The recent hullabaloo over kayaks has left the poor canoe with its bow badly out of joint, filling up with leaves and pine needles behind the garage. To a lot of people, canoeing has become as quaint and old-fashioned as writing letters, wearing wool sweaters, or going out to the movies. It’s no longer considered much fun to launch the canoe on a quiet spring morning to explore the cove; instead, you must have a sleek yellow kayak and all the expensive accoutrements. I’d like to take a stand for the forgotten, humble canoe.
I’ve tried out a couple of kayaks. I found both of them tippy, difficult to get into, and even more difficult to disembark from. I got wet during both operations. When I did get seated with the watertight membrane tied around my waist, there was no room for our little dog, let alone my wife, and I was so low in the water that I couldn’t see very far. Kinsey, our strong-willed terrier, barked her disapproval from the beach.
I bought my canoe (the only one I’ve ever owned) in 1979 for $249, two paddles and four Styrofoam blocks for a roof-rack included. It’s a red, fiberglass, 17-footer and it holds a lot of camping gear. It’s also very stable in the water. I’ve taken it down the West River in Vermont a dozen times, camped out on an island on Lake Aziscohos in New Hampshire, paddled it down the Rideau River in Canada, taken it down Horseshoe Cove and the Bagaduce River nearer home, and prowled Smith Cove more times than I can remember.
Two summers ago my wife and I loaded it with camping gear for a weekend on Lake Umbagog on the Maine-New Hampshire border. We weren’t sure whether we’d find a discouraging “No Dogs Allowed” poster at the launch site so we left Kinsey at home. It has never failed us — the canoe that is — and we’ve never yet tipped over in it. Yes, we always wear life vests, Kinsey as well.
The bow has multiple scars and gouges and several overlapping fiberglass patches, and the once shiny red finish has aged to a dullish pink. Last summer, one of the original paddles was lost by some visiting nieces and nephews so I fashioned a new paddle from a piece of clear white pine and then screwed a piece of hardwood across the tip. It pushes the canoe along just fine.
There’s something stylish and old-fashioned about canoeing that I like as I paddle, straight-backed (and maybe strait-laced) on the aft seat, my wife on the bow seat, rambunctious Kinsey barking at the seals and cormorants as she leans out precariously, paws on the gunwale. Kneeling just aft of amidships I can also take a solitary paddle in the canoe in the stillness of an early summer morning, the bottom of the cove lit vividly in the shallows if you catch the sun’s angle just right, mussel shells floating by like tiny boats, the ospreys cruising overhead on the lookout for mackerel.
I also like the feeling of not having bought into the latest costly fad. Yes, you’re right, we don’t own an iPod, we don’t use a GPS, and our cell phone is the kind we use only for emergencies, turned off most of the time. We haven’t purchased bright, fancy uniforms either, made from the latest miracle fabric emblazoned with the manufacturer’s logo and littered with innumerable snaps and pouches to hold the latest gadgetry.
A lot of people are doing well selling these kayaks. We see racks of the bright-colored missiles in front of the outfitters’ stores poised for spring takeoff. When I ask them about kayak paddles, I learn about fancy composites and angles and lengths and very fancy prices. In the summer I occasionally see kayakers out in the middle of Penobscot Bay following the Maine Island Trail from one camping spot to the next. Sometimes I see them out there when it’s blowing pretty hard and there’s a good chop; in conditions like that I admit the kayak beats the canoe hands down. Yes, the kayak is more seaworthy, but it’s not as stylish, and certainly not as commodious. Kinsey barks her approval — she hates being left behind.
Tom Moore is a retired Maine Maritime Academy professor. He lives in Brooksville.