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