I moved to Vancouver from Ontario after I graduated from university in 2009. I was drawn to British Columbia by the mountains but immediately fell in love with the coast, taking a keen interest in surfing, open-water swimming, kayaking, and sailing. Among the very first people I met on the West Coast were two sisters, Karen and Lisa Bodie, who shared a love of climbing and hiking, and we became fast friends. Karen had built a stitch-and-glue plywood kayak when she was in high school. The boat was gorgeous, and when we went paddling it was impossible to launch without having at least a few people come up to say how beautiful it was and sometimes take photos of it.
The outdoor activities I wanted to pursue outweighed the time and money I could afford to spend on them, so kayaking took a backseat to ski touring, climbing, and mountaineering. In early 2015, I was finally ready to invest in my own touring kayak, and Karen encouraged me to make my own rather than buy one. She was planning to build a second kayak, a strip-built one this time, and she showed me some pictures. I ordered plans for a strip-built kayak the next day. I had done some woodworking and had built a few small tables and cabinets, nothing fancy, and I was ready to try something more challenging. There’s lots to say about the kayak—the short version is that was I absolutely loved building it—but this story is about a canoe.
Early in March of 2016, I received a wedding invitation from Lisa and her fiancé Mike Conlan. I had made countless rock climbs with Lisa, skied down glacier-flanked volcanoes with Mike, and been on plenty of ski tours with them both. The way they always interacted with each other and their shared love of the outdoors made them the kind of couple you just knew would end up together for the long haul.
At the time I received the invitation, I was just about to start making my next two kayaks (never one to do something halfway, I had plans to build many more boats right after I’d finished my kayak), but as I contemplated what I might do for their wedding gift, it became obvious. I’d give them a canoe! I am not especially fond of canoeing, but they love it, and the type of boat I built next didn’t matter much as long as I could fan the flames of my newfound passion for boatbuilding.
My kayak project had given me many of the skills I needed to build a strip-built canoe and I had until September 24 to finish and deliver the project—it was on. I wanted the canoe to be a wedding-day surprise, so I only told few people about it. At first, my few confidants raised questions: “How long will this take you?” “Will you be able to finish in just six months?” “Won’t this be kind of an expensive wedding gift?” Blah, blah, blah. I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the wedding present of all wedding presents. Yes, it would take a lot of time; yes, I’d have to hustle to finish on time; and yes, it would cost more than I would have probably otherwise spent on a gift to them, but I love making boats, love the pair of them, and there wasn’t a single reason not to go for it.
I bought the plans for their canoe: a Chestnut Prospector 16 from Bear Mountain Boats. High on my list of challenges was keeping the boat a secret—not usually considered a strength of mine. Aside from a small handful of people, everybody else would be kept in the dark, thinking I was working on the two kayaks as I had planned. Luckily, Mike and Lisa live in Calgary and don’t often make it back to Vancouver, but both were very familiar with the first kayak and the fact I’d rented a shop to make more of them. They were always curious about how my boatbuilding was going. I couldn’t count how many times Lisa asked for me to send some pictures of the kayaks. “Ahhh sorry! I forgot to take pictures yesterday,” I’d say. “I’ll get some next time I’m there,” or, “I took some but the shop is too small and the canoe doesn’t really photograph well.” I was quickly running out of excuses, but luckily as the wedding drew near her focus turned to planning the event.
I looked around at a number of different decorative strip-building accent patterns and eventually settled on a diagonally hatched horizontal stripe. I liked the appearance much more than few horizontal stripes of contrasting cedar, and from a woodworking perspective, I looked forward to the challenge, in spite of the extra work it added to my tight timetable.
When I finally got down to building the canoe, I had just as much fun as I did with that first kayak. Assembling the forms, milling the lumber, and watching a boat appear from a pile of rough-sawn lumber was wildly rewarding. I had to schedule the canoe construction around my day job—I’m a structural engineer—and so I spent many late nights and full weekends in my shop. Time was short, but I knew if I kept at it, the project would come together for the wedding.
The most difficult part of the fabrication was the accent stripe. Using a couple of jigs, I cut a ton of pieces for the different shapes, but each would need to be adjusted and angled to account for the curvature of the boat at their given location. There were over 320 pieces in the strip detail alone, so this definitely took a while. I can’t even remember how many weeks I spent on that particular part. I was running on enthusiasm and caffeinated energy drinks and it’s now all just a blur.
When the strip-planking was finished, the canoe was beautiful, but I knew I had to do something more to make it uniquely Mike’s and Lisa’s. I don’t know a lot of poetry, but I knew of one particular verse that would mean a lot to outdoorsy folks like the two of them. From “The Spell of the Yukon,” by Robert Service (a fellow Canadian): “There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,/ And the rivers all run God knows where….” I decided to put this excerpt on the inside of the hull below the gunwales, surrounded by images that would capture Mike’s and Lisa’s personalities and relationship. The symbols included mountains, a skier, “Love” and “Happiness” in Japanese characters (they’d traveled together to Japan several times), a hiker, hops, and even a pasta maker. Even someone who doesn’t know them can look at this canoe and get a good sense of what kind of people they are. The script and logos are UV-resistant die-cut decals and they’d be covered by the fiberglass and varnish.
Karen was living and working in Zurich, and despite the distance, she was very much involved in the project. I emailed her hundreds of photos and consulted with her on many phases of the canoe’s construction. She arrived in Vancouver several weeks before the wedding to help out with the final arrangements, and was finally able to make a hands-on contribution to the canoe: a bear and Polaris, the North Star, carved in the stern deck. I carved a maple leaf in the bow.
When I ’glassed my first kayak, it went very well, but it was the most stressful part of the process. Given how much time I’d invested by this point in the process of building the canoe, the consequences of screwing up were high. I kept meaning to wear my exercise monitor during a fiberglassing session, because I’m pretty sure my heart rate was through the roof. I was still new to boatbuilding, but I knew enough to recognize that getting a flawless layer of fiberglass is an art. The second most stressful part was the timeline. I took a week off from work just before the wedding so I could give the canoe my full attention.
The day the last coat of varnish dried, I loaded up the canoe for the 560-mile drive to the wedding at Bow Lake in Alberta, Canada. I hitched a ride with Lisa’s Uncle Rob. His car didn’t have great roof racks—we used a lot of ratchet straps and the canoe seemed secure, but there were some slightly scary gusts of wind as we wound our way through the mountain passes of BC. I did my best to just stay asleep during the drive so I wasn’t too stressed about every minor creak or shift of the precious cargo.
Bow Lake is nestled in the Canadian Rockies at 6,300′, and in late September the weather there is anything but predictable. When Rob and I arrived Saturday morning there had been a fresh sprinkling of very heavy wet snow and it was quite cold—not the most inviting weather for paddling. Most of the wedding guests were out for a day hike. Ernie, my “man on the inside,” helped me arrange our arrival with my all-too conspicuous wedding gift, which we stashed, undetected, in the trees at the lake’s edge.
I could barely contain myself. I had put in so much work to get to this point, and somehow managed to keep one of the biggest secrets I’ve ever kept. Sure, everyone in the wedding party was happy, but I’m sure I was smiling like an idiot.
The wedding service was taking place about 100′ or so up from the lake, and afterward the newly married couple would head to the water with the guests for champagne and photos. In order to deliver the canoe during the celebration afterwards, I recruited Noel, the partner of one of Lisa’s aunts, to help me. Prior to the ceremony I was busy herding folks from the lodge to the wedding site. I was also the master of ceremonies getting the guests where they needed to be, keeping things moving, and playing guitar while the couple walked down the aisle. When the ceremony got under way, I took a seat with Noel at the back. After the vows and the “I do’s,” while the couple was busy taking care of marriage paperwork, Noel and I slipped away. We took off as fast as we could, ran around to where we had stashed the canoe, slipped off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, put on our PFDs, and carried the canoe into the lake.
This was the first time the canoe had touched water. After all the planning and effort, I couldn’t believe it was finally about to happen. We hopped in and paddled out quite far into the middle of the lake. I couldn’t stop laughing/smiling. The canoe felt super stable, even though the wind and chop had picked up a bit.
Noel and I sat in the canoe in the middle of the lake, and watched the wedding party make its way down to the water’s edge. In this stunning mountain setting, it was impossible to hide the fact that somebody was enjoying a paddle, but we were out far enough that it was impossible for anyone to see who it was or what they were paddling.
As Mike and Lisa walked toward the lake, they noticed us right away. I was later told they said “How Canadian!!” jokingly adding, “We should try and get them in the background of our wedding photos.” The couple carried on to the beach and at the water’s edge turned away from us to face the wall of “paparazzi” snapping photo after photo. Noel and I had been waiting for the right moment, and this was it. Ernie knew what was about to happen, he was in position to take a photo of us as we paddled up to the beach. Mike and Lisa were focused on the photographers, the photographers were focused on Mike and Lisa, and not one of them noticed us coming ashore.
We had managed to keep this a secret up to the last second. We were only a few feet from shore when Noel and I brought the canoe to a stop and everybody finally turned our way. Noel and I popped out; Mike and Lisa were shocked and confused, not so much about the canoe, but about why the hell Noel and I were out paddling during their wedding celebration.
I tossed my paddle at Mike, vertically, and super hard. He caught it but was now even more back on his heels.
“Congratulations you two! Here’s your boat!”
Mike looked at the canoe again for another couple seconds and replied, “No, it’s not,” as though he believed I had mistakenly thought this was their boat, and was bringing it to them. Noel and I carried the canoe ashore, and set it right next to Mike and Lisa. I’ll never forget the completely blank look on their faces as they looked down at the canoe, just staring at it with eyes like dinner plates.
Once they had time to take in all of the decorative elements, they realized there was nobody else this boat could be for. I could hear some of the guests as they came to the same realization: “Oh my, did he make that?” and “What the hell? I just got them a toaster!”
In an instant, Mike and Lisa were posing for pictures with the canoe. The weather had broken, and though the day started off with light snow we were seeing beautiful blue skies. Attention turned from photos to the canoe, and it wasn’t long before they were off to the races, carrying their boat to the water.
With the stern afloat and the bow resting on the gentle slope of the gravelly beach, Mike stepped aboard and made his way to the stern seat. Lisa hiked up her white lace wedding dress. Noel Swain, the only member of the wedding party who was wearing waterproof boots, slipped the bow off the shore, pushing Mike and Lisa out into the lake.
Mike and Lisa are good paddlers and quickly had the canoe up to speed. I liked how it looked in the water and how well it responded to their paddling. I was so happy to see them in the canoe. They were beaming, and it was clear they loved it. I had never doubted that the gift would be worth the time and effort, but seeing how much they were enjoying it confirmed it. We sometimes get opportunities to do something extraordinary for other people, and it’s important to take those chances. I’m glad I did; I feel lucky that I could do something I love for people I love.
Dave MacDonald is a structural engineer in Vancouver, British Columbia, who spends most weekends in the area’s mountains or on the water. The first few boats he built elicited overwhelmingly positive feedback and with passion, enough wood stock, and ideas, this won’t be the last boat we’ll see from him. He plans to continue this as Howe Sound Wooden Boats, named for one of his favorite regular paddling locations.
If you have an interesting story to tell about your adventures with a small wooden boat, please email us a brief outline and a few photos.