If you had the good fortune to grow up in the 1950s and ’60s, when the Sears catalog, not Amazon, was the source of everything you could ever want or need, you’d remember the Advent excitement of scanning page after page of pictures of toys, printed in muted colors on paper as thin as that used in Bibles. As a young Dave Gibson leafed through the Sears special year-end Christmas Book, he traced lopsided circles around everything that struck his fancy, which was more than half of the offerings for kids. Of course, he was far too young to order anything on his own, so he would count himself lucky if his parents checked the catalog and bought only one or two things as presents. But the dozens of things he circled were more than a wish list, they were the treasures for the imagination no matter what he got for Christmas.
His habit of circling the stuff of dreams didn’t abandon him when, a half-century later, at the age of 58, he leafed through a catalog from the Pygmy Boat Company of Port Townsend, Washington. Among the kayaks featured, there was just one that he circled: the Borealis XL. It was the “XL” that caught his attention. At 6′4″ and 230 lbs, with size 12 feet, he was a tight squeeze in most kayaks. The Borealis XL was designed for kayakers weighing 230 lbs and more, the cockpit was stretched to make it easy for long-legged paddlers to get aboard, and the high foredeck would accommodate feet up to size 15. Dave cut the page from the catalog and pinned it up at home, thinking, “One day I am going to build that boat.”
Along with all of the excitement that the Sears Christmas catalog provided came lessons in patience—weeks could pass between drawing the circle and opening the gift-wrapped box—lessons that held Dave in good stead even in his 60s as he continued daydreaming about building a kayak and paddling something he had put together with his own hands. Dave couldn’t justify diverting funds from family and household to indulge himself in a Borealis kit, so the Pygmy catalog page stayed pinned to his wall for close to ten years.
Dave and his wife, Kathi, were living in Cypress, Texas. He was nearing the end of a 42-year-long career as a minister and looking forward to retirement, when in 2018 he was asked by a church in McKinney, a town north of Dallas, to fill in for a pastor taking a sabbatical. He eagerly accepted the invitation and spoke for them for the 13-week opening while still working his other ministry position.
At the end of Dave’s service to the McKinney church, the congregation wanted to present him with a gift of thanks. Being Texans, their first thought was a pair of cowboy boots, fancy ones with a price tag of $1,500. Perhaps unaware that a man who is 6′4″ doesn’t need to be elevated any higher on 2″ boot heels, they wisely consulted with Kathi before making the purchase. She told the church representatives, “I am sure he would be grateful for them, but what he really wants is a kayak kit.” Quite pleased to be giving Dave something he had wanted for years, the representatives purchased the kit (and saved the church $400 in the bargain).
After preaching one of his last evening services to the congregation, the leaders of the church asked Dave to join them for a meeting and then surprised him with the gift. It wasn’t a big gift-wrapped box; the kit in it had been shipped to his son, Grant, in Boise, Idaho, where he and Kathi would soon move upon leaving Dallas. What Dave received that evening was a picture of the Borealis XL. He was overjoyed with the parting gift.
Dave and Kathi moved to their new home in Boise but he continued serving in Dallas for another year, commuting back and forth every other week. The kit stayed in Grant’s garage for another year. Dave then retired and the house he and Kathi bought, a fixer-upper, kept them busy for another year. The kit, at least, was in the garage where it would be built. Someday.
Two years after being given the kit, Dave was ready to start and pulled the plywood pieces out of the box they’d been shipped in. The visions of his dream dimmed as the garage light fell upon the dozens of pieces of computer-cut plywood and every page of the lengthy instruction manual. Dave doesn’t consider himself a skilled craftsman; projects are an exercise in patience and determination, and often require help from a friend or online videos. While the kit pieces were so precisely cut that they fit exactly and the instructions were clear and comprehensive, the scope and complexity of the stitch-and-glue build was overwhelming. “I had not even started,” he said, “and I was buffaloed.”
Looking online at the Pygmy Borealis XL page, he noticed at the bottom, in small print: “To check out Dave Elliott’s photographic blog of building a Borealis, click here.” The link led him to Dave Elliott’s comments and photographs of the Borealis XL he had built. It wasn’t the first Pygmy kit he had put together; Dave had first built two for his nieces and nephews to use at a family retreat in Maine, then two more for a friend in Montana. All of them were a tight fit for his 6′2″, 235-lb frame, so he ordered a Borealis kit for himself. In the blog he made an offer to help other kit builders.
Rev. Dave (as we’ll call Dave Gibson now) connected to Dave (Elliott) through Pygmy and corresponded via email and phone. They hit it off right away, but despite all of the help, the project made only slow progress. “I wouldn’t say I begged Dave to come out,” Rev. Dave recalls, “but it was pretty close.” Dave drove to Boise—over 450 miles from his Montana home—and spent five days at the Gibson household. He had brought his own Borealis with him to give Rev. Dave an afternoon of paddling to energize him for the work ahead. Over the next four days, the two Daves spent long hours working together, and transformed the pile of plywood pieces into a kayak that needed only finishing touches that Rev. Dave could do on his own.
Rev. Dave had shared with his helper and new friend his decision to name the kayak HMS KATHI LENETTE to honor his wife. After Dave returned home, he had the name cut in vinyl and mailed the port and starboard copies to Rev. Dave. Kathi learned of the name her husband had chosen for the christening only when she saw it fixed to the bow of the newly varnished kayak. “One would think that a woman would be pleased to have a boat named after her,” Rev. Dave observed. “This woman was not. Maybe it related to my habit of doing things without asking her or maybe she had a little bigger vessel in mind for her namesake.”
Rev. Dave had spent about 150 hours on the build over the course of 10 months and planned a maiden outing for August 2020, on the lakes of Grand Teton National Park, in northwest Wyoming, the corner of the state bordered by Idaho and Montana. Among the group of friends who came with their own kayaks and a canoe to take part were Dave and his wife, Carol, having made the 200-mile drive to be there.
The fleet paddled String Lake, made a portage to Leigh Lake, and paddled across that lake to their first campsite. Rev. Dave found HMS KATHI LENETTE a joy to paddle. Accustomed to canoes that “felt like you were pushing the lake ahead of you,” he was impressed with his kayak’s speed, even though it was loaded with over 100 lbs of gear. The following day, the wind lumped up swells 4′ high, making the 3-mile paddle to the next campground challenging for the group, but Rev. Dave made good headway; “KATHI rode the swells like a cork.”
There’s no telling how many things Rev. Dave has circled in catalogs. Most of them were only his in daydreams. The kayak he lassoed with his pencil demanded a decade of patience, but ultimately it was the perfect present and well worth waiting for.
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