Family canoe project nets a boatload of memories

Posted Jan. 12, 2009, at 8:45 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — The rivers and lakes of northern Maine won’t be open for months, but for one local family, winter doesn’t stop them from pursuing their love of canoeing.

They just have to move indoors for the time being.

When ice, work and school constraints keep Andre Landry, his wife, Norma, and their daughters Kelsey, 24, and Sam, 16, off their beloved Allagash River, they spend time planning the next canoe trip.

This winter that means putting the finishing touches on the 18½-foot cedar strip canoe that Andre and Kelsey have lovingly transformed from board to boat.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Andre Landry said on a recent afternoon relaxing at home with his family. “It’s a real labor of love.”

Labor would certainly be one word for it.

It’s actually the third cedar strip canoe Landry has built from the ground up, each one starting with about 50 board feet of 1-inch-thick cedar boards from a local lumber mill.

From there, he planes the wood to three-quarters of an inch, then rips those pieces into quarter-inch strips.

Then the real work begins.

Building a cedar strip canoe is a project that cannot be rushed. Each represents about 150 painstaking hours.

“You need to let the glue set after you put on a few layers of strips,” Landry said. “I can go work on it for an hour and then have to stop.

“I learned a lot by trial and error,” he said. “I read a lot of books on canoe making, but I tend to do things differently from what the books say to do.”

For example, most of what he read instructs the builder first to staple the cedar strips together before gluing them in place. Once that glue has dried, the staples are then removed.

For Landry, that process represents an unnecessary extra step.

“I don’t like pulling all those staples out,” he said.

A registered Maine Guide, Landry rebuilt his first canoe — a 1942 Old Town Guide — more than 25 years ago and was immediately hooked on the process.

A dozen years later, he began work on his own canoe using a specialized mold given to him by his wife.

“I’m the one that got him going on this,” Norma Landry said. “We help each other achieve our goals.”

A tinkerer at heart, Andre Landry made some modifications to that mold to suit his canoeing style.

“I modified it to what I use a canoe for,” he said. “I do a lot of motoring and hauling gear, so that first canoe I made is more of a freighter.”

At 20½ feet by 39 inches, Landry’s boat can haul a lot of gear — he once carried a quarter of a cord of firewood in it — but noted the cedar strip canoe has a remarkably shallow draw.

“It can go places on the river where the newer ABS canoes are scraping bottom,” he said with pride.

“It’s a beast,” Norma Landry said of that first canoe. “It was going to be like our ‘Sunday car’ and we’d keep it just for high water, but we have a philosophy here that if we have something, we have to use it.”

In fact, Andre Landry used that first canoe so much, it has almost completely worn out.

With his modified mold Landry is able to make canoes 21, 20, 17 or 16 feet long depending how many sections — or “stations” — of the mold he uses.

Landry has logged a lot of hours in his canoes with his daughters and looks forward to the day he and Kelsey launch the newest member of the cedar strip fleet.

“I’ve always used Dad’s stuff,” she said. “But it’s really going to be something having a canoe of my own.”

Just as excited is her sister Sam, who anticipates the day her father begins work on her cedar strip canoe.

“I just get a craving to build one and I start,” Andre Landry said.

“You better get another craving quick,” Sam Landry said with a laugh.

While the Landrys rely on motors to move their canoes along the rivers — Kelsey refers to them as the “eight-horse paddles” — Andre said his youngest daughter possesses some traditional north Maine woods skills.

“She’s really proficient with the canoe pole,” he said. “In fact, we’ve been on trips where boys have told her, ‘Girls can’t do that’ and at camp she really shows them up, building fires and camp skills in general.”

Her sister agreed. “She proves the boys wrong,” Kelsey Landry said.

“I think it’s beautiful,” she said of the work in progress. “It’s been a great project for me and Dad and a great bonding experience. I was pretty clear I wanted to be involved in the whole process.”

The exterior of the hull gleams under the garage lights thanks to the two layers of epoxy Landry has applied.

Naturally light in color, the canoe has one dark stripe running its length — from a strip of walnut Andre Landry included.

“All of my canoes have that on them,” he said. “It’s kind of my trademark.”

Next come the gunwales and seats, which he will construct out of ash and cedar. Finally, the interior of the canoe will be waterproofed and sanded down.

“Then she’s ready for the river,” Landry said.

As for that maiden voyage, the family no doubt will be on the Allagash not long after the ice lets go this spring.

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