The visitor's face is numb from sticker shock. Thomson has seen that look before. To ease the pain, he explains that he tends to estimate high. His manner is doctorly, sympathetic. The visitor asks, "Is this canoe worth it?"
"You've got to decide that," Thomson says. "I will say that repairing this will put you in a wood-canvas canoe that, new, would run you over $2,000. Repaired, this canoe will be structurally as good as new."
Thomson learned early that in canoe restoration you must adapt your skills to what people can afford to pay. "After all, he says, canoes are essentially a cheap idea. I can't go charging the price of a new canoe to rebuild an old one. On the other hand, I've been living on $8,000 to $9,000 a year.
"Still, sometimes on a beautiful day, I'll sit outside the shop after I've finished a few boats and think, 'O.K., so it's not making me rich. There are worse ways to make a living.' "
When Thomson was eight, his parents, Woodward and Eleanor, sent him to Keewaydin, a camp for boys on Lake Dunmore, Vt. The oldest private camp still in existence in the U.S., Keewaydin is renowned for its wilderness canoeing program, whose alumni include author John McPhee, ex-Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert and film executive Michael Eisner. Initially, Thomson was more interested in the camp's wrestling program than in canoeing. But soon he had become a competent paddler who appreciated wood-and-canvas canoes above all others. "My appreciation of them—and of canoeing—was upon me before I knew it," he says.
After graduating from The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. in 1965, Thomson returned to Keewaydin, first as a canoeing instructor, then, from 1970 until '74, as the man in charge of repairing camp canoes. The camp's maintenance chief, Chuck Conard, now 71, taught him the best approaches to patching and recanvasing. More important, Conard instilled in Thomson a taste for craftsmanship and hard work. "Chuck gave me my work credo," says Thomson, "and was patient enough to let me learn by trial and error."
After graduating from college, Thomson taught history at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, Conn. for 10 years. He liked teaching but loved canoeing. In 1971 he bought a kayaklike closed canoe, called a C-l, from a policeman in Hartford, Conn. named Bob Allen. Allen, an expert canoeist, taught Thomson how to do an Eskimo roll to right an overturned boat and in the spring of '72 invited Thomson to be his paddling partner in the Hudson River Whitewater Derby. Thomson told Allen he had never paddled in serious white water. Allen laughed and said, "Nonsense, give it a try." A week before the race, the duo held its first and only practice. It lasted 20 minutes. When Allen and Thomson placed second in the derby, a whole new world opened to Thomson. Over the next 11 years he became one of the best amateur downriver canoe racers in the country. In 1975, using a strip canoe (a boat he and Allen built by gluing strips of white cedar over wooden hull forms), he and Allen competed in Westfield, Mass. in the oldest amateur white-water race in the U.S. Other entrants jeered at the wooden boat. "You're gonna smash up in that thing!" they hooted. Allen and Thomson won. Thomson pulled off a similar feat in 1980 when, with Cynthia Lynch, one of his ex-high school students, as his partner, he entered a strip boat against even lighter craft in the National Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver Championship—got ridiculed—and won. By 1984, when tendinitis in his right elbow curtailed further racing, Thomson had won a men's class National Whitewater Downriver Championship (1982) and 75 amateur races, including 16 of 18 in 1982 with his last partner, Bill Tingley.
The pain in Thomson's elbow was so intense it even precluded his holding a paddle. And so, because he had let his teaching certification lapse, he went full-time into the only other trade he knew, canoe restoration.
Today in his tidy shop, Thomson re-canvases a 12-foot Kennebec built in 1921. A well-designed, high-ended canoe of lesser workmanship than a J. Henry Rushton or a B.N. Morris ("the top canoes, historically," says Thomson), it was built by the Kennebec Canoe Company of Waterville, Maine and in its day sold for under $40. Like Rushton and Morris—and Carlton, Chestnut and Peterborough among others—the Kennebec Company eventually folded. Thomson says that today you couldn't build a Kennebec commercially for less than $1,400.
"When I first started, just recanvasing took me days," says Thomson. "At times it got frustrating—I threw my share of tools. But when you work at something 16 hours a day, as I did in the beginning, you can't help but get better."