deal with a lot of rock and dock. The ash [can] take a lot of stress,” Donaldson noted.

Long thin strips of cedar routed with a “bead and cove” edge were glued and fit together, and then stapled to the brackets of the mold and anchored to the ash at each end.

“Kelly did all the gluing,” said Donaldson of his wife’s contribution.

“Who better can you trust?” she interjected.

Both men admitted the project, as a whole, is a tedious one. The stripping alone took eight and 10 days to finish. Roughly 100 hours of manual labour goes into the making.

“It teaches a lot about patience,” smiled Johnston.

“You just do a few hours at a time,” added Donaldson, who has about 30 hours of work left before his canoe is done.

Once all the strips have been applied and the glue has dried, the staples are removed and the canoe’s form is sanded smooth. Then a fibreglass mesh is draped over the form and and epoxied to the cedar to provide a water-tight, durable seal.

“It’s like watching a photograph develop before your eyes," said Johnston. "The [look] goes from white to cedar in a minute.”

“It really gives you a feel for the finished product,” agreed Donaldson.

Once the epoxy has dried, the surface is sanded once again in order to get a clear marine varnish.

The canoe’s profile at each end is cut once it has been flipped to an upright position, then the sanding, mesh, and epoxy process is repeated on the inside.

By the way, these canoes have no ribs, which prompted a few comments from people who didn’t understand how the canoe could be made without them, Donaldson said.

“People thought I was crazy [but] we chose a design that doesn’t have them. They aren’t needed with the fibreglass mesh and resin [application].”

Donaldson still has some “inside jobs” to add, including the gunnels, a thwart, and two caned seats, before his canoe is suitable for paddling area waters.

But ready he will be as soon as Mother Nature melts that frozen layer off the lake.

“We’re going to have an early ice-out this year. And I’ll be right there,” he smiled.

Each canoe tops out at around 52 pounds, making them ideal for portaging. And they didn’t cause to much pain in the pocketbook, gliding in at around $700.

Store bought cedar-strip canoes can cost $2,000-$3,000.

Meanwhile, Johnston has formed The Rainy Lake Canoe Builders’ Co-Operative in the hopes of attracting more people to the art. It offers a pool of resources, tools, skills, and experience to its members.

The only requirement for membership is a contribution of a tool for use by members. Canoe enthusiasts can call Johnston at 274-7220 for more information.

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