There were big plans for the canoe I built in 1988. Cindy, my wife then, and I were living in Washington, D.C.; we had moved there for an internship she had been chosen for by the Library of Congress, and I eventually landed a job in the Smithsonian Institution. Before leaving our home in Seattle we had rowed the Inside Passage and even after moving to D.C., we still had a thirst for adventure. We set our sights on paddling the Missouri River from its start at Three Forks, Montana, to the confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis, Missouri. The only chance we’d have for that 2,300-mile voyage would be before settling back to Seattle to begin careers and have a family.
For the boat we’d use for the Missouri, I was considering something like the decked lapstrake canoes used by John MacGregor in the late 1800s. In my copy of W.P. Stevens’s 1889 book, Canoe and Boat Building for Amateurs, I was drawn to his 15′ x 30″ American Cruising and Racing Canoe. It was designed as a single, so I stretched the station spacing to make it an 18′9″ tandem. The house we had rented outside of D.C. was small and the basement was only a little larger than a 20′ square. It would be a tight fit for the canoe. The beam of the canoe had to stay at 30″. The only way to get it out of the basement was through a window that had an opening scarcely 31″ wide.
I used Tom Hill’s Ultralight Boatbuilding as a guide to the glued-plywood lapstrake construction I chose over traditional methods detailed in the Stevens book. I had a handy source of materials for the strongback and molds. I was hired by the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art as an exhibits specialist and was able to salvage birch plywood and lumber whenever we demolished the previous cases and platforms to clear a gallery for new installations. There wasn’t enough room to run the long lumber through a stationary thickness planer, so I put it on casters and let it run across the floor, propelled by the wood pushing beyond the outfeed table.
We were in the midst of planning to leave D.C. for the Missouri River voyage when I got a call from the founding editors of Sea Kayaker magazine. After spending five years getting the magazine established, they were ready to move on and hand over the editorial duties. I had submitted an article that they published in the magazine’s second year, and they had remembered it as the cleanest draft they’d received. They figured that if I could tidy up my own writing, I’d be able to do the same for others, and offered me the position of editor. I had never considered being one, but I was flattered by the offer, interested in the work, and accepted the opportunity. It turned out to be the beginning of a career that has now spanned 32 years.
Taking the job meant moving back to Seattle within a couple of months and abandoning the Missouri River plans. In 1989, Cindy flew home to begin a job she had found and I left Washington with the canoe strapped to the top of our VW squareback. Passing through Montana, I took a short detour from Interstate 90 to Three Forks and parked at the confluence that creates the Missouri River. I took an empty plastic 1-liter bottle of Canada Dry lemon seltzer water from the car, dipped it into the river, and filled it. I still have that bottle.
Settled back in Seattle, we paddled the canoe only occasionally. In the fall of 1990, Cindy was pregnant with our first child, and 10 days past the due date. Eager to make something happen, we thought we’d try taking the canoe out. We launched on Lake Union and hadn’t been paddling for long when the first contractions started. We steered back to the ramp, drove home, and packed up to go to the hospital. After a long labor, our son, Nate, was born. (Three years later, with our second child, Alison, also well past her due date, we went paddling again with the same result.)
On Father’s Day this past June, Nate and I decided to spend the afternoon together and loaded the canoe on my car. We launched at a park on the Sammamish Slough, the sluggish meandering waterway that connects Lake Sammamish to Lake Washington. I took my seat in the stern and Nate sat forward, in the seat that 30 years ago stirred him to come into this world. It had been many years since he and I had paddled together but we instantly fell into our cadence, a brisk pace of precisely 60 strokes per minute (we timed it). Nate’s broad back, rounded with thick muscle, gave his strokes power; twin silvery vortices audibly pulled air into the water as they slipped by me. When I called “Hut!” to switch sides with the paddles, he hit the next stroke on the other side, without delay, right on cadence. I gave him the GPS and he checked our speed. We were making 5.2 knots. Upstream.
If I had known while I was building the canoe that it would never make the Missouri River voyage it was meant for and that my marriage would eventually come to a sad end, I might not have had the heart to finish it. But if a glimpse into the future had penetrated through to a Sunday afternoon paddling with my son, nothing could have stopped me from having the canoe ready and waiting for that day.
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