GRAND LAKE STREAM, Maine — Cathy Shamel remembers the day her husband, Bill Shamel, told her about his plan to raise money for the 16th annual Grand Lake Stream Folk Art Festival.
Bill Shamel, a boat-builder, would hold a raffle, and hand-craft the prize: A brand new Grand Laker canoe.
“I said, ‘What? We’re not going to eat this year!’” joked Cathy Shamel, the festival’s event coordinator. “But really, Bill’s pretty devoted to [the festival]. We all are.”
This year’s festival will be held on July 24-25 in the tiny village that sits between West Grand Lake and Big Lake in rural Washington County.
And since Grand Lakers — the beautiful green-painted cedar-and-canvas canoes — are such a symbol of the town and the surrounding area, Bill Shamel thought the raffle made perfect sense.
Another factor: Fund-raising for the annual festival is always a challenge, and new ideas were needed.
“As always, money is just the really tough part,” Bill Shamel said. “We’ve got great supporters, but we decided to come up with something different. I build these. So I just decided to donate one and put my time into that rather than writing grants all year long and making phone calls and writing letters. We’ll see how it goes.”
It could go very, very well.
The 20-foot canoe in question is worth about $5,850, Bill Shamel estimates. Throw in a Sunbrella canoe cover and a trailer — all part of the package — and you’ve got a prize worth $7,500.
Bill Shamel didn’t grow up building Grand Lakers, but he has been crafting the canoes as a business for the past 18 years, after he retired from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Before that, he apprenticed under a man who is well-known in Grand Lake Stream canoe-building circles: Cathy Shamel’s dad, Pop Moore.
Pop Moore may have built more than 1,000 canoes over 65 years, the Shamels say. Bill Shamel still uses Moore’s canoe-building mould.
“He was my mentor. Over there under a tarp is the first canoe I ever built,” Bill Shamel said. “I always told people it was the best canoe I ever built because I’d build all day and he’d come in and inspect in the afternoon and then I’d rebuild all night to get it right.”
Even today, after having built 50 or 60 canoes, Bill Shamel says he’s improving and tinkering all the time.
“Wood’s a wonderful and fickle medium and I learn something new from every one,” he said. “I’m constantly trying to tweak it a little bit more.”
That attitude would likely make sense to Moore, according to Bill Shamel.
Moore, who died in 1995, learned his craft at the hand of Joe Sprague, and was among the early canoe-builders in the region.
According to Bill Shamel, those early builders weren’t striving to make the same boat that everyone else did. Instead, they were striving to make their own boats better than they had been in the past.
“You can’t really say [the Grand Laker] was invented,” Shamel said. “It was an evolution to get it to where it is now.”
Some builders added features that made their canoes stand out.
“They credit Cathy’s dad with the use of mahogany, with [adding] the wider stern that would accommodate a bigger motor,” Bill Shamel explained. “They were always trying to strike that balance between a motor canoe and one that would paddle decently, because in the early days when they guided they paddled exclusively when they were guiding.”
Cathy Shamel said her dad never owned a Pop Moore canoe, even though others coveted his Grand Lakers.
“He had a Bill Sprague canoe,” Cathy Shamel said.
And if he were still guiding today, he might not be using a canoe at all, she admits.
“Believe me, if my father had been alive when there were pontoon boats [he would have bought one],” Cathy Shamel said with a laugh. “He loved to load stuff on.”
Since its humble beginning, the Grand Lake Stream Folk Art Festival has evolved as well, into a major regional event that will draw between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors to the tiny town.
“The first year, people said, ‘What? Grand Lake Stream? An art festival? Are you kidding?’” Cathy Shamel said. “We practically had to pay people to come. Now we have a waiting list for artists and musicians.”
Once at the festival, visitors will find an alcohol- and smoke-free venue with tents that feature music, food, art and local culture (including canoe building).
Admission to the festival is $5 for one day or $8 for both days.
For more information on the festival, or to find out how you can get your hands on a raffle ticket for the Grand Laker, go to www.grandlakestreamfolkartfestival.com.
Raffle prices: $10 for one ticket, $25 for three, $40 for five and $75 for 10.
The tickets will also be on sale at two other major Down East events this summer: The International Festival in Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick from July 30-Aug. 8 and the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival from Aug. 20-22.