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A Good Carry—One Canoe, Three Generations


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My dad, Craig Johnson, wrote this touching story for Wooden Canoe magazine. His daughter, mentioned in the article, Miki...that would be me. And the canoe, that will be mine some day :)

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A Good Carry—One Canoe, Three Generations

  1. 1. Launchings A Good Carry—One Canoe, Three Generations by Craig Johnson T o many readers of Wooden Canoe, this story will prob- ably be familiar; it is about a wooden canoe and how it has tied together three generations. I was born in 1954, and that same year my father bought a new-from-the-factory 16-foot Old Town Guide canoe, dark green. My father, Robert R. Johnson, an only child, was born in Wooster, Ohio, in 1921, during the Great Depression. When economic pressures caused his parents to split, he went to live on a farm in central Ohio with a foster family. His foster par- ents were both professors at the Wooster Agricultural College. During his years on that farm, my dad was introduced to Boy Scouting, and he developed an appreciation for nature, birdwatching in particular. He once told me the years he spent on that farm were the most enjoyable of his childhood. When the United States entered World War II, he, like most young men his age, enlisted and he spent his service in the Phil- ippines, stringing telephone wires. (Even far from home with more serious things on his mind, Dad found time to observe his surroundings. I have a collection of pen-and-ink drawings he did of the flora and fauna while he was there.) After the war, he continued page 10The author’s 16-foot Old Town Guide (clockwise from above).The canoe (above), circa 1960, before it was fiberglassed. Therestored canoe (top). The author and his daughter Miki(right,top) in 1987 in Quetico Provincial Park when the Guide woreits full coat of fiberglass. The restored canoe (right).All photos courtesy crAig Johnson
  2. 2. A Good Carry continued from page 2 a lot of time playing harmonica while waitingfinished college and went to medical school for the rest of us to catch up. When we cameon the G.I. Bill. While in school, he met my to a portage, he would jump out in thigh-deepmother Kathy, a nursing student. After a water, shoulder his personal pack, flip the canoecourtship that involved a canoe, according to up on his shoulders, and walk it out of the watersome old photos I have, they were married in by himself. At the other end, he would walk intoCleveland, Ohio, in 1950. After a residency in the water never putting the canoe down onSt. Louis, Dad and his medical partner, Norm, the ground. I look back on this now from themoved their families back to a small town in perspective of someone who has also learned tocentral Ohio and set up a medical practice. take great care with his wooden canoe.My parents ended up contributing four chil- I grew up, went off to college, and then, atdren to the baby-boom generation, of which I Kathy and Bob Johnson, twenty-one, went back for another ten-day tripwas third. His partner had three children the (above) the author’s parents. to Quetico with my father, my mother, and asame ages as us. They lived a block down the Bob Johnson (below) on his mother-daughter team, who were friends ofstreet, and with all the other neighborhood honeymoon on Seventh Lake, my parents. We took Dad’s Old Town canoe,kids, we were quite a pack. A small town in in the Adirondacks. although by this time it had been fiberglassed.the heartland in the 1950s: Life was good. It weighed 75 pounds, and I got to carry it the Dad was very busy in those days, but whole time. Dad taught me to navigate, and bywhen he got a chance, we would go canoe- the end of the trip, I was doing most of it bying on the nearby rivers and lakes, and our myself. With this inexperienced crew, there wasvacations were often camping and canoeing a lot of extra work to do, and I felt good aboutwith friends. My father and his partner were being able to do much of it—quite a changeinvolved with the Scouts and were troop from that skinny fourteen-year-old kid.leaders, so when my older brother and For about ten years after college, I didn’tNorm’s oldest son were old enough, they do much canoeing. I was away from ourtook a group to Charles L. Sommer’s Wil- hometown and didn’t have my own canoe.derness Canoe Base for a ten-day canoe trip My wife and I were part of the “back to thein Quetico Provincial Park. The trips were land” movement and bought a hundred acresrepeated for the next three years, and at the time of the of mostly woods in the Appalachian foothills of southeastlast trip, when I was fourteen, they let me come along, too. Ohio. Building our life and our family occupied those years, I was a skinny little kid, about 90 pounds soaking but the dream of getting back to Quetico always lingered.wet; there was no way I could lift and carry an aluminum In 1987, we finally made another trip, along with our five-canoe, and whoever got stuck with me was guaranteed to year old daughter Miki, Dad—who was by then sixty-six—be bringing up the rear. I remember the rain and the bugs my stepson, and two of his friends (all three were seventeenand the hard work, but there are stronger memories that and the packhorses of the operation). This time I planned,stay with me today. Most of all, I fell in love with the beauty arranged, and guided the whole trip. I even made and driedof the Canadian Shield and the total escape of hard work all our food, so we didn’t have to buy any freeze-dried the wilderness. I remember lunch on a sunny afternoon We saw lots of wildlife including eagles, moose, bear,on a granite outcropping in a beautiful lake. As usual, we mink, and many bird species. At one camp, the boys foundwere eating PB&J sandwiches on Wonder bread that we a submerged moose skeleton and spent the evening divinghad stood on end and then smashed all the air out of so down to retrieve it. Blueberries were ripe and overhanging theit would fit in the food packs. We would peel off a slice water, and my daughter stood in the canoe picking and eatingthin as paper and try to spread peanut butter on it without handfuls. Dad, who was an excellent camp cook, whipped upshredding it. After lunch we would swim with the canoes, blueberry muffins from scratch in the reflector oven.practice capsizing and rescue, and walk the gunwales and It was really a wonderful trip with three generationstry to knock each other off—it was all great fun. that same old wooden canoe—although we drew straws I have another memory of those days that didn’t register to see who had to carry it. We still reminisce about thatcompletely until recently. Our guide was a young man with trip and dream about doing it again before we get too old.a beard and wild hair who most of the time wore only khaki After that trip, I got a copy of Rollin Thurlow andshorts and hiking boots. He had his own wood-and-canvas Jerry Stelmock’s The Wood and Canvas Canoe. I am acanoe and chose the strongest scout for his partner. He spent woodworker, and reading this book made me really excited10 Wooden Canoe
  3. 3. about building canoes. I even I don’t know how manybought a bunch of 18-foot ’glass jobs are that easy toquarter-sawn white cedar. remove, but mine wasn’t oneBut somehow life got in the of them. My father’s partnerway, and for twenty years that and a couple other friendswood sat in my shop, mock- were heavily into kayakinging me. in the 1970s and built several In 2000, my mom passed of their own fiberglass kay-away, and my daughter was off aks. They helped Dad ’glassto college. My dad was alone in the canoe and, instead ofa house he had built when he The author (to the right of the sign in the front row) with his making repairs to the wood,retired. His place in the woods companions, including his father (back row in necktie) and brother, their theory was to have the (front row, left)during a 1969 trip to Quetico Provincial Park.was so isolated that it required fiberglass be the structurala four-wheel drive vehicle to get up to it in good weather. He component. Let’s just say they did a very thorough job.loved it there, but he was in his 80s and, even though he was I tried a heat gun and scraper without any luck. Iin great health and very active, it was getting harder for him finally settled on a butane torch and a 2-inch scraper andto take care of his home. In 2005, I convinced him to move developed a technique where I could remove the paintcloser to my wife and me and spend time together while we layer and first layer of fiberglass mesh without catchingcould still enjoy gardening and canoeing. Our home is in the wood on fire too often. Then I was left with anotherAthens, Ohio, a small university town, and he fit right in with layer of mesh, but a torch was no longer possible withouta group of retired professors. burning wood. I switched to a heat gun, which was effec- His canoe came with him, and we took it out for an tive but much slower, and I had to focus on one squarehour or two pretty regularly. One time I took him to Salt inch at a time.Fork, up near our hometown. While we were canoeing, That took about a week, and then I was left with resinhe got choked up, and told me it was the last place he and with a cloth imprint on the whole hull. I tried sanding, butMom had been canoeing together. The memory of that is if I got through the resin, the raw wood would have beenso poignant that it’s tough to even write about. destroyed faster than the adjacent resin was removed. So it The old canoe was pretty beat up after fifty years, and was back to the heat gun and a pull scraper so I wouldn’t digthe fiberglass was really all that was holding it together. We into the wood. Another week’s work done, and there weretalked about restoring it, but I didn’t have another boat to extra layers on the stems and some of the broken areas, butuse, and a few more years slipped away. I ended up with a pretty clean hull (although there was still Dad died in 2008 at age eighty-six. He had been healthy resin in the tack head depressions and gaps between planks,and active his whole life and had just returned from hiking both of which would come back to haunt me).in the mountains of Central America on a birding trip when The whole process took about three weeks. I will neverhe was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. do it again, but on this boat the connection to my father After his passing, it was just me, that old boat, and that kept me motivated. Although I cursed his fiberglassingstack of cedar lumber sitting in my shop. decision, most of those hours I were spent remembering Dad had been gone about a year when my brother-in- days on the water with told me there was a canoe coming up in an auction. It Next I stripped the varnish from the inside of thewas a 1927 15-foot Kennebec, and I bought it. When I met canoe and bleached the wood to lighten it. With everythingGil Cramer at a WCHA event, he recognized it as one he had cleaned up, it was time to assess the damage. I decided torestored about ten years before. With that purchase, I had run replace both decks, and both stems needed about eightout of excuses. Now I had my own canoe to paddle; it was time inches spliced on. It had twenty broken ribs, and about one-that I finally got started fixing up that old family heirloom. quarter of the planking was bad. The thwarts were good, but I had to take the seats completely apart, clean them up, The Restoration and re-glue them.T he first step in the restoration was to remove the fiber- glass. I read some threads in the WCHA forums aboutthe process and watched videos on YouTube. In the video The outwales needed replacing, but I thought I could splice new ends on the inwales and save them, even though one was cracked at the middle of the boat. I figured that ifthe fiberglass came off in pretty good-size pieces using a heat I clamped a batten to it so it held the correct curve whilegun and 4-inch putty knife. It didn’t look too hard to me. I replaced all the ribs and then put on a new outwale, I Issue 169 February 2012 11
  4. 4. New inwales and stems spliced. Temporary strongback and battens to keep shape while replac- ing twenty ribs.could get away with it. So I started removing some of the is amazing how well the canvas conforms to the complexplanking at about the keel line so I could clamp on some curves of a canoe. I worried a lot about the filler, since ev-battens while replacing ribs. eryone seems to have a slightly different method, but again After removing all the tacks, I discovered the plank was there were no problems, and by the end I had developedheld in place by the resin still in the cracks. I tried a heat gun my own slight variation on the soften the resin, but the wood burned before it softened Then there was that long six-week wait until theenough. I ended up having to destroy the plank starting in painting. That is when you learn what a little extra carethe center and working to the edge of the adjoining planks, in the early stages can save you in the quality of the finalbeing careful not to damage them in the process. It took an paint job. It took a few extra coats of paint before I washour to get one short plank out, and I had nothing left to satisfied but, all said and done, I couldn’t have been hap-use as a template to make a replacement. pier or prouder. I painted it the original color, dark green, Next I started to remove some ribs. I discovered that and put my father’s initials in gold on the stern and bow.when I drove the tacks back out after clipping off the My family was quite moved to see the canoe back toclenched ends, the resin covering the tack head would tear its original condition. After taking it out alone a coupleout quite a bit of the plank. So I made a tool to cut around times, I called my older brother and invited him down tothe tack head before I drove it out. That solution worked go canoeing with me. It was really a great experience. Mybut added quite a bit of time to the job. only regret is that Dad didn’t get to see it. When I finally got all the tacks out of one rib, it still There are lots of memories in that old canoe, but mywouldn’t budge. The resin had run through the plank gaps, siblings, my wife, my kids, and now my grandkids arethen down along the rib edges and underneath, gluing it all making new memories. (We are planning a trip to take ittogether. I had to chisel it out in pieces. By the time I had back to Quetico next summer.) My parents are gone, butfinally figured out the whole procedure, made the special the canoe is now in good enough shape to make it downtools I needed, and got a few of the twenty ribs under my through a couple more generations.belt, I got so I could get one out in about an hour and a half. Think of the stories that the Guide will be full of by Then I bent a bunch of replacement ribs over the better that time.half of the hull, but my success rate wasn’t very good. I laterdiscovered using quarter-sawn cedar that had been kiln-dried Author’s Notewas working against me, but eventually I had enough to dothe job. I replaced every-other rib, one at a time, and thenwent back and did the ones I skipped, also one at a time, to S ince restoring that boat, I have also restored a 1939 17- foot Kennebec with all mahogany trim. My daughter, Miki, and I went to Pam Wedd’s shop in Canada and built atry to keep the shape. I ended up taking out three of the new 15-foot canoe. I am now in the process of restoring a 16-footribs that I wasn’t satisfied with and doing them again. 1910 Old Town Charles River double-gunwale canoe. With It turned out pretty good, a little lumpy but not bad for those four boats plus the 1927 15-foot Kennebec, and a 1951my first time and such a big repair. The stems, decks, and 14-foot wood and canvas Old Town Sportboat in perfectoutwales went pretty much according to the book, but when original condition, it comes up to a total of six purchasedI started to put it all together I realized I wasn’t going to be and built or restored in about three years. Seems like thatsatisfied with the cracked inwale. The curve on that side of the ought to be enough but I cannot stop looking out for thatcanoe just wasn’t going to match the good side, and I would special boat that I have to have. Recently, I have startedstill have to splice the ends. Even though it was quite a bit more making canoe paddles, which I might concentrate on aswork, I decided I would never have a better opportunity to they are a whole lot easier to store. All of these efforts werelearn, so I made new inwales, and I’m happy I did. successful because of the encouragement I received from With all the repairs done, I varnished the inside and all the contributors to the forums on the WCHA Website.oiled the outside. I was really apprehensive about the can-vassing, but surprisingly it was one of the easiest steps. It12 Wooden Canoe