FORT KENT, Maine — Long before the roads and railways reached far into northern Maine, rivers and waterways were the major transportation routes connecting communities with the outside world.
Generations of rivermen navigated those waters using all manner of canoes, bateaux, barges and crafts carrying goods in and out of the area. These days most river traffic is recreational but a bit of that history is slowly taking shape in a Fort Kent garage this winter.
Andre Landry, longtime river rat and registered Maine Guide, is building an old style, square-sterned freight canoe based on the designs used long ago.
“I never thought this is something I’d be doing,” Landry said this week with a laugh. “For me, a canoe has to be pointed at both ends.”
But Landry, who’s built seven canoes over the last 20 years, said he’d been toying with the idea of a square-sterned vessel for about a year as they are a bit more stable on lakes and his wife Norma really wanted her own canoe.
“Norma really wants to do the lakes,” Andre Landry, who has already built canoes for each of their two daughters, said. “Everything I’ve built in the past have been for running rivers where things can get shallow or you can run into low water.”
When complete, the freight canoe will be 22 feet long and 50 inches wide at its beam with a 27-inch transom.
That last measurement, Landry said, will allow him to bring the vessel on to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, which has strict rules governing watercraft dimensions.
That doesn’t surprise Norma Landry, who early on was pretty sure her husband would find an excuse to get “her” canoe out onto the Allagash River, a popular destination for the couple.
“He was in the process of planning this out and I could tell he was thinking about using it on the Allagash River,” Norma Landry said. “He told me, ‘Norma, there are lakes on the Allagash.’”
In particular, the big Waterway lakes like Chamberlain and Big Eagle would be perfect to explore with the square-stern, Andre Landry said.
Once Andre Landry had an idea of what he wanted the finished canoe to look like, he searched for plans.
Turned out, there weren’t any, so he drew two rough sketches with a few measurements on a small sticky note and in a spiral notepad and went from there.
Then he started with pieces of cardboard to create a template for the mold around which the canoe would eventually take shape.
Once he had the dimensions perfected, he created the mold out of sections of plywood.
“There was more than a little math involved to get the angles just right,” he said. “It’s the kind of math called ‘jig saw and belt sander.’”
With the mold meeting his specifications, he is now starting the painstaking process of applying hundreds of half-inch thick cedar strips that will form the canoe’s body. He gently taps in each strip with small nails and then glues them in place. Once the glue dries, the nails come out and the entire canoe will be covered in four coats of clear liquid fiberglass.
For aesthetic purposes, Landry plans to inlay a layer of walnut along the ash gunnels.
“They used to call these ‘tow boats,’” said Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society. “For the really big ones, they would use horses walking along the riverside to pull the boats upriver.”
Back then, Pelletier said, only the wealthy lumber barons or businessmen owned canoes or river boats. As for powering his creation Landry joked, “Oh yeah, there will be a pair of ‘oars’ — two Johnson 8-horse power motors.”
In actuality, Landry said he will likely use a 9.9 horsepower motor mounted on the back of the canoe.
“That’s one of the reasons it won’t be quite as maneuverable on the rivers” he said. “When you have a pointed-end canoe with a side-mounted motor, you can shift your weight around to tip the canoe a bit to get over rocks.”
The canoe will ultimately weigh around 250 pounds.
“It’s not going to go on the top of my pickup,” Andre said, shooting a look at his wife. “I guess I’ll have to build a trailer.”
Married 36 years, the couple say there are few places they would rather be than on a river or lake together.
“You know, to me, the river is like life,” Andre said. “The water always flows one direction and what is gone by has gone by and you can’t bring it back so you need to enjoy every day you have.”
Which is exactly what they plan to do with the new canoe once it is complete.
“We are not sure where the maiden voyage will be,” Andre said. “But when it’s done, I can look at that canoe and say, ‘Wow, I built that for my wife.’”