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John Hildebrand
May 09, 1983
If an aluminum violin gave you the same mellow tone as a Stradivarius, you would undoubtedly still object to an aluminum violin and take the wooden Stradivarius. —CALVIN RUTSTRUM
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May 09, 1983

In The Old Days, Canoes Were Made For Romance—among Other Things

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If an aluminum violin gave you the same mellow tone as a Stradivarius, you would undoubtedly still object to an aluminum violin and take the wooden Stradivarius.

The late Calvin Rutstrum was a writer and woodsman of the old school. His books on the north woods were illustrated with handsome woodcuts that invariably showed a lean canoeist making headway on some spruce-girdled lake in a ribbed canoe. In the 1950s Rutstrum was wilderness director at Camp Lincoln, a boys' camp in northern Minnesota. He gave practical demonstrations on pitching a tent in the wind, starting a campfire with a single match and, of course, canoeing.

One of those former campers who remembers Rutstrum's demonstrations vividly is a Madison, Wis. man named Jeff Dean, who is now an administrator for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Dean recalls that all of Camp Lincoln's canoes were aluminum except a single wood and canvas model that belonged to Rutstrum and was strictly off limits.

Today, Dean and his wife, Jill, own 16 canoes, all but a few wooden, and most of them are jammed into the garage attached to their house. In 1979 the Deans founded the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Ltd. to promote the preservation and restoration of wooden and birchbark canoes and encourage their construction. The membership is made up of collectors like the Deans as well as of new builders who, in one-and two-man shops, turn out a small number of canoes, often on forms acquired when the old companies shut down. The membership keeps in touch with goings-on through Wooden Canoe, a quarterly journal published by the Deans, and gets together once a year at a Wooden Canoe Assembly. The last one was held in Orono, Maine.

The Deans' collection of canoes includes, among others, such notable marques as Thompson, Shell Lake, Dunphy and Freedom Boat Works. There's barely room for their car.

"We're trying," Dean says, "to save room for an E.M. White."

The first canoes the Deans owned were aluminum. "They glared," Jeff says. "They were too hot or too cold. They were noisy." On canoe trips the Deans were often accompanied by a friend paddling a wooden Old Town which did not glare, conduct heat or go booming down the river like a kettle drum. And so they began looking for a wooden canoe.

They found that, with the exception of Old Town, all the venerable builders of canoeing's heyday had closed shop. The thousands of wooden canoes that they had turned out over the years had, for the most part, rotted away in boathouses or had been destroyed in lakeside ceremonies—ignited and then pushed off into the water. Eventually the Deans bought a Tremblay canoe, then traded up for an Old Town, and so forth.

By his own admission, Jeff "couldn't build a box." But he has an eye for a boat's lines—he studied architecture at Yale—and he says, "There are canoes that are well made and canoes that are beautiful to look at. Those qualities have little to do with performance and a lot to do with proportions, like the way the gunwales form the decks. Graceful lines take the canoe from working craft to esthetic object."

Jeff judges his own as if they were contestants in a beauty pageant. The Dunphy is "chubby, fat, ill-considered." Another is "beautiful, but not lovely...too full in the bow." The Shell Lake is "nicer than the Dunphy, but crude."

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