How My New Canoe Came to Be

Warning: I’m going to sound like I’m overly-gushing about Swift Canoe & Kayak, to the point where you might think I get paid by them. I don’t. I just they’ve been very nice to me and I really like their canoes. It also helps that they’re a Canadian company, built in a factory in one of my favourite little towns, South River, ON, where I spent much of my youth. Also, as I’ve come to learn during my long search for a new canoe last year, they employ some really great, helpful people. 

So your local pond or river is frozen. You’re stuck inside or have a bunch of white stuff to step through. You’re overly clothed, probably sporting one of those Christmas-present-sweaters to appease a loved one. You’re dreaming about being out on the water. You may even be pathetically sitting by a window, staring out like they do in the movies when the protagonist is conveying melancholic longing (in some kind of fuzzy, 3-D reindeer sweater). You flip through outdoor gear catalogs, and visit canoeing websites and skim through to pictures of warm sunny days. It’s all you can do to wait for the water to thaw so you can get back out there. What are you to do until spring?

Nancy, longing to go portaging.

Nancy, longing to go portaging.

Outdoor Shows!

Yeah, this time of year is hard on paddlers, for the most part. But, did you know this is the best time of year for gear shopping and outdoor shows? Yep. Coming up this weekend is the Toronto Boat show (Jan 12-20). I normally don’t attend that one as it mainly deals with non-man-powered watercraft, but there are some canoe and kayak companies there. Up next is the Toronto Outdoor Adventure Show (Feb 22-24), which I’ll probably hang out at all weekend to meet up with outdoor friends and catch all the presentations.

Speaking of presentations, Canoecopia comes next in March, which is quickly becoming my favourite outdoor show. It’s in Wisconsin, but it’s a great chance to see all the different exhibitors that I normally don’t have access to, up hear north of the border. What  really makes it worth the travel to get down there is seeing all the great speakers and presentations. Incidentally, I’m organizing a bus trip there, so if you’ve ever wanted to go but the expense of traveling is holding you back, checkout for the details. Tell your friends too, because the more people go, the cheaper the trip becomes for everyone.

Canoecopia 2013 Road Trip

But if you can’t make it, there’s still the Outdoor + Adventure Travel Show in Ottawa (Mar 16-17), then the Spring Cottage Life Show (April 5-7).

Wait… I thought this was going to be about your canoe?

The other great reason to do the outdoor show circuit is that this is actually the best time for boat shopping. You get to see all the new models, talk to the manufacturers and even see some demos. Immersing yourself in canoes can do wonders to keep the Frozen Offseason Blues as bay. It was last year that I did exactly that, and took advantage of all the access to canoe building companies to find out what options were available to me.

The following pictures were sent to me by the good folks at Swift Canoe & Kayak, and I’ve been dying to find an excuse to share them. Turns out they are so nice over there that they sent me photos of my new canoe during the building process. As you go through these pictures, imagine for a moment, a little egg with something special inside about to emerge, while humming the theme from 2001 A Space Odyssey. (Go with me on this; it’ll be better that way. You don’t want my lame attempt at typing the song out.)

The beginning: My canoe gets formed.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

It took a while for me to finally get my canoe, because I was picky. I wanted what I wanted. I suppose I could have saved some money and bought a canoe that was already made or taking advantage of the off-season deals at outdoor shows. When I’d see the sales guys and chat with them at a show or demo, they would constantly want to save me a little money reminding me of this. The Swift people even searched around for an available Osprey model (when I was finally settled on the model). But they were never  exactly what I wanted, and as tempted as I was to have my new canoe immediately, I continued to be particular (read: difficult), because as I mentioned, I wanted what I wanted.

The Osprey ready to come out of it’s shell
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

The whole Swift team was very accommodating. They were both patient with my demands, and of course listening to me prattle on about what I wanted in my new canoe, especially when I was torn between different options. Those poor guys – and they never once made me feel as if I was boring them. I’m sure I did. I’m sure Jon and Mike saw me coming up to the booth at one of the outdoor shows thinking “Uh-oh, this guy.” But as a testament to how great they are, they never once let me know it. (I kid. Who wouldn’t want to talk about canoes all day?)

The first crack out of the shell reveals the integrated Carbon Kevlar trim
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

I must have babbled on to at least 3 or 4 sales guys about the material alone. I could save a couple of pounds here or there, or get a little bit more durability. Then there was the Flax Fusion Dilemma, a more ecologically responsible material, but that only came in the one colour. (I was told later that you can of course add a paint coat, but that would add weight.) Then again, this problem might actually help me decide on material. Do I like the yellowish brown of the Flax? Actually I do. But was I set on the very sleek looking blue over white (Kevlar Fusion)? Yeah… I don’t know. I even put it up for debate on Facebook at some point. (If I ever do buy a kayak – and I’m not saying this is something I’m even thinking of doing – but if I was in the market for a kayak, I would get it in the Flax Fusion. This is a seriously good looking kayak.)

The Osprey emerges…
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

The best advice I got from my impromptu Facebook market research, was that my logo would look best set against the dark blue, and the white bottom would not show scratches as much. Sold! Blue and white it is. As you can see from the pictures above and below, I made the right choice. I haven’t put a Portageur decal on the canoe just yet, but I can embarrassingly say that the scratches I put on the boat in mere hours after picking it up, do not, in fact, show (on the bottom).

There it is, all new and fresh. Next, they’ll put on thwarts, seats and all.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

Just look at that fresh and clean canoe shell (above). What they needed to do at this point is to install some of the neatest features I opted for. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the reasons for deciding on the Osprey was that you could get what they call a “Combi Seat”. As you can see the the pictures below, this is a kayak seat that can be switched back and forth with the standard canoe seat. This gives you the ability to use the canoe traditionally, but also as a Pack Canoe when you so desired. I even made sure to have them add foot braces for that reason.  To switch the seats, you simply unscrew the wing-nuts on the bottom of the seat frame, slide one of the seats out and the other back in. Even for me, a guy who likes to make things more complicated for some reason, and was all crazy excited to get the canoe in the water, this was pretty easy to do.

Thwarts and seat installed, now for the foot braces.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

I like this idea because it gives me a little more freedom to have the speed using a kayak paddle to keep up with kayaking friends or tandem canoes, but still have the storage space and the portagability (totally a real word) of a canoe. I also made sure to get a molded removable yoke. Swift has great ones, by the way, and it’s important to get a good one. (Solo canoes require a yoke that is removable, because of where the seat is located.) Others I’ve used are flat, sitting on your shoulders painfully awkward, and often don’t attach to the canoe smoothly. I don’t know how many times I’ve given up on these things. Ironically, while it’s supposed to be helpful on the portage, it’s a hindrance, then becomes dead weight that you have to carry around with you. The last few times I’ve had the option, I’ve just left those thin, flat yokes at the outfitters.

There it is, pretty much done.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

When I took the canoe for it inaugural trip, I was confronted by a new delimma. Which seat should I put in for it’s first trip? It made sense to put in the kayak seat, as I found myself at Opeongo Lake – a big, open, potentially windy lake – on a quick overnight trip with no portages. This seemed perfectly appropriate for kayak-style canoeing. But in the end, I needed to canoe this boat, and I had waited all that time. I paddled out to a great camping spot (single bladed).

One last shot before they send it out.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

I’m not saying you should go out and buy a boat right now, or even ever if it suits your needs more to simply rent. But if you’re going to buy, this is the time to start looking. Talk to someone at the outdoor shows, get all the information you can, and definitely take a test paddle. If it all works out, this time of year is when you’ll get the best discounts. And when you’re at the upcoming outdoor shows, stop by the Swift Canoe & Kayak booth. Tell them I sent you, but most importantly, that you won’t be as difficult as I was.

The Swift Factory Crew – Big thanks for making such a great canoe.
[Photo courtesy Swift Canoe & Kayak]

My New Favourite Person


One of the best parts of doing what I do is the great people I meet. Sometimes it’s a old friends who I canoe and camp with often, other times it’s new people to which I get to introduce myself and the outdoors.  Other times, it’s   other outdoor industry professionals – often that I’ve never met in person. Some of them are especially awesome.

Pictured above is my paddle. Regular readers remember that I made this paddle in a course run by W. Bruce Smith Paddles (if not, you can read about it here). The last thing I wrote about the experience was that I wanted to have my logo burned onto it, and was actively seeking for someone to do it. After a few searches lead to dead ends, I wrote up that post the way it was. I’m so glad I did because shortly after that post, I got a message from my new favourite person: Jill Ellis of Adanac Paddles.

After reading the post, Jill sent me a simple message:

“I can burn your logo on your paddle…am a professional :-)…msg me.”

I can’t tell you how happy that made me. Finally, someone could and was willing to do it. She detailed what she needed to do and told me not to worry, she’d be gentle. (It was already oiled, which caused a bit of a problem, but nothing she couldn’t handle, obviously.) We quickly negotiated a price (she’s quite reasonable), and I shipped the paddle down to Chatham.

So who is this Jill Ellis? Well, aside from being a kick-ass paddle burner, she’s a maker of fine paddles, specializing in Greenland kayak paddles through her company Adanac Paddles. Have a look, they’re gorgeous. Interestingly, they’re being continuously tested Down Under by an avid/famous kayaker named the “Fat Paddler”. Check out his reviews and you’ll know instantly how good Jill’s paddles must be. She also makes canoe paddles, including a voyageur style “Henri La Pointe“, which I hear is currently being tested on the old trade routes from the Athabasca to Slave Lake (to help raise funds for the Not-For-Profit Adanac also makes some unique and pretty cool looking paddle booties. Obviously I was in great hands. And when she sent me the first picture of my logo burned onto my paddle I was ecstatic! But here’s the thing: This wasn’t even the best part.

Soon after she sent me the first picture, she asked me whether or not she could do something on the other side of the paddle, suggesting at first a loon. Of course it was, but I asked her not to go to too much trouble (I didn’t want to bother her too much). She must have changed her mind on the loon, as you can see from the picture above.

Yep, that’s Nancy. Jill decided she would immortalize Nancy on the back. Well you can imagine how much I I liked that! Everyone I’ve shown it to – and believe me, I’ve been showing it off a lot – has asked me whether I’m going to actually use it, thinking it’s too nice now to put up against the rigors of portaging trips. I mean, take a look at the detail! First off, that’s the beauty of burning instead of painting, it lasts a bit better that way. Second, I’ve put a lot of effort, not to mention Jill and Bruce, not to take this paddle out to great places. It’d be like keeping a Ferrari in the garage because you don’t want to get it dirty. Finally, they’ll come a day – one that I don’t really want to think about right now – when Nancy won’t be with me on these trips, and as Jill herself put it  “when she is gone, she will still be with him on every trip!”. (Talented and thoughtful, that Jill.)

The above picture is the one in which the back of the paddle is inspired. You can tell just how much work was done to get the fine details from this picture onto the paddle, especially capturing Nancy’s look. I found it particularly nice choice. At the risk of over-doing the sentimentality, this picture contains my old paddle and canoe, both of which were given to me by a dear friend, and are included in the engraving. The paddles needed replacing, and so I made a new one, but wasn’t without some irrational guilt for doing so (Steve would definitely have thought it silly to hang on to these things for no other reason). Now, in a way, the new one has at least a piece of the old.

So I just want to give a huge thanks to Jill for doing this for me. I’m very, very happy with the paddle and can’t wait to get out there and use it, and maybe show it off a little more. You’re going to make a lot of people very jealous this summer, Jill. Oh, and one last thing: Thanks for not including the toilet paper from the picture.


Family Day 2012

Another great Frozen Offseason activity is getting out there and have some fun with your family. What better day than the one dedicated specifically for this kind of thing: Family Day.

In Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan, the third Monday of February has become known as Family Day, the idea being to celebrate the importance of family life, and being a stat holiday, give people the opportunity to do so. Being a relatively new holiday, it lacks the tradition of the more established holidays, but people seem to be really buying into the idea. It’s not only a great time to do some family activities, but a great opportunity to reflect on all those times you spent with Mom and Dad, sisters and brothers and the rest of the family. What I think about most is the quintessential family experience: the Family Vacation.

The (Sub)urban Tourist was looking for pictures of families doing something fun together outdoors, having posted her own memories on her blog. I thought the challenge was a great excuse to go over and get Mom’s photo albums out and check out some of my own family outdoor memories. When I was a kid, that’s what you did with your family. Holidays were spent at parks, vacations meant camping, and time off from school was spent “up north” with my grandparents in South River. I found a lot of great stuff and I’ll share a bit of it below. Maybe they’ll evoke your own family outdoor memories like the (Sub)urban Tourist’s did for me. I suggest you find some old albums and take your own paddle down memory lane.


 This isn’t actually us on safari, regardless of how realistic it may appear. We’re at the African Lion Safari outside Hamilton. Not exactly “outside”, but I include this because it’s a family picture but with a very interesting story. Apparently shortly after this was taken, my little head (center, being held by my mother) was licked by a lion. It’s a story neither of my parents have told in me in full, no matter how many times I ask. Needless to say, I’ve not returned since I found this out, in case of a Captain Hook scenario where there’s some lion out there dreaming about that tasty little boy.

 As I mentioned, my grandfather lived in South River. He moved up there in 1972 when the government was selling off 100 acre plots of undeveloped woodland. He bought one in which he planned on building his house. He did so himself (he didn’t “have it built”) with some help from friends and family – or whoever was visiting. We have a lot of fond memories of the process, but none funnier than when he had dug out the basement (by dynamite – it is on the Great Canadian Shield) , he was informed he had built it on the wrong 100 acres. This picture is of my father, brother and I cooking our meals over the fire on my grandfather’s 200 acres.

The house took a few years to build. It was a small house that was made to be livable at first, then added onto over the years. With all the additions and upgrades made over the years you could probably say it was never truly finished. This is a picture of my mother, probably wondering how long this process would take.

There was always work to do at my grandfather’s. If it wasn’t working on the house, wood needed to be collected for the winter, for him and others. He made a (very small) bit of money selling wood, while I became an expert wood splitter and stacker.  Pictured here is me, my cousin Barb, Opa (my grandfather) and my brother in the background. (I found out recently that my grandmother had put in a clause when they later sold off parts of their land that for any white pine cut down, another had to be planted in its place.)

After the work was done, we would spend the rest of the time wandering around the woods, as my mother and younger sister are doing here….

… While my brother and I gather pickle jars for… well, I’m sure there was some reason.

This picture is from one of the best and unique places for family fun in the Near North: The Funny Farm. It was a petting zoo, with exotic animals you could feed pellets, but also paired (strangely enough) with an ice cream parlour. You first would choose your cone flavour, then the soft serve ice cream type – vanilla, chocolate or a swirl of both – then your real decision started. Long before Dairy Queen or McDonalds had these options, the Funny Farm had a wall full of ingredients that could be added to your ice cream, blended and crushed as necessary – and you could choose two for each cone. They had candies and different types of cookies, fruits, nuts or flavour liquids. As you can imagine, it took us kids forever to decide. Often we would come up with some strange combinations. It was the greatest place. Later they would have small rides and other activities, but probably due to the remote location (it was off the highway near Powassan, Ontario), it eventually went out of business. The part that amuses me most about this photo is that with all the strange animals I could be interacting with, I’m hanging out with the owner’s dog, “secretly” feeding him the pellets those chickens relied on.


Family Day is a winter holiday, which was also a lot of fun Up North. Pictured here is my sister and I – me with my all time favourite winter coat. It had all kinds of pockets, was just like Han Solo wore on Hoth, and it appears to have a badge of some kind (I’m sure there’s a story behind that, which I’ve since forgotten).


 Family vacations for us, as with many people, were camping around the province. It was significantly less expensive alternative to staying at hotels or cottages. We made our own fun, and trekked to our sights – we often never knew what we’d see nor where we’d find those sights, but we always found something. In this picture we bought a second hand pop-up trailer (the first of two we’d own). Even when at home the trailer would be set up for us kids to “camp out”.

A lot of the time we didn’t have a trailer, instead we had those big canvas tents, to which I still maintain a nostalgic admiration and contempt. They were heavy, were a pain to put up, leaked, never quite zipped up all the way, but we sure had a lot of fun in them. But even under those circumstances, my mother made sure we kept a civilized campsite. We must have stayed in nearly every provincial park, but at each stay we kept a clean site, ate very well and had a lot of fun.

We’d travel from camp to camp and picnic for lunch. This not only saved money, but it allowed us to see more, and of course hang out as a family. When we did get stop for a burger it was a treat, and it felt that way. This picture is at a rest stop near Martin River, along Highway 11. I have a lot of fond memories of these stops – often having little unexpected adventures on the way to the destination. Many years later I would stop at this exact spot with my nieces and nephews in tow, about to have an “incident” because my niece refused to use the portable toilets they have now.

I traveled with a dog back then too, and as it turns out, one that looks very similar to Nancy. This dog’s name is Sassy, and she was a great dog. She was sweet but had a mean streak when necessary (she once took on a bear, but that’s another story). Here my brother keeps Sassy close for protection. (I would have been very, very upset to discover Sassy on Pieter’s bed rather than mine.)

It seems everyone I talk to about camping had at least one big, epic, family vacation. For us it was an almost circuit tour of the province, camping and checking out the sites everywhere along the way. The is (Magpie) High Falls in Wawa, a place my father spent a lot of time in his youth, and wanted to make sure to bring us kids to see it. Here my brother, sister and I play close to the falls – which you’d be blocked off from doing now.

 We spent nearly the entire summer driving from Hamilton to past Thunder Bay, then back around the northern part of highway 11 then back down south. We checked the map and expected to have covered the entire province, and I remember thinking about how much we didn’t see, how huge the province was – and so the country, the world really was. Maybe next year.

For kids the best part of staying at provincial parks was that they nearly always had a beach. Here my sister and mother ham it up for the camera, with my brother holding one of the foster children we used to take in. I believe my parents may still have at least one of those coolers.

I’ll leave you with a picture parents might enjoy. This is from a tour of the Subury mines. Not sure where we found a jail there, but after a long day, but perhaps we weren’t as well behaved as my memory suggests. Happy Family Day. Hope these pictures remind you of your own family trips, vacations and days spent together. As always, I’d love to hear about them. Leave a comment, send me a message on facebook, or if you do find your own pictures, post them up on the (Sub)urban Tourist’s page. I’d love to see them.

Mo Paddling 2011

Contrary to this absolutely gorgeous November day, the frozen offseason is coming. In fact it’s already here for some of us depending on how north you live. So what do we paddlers do to occupy ourselves? To continue our discussion on what to do while the water is frozen, I propose you go out and get involved with something to do some good. Volunteer somewhere, get involved in a charity or event, or even just visit or call a loved one you don’t see too often. It’ll distract yourself from not being able to paddle, but also make yourself feel better, and as an added bonus, because of the good you’re doing it’ll make taking a little time for yourself in the spring a little more justified. You’ll deserve it.

Snowbound Swift

Swift Canoes - makers of sweet canoes and even sweeter mustaches

Growing for Charity

There are a few thing I involve myself in, but none is more fun than what I’ve done the last four years for Movember – the month formerly known as November. Have you heard of it? It’s become pretty popular of the last couple of years. Movember is a wold-wide initiative where men grow mustaches for the entire month to raise funds and awareness for men’s health – in particular prostate and testicular cancer. The idea is to remind men to get themselves checked out. It’s not a fun experience to check for these diseases – downright embarrassing and uncomfortable, really – but going through this will find these potentially fatal conditions early, when they can be perfectly preventable and treatable. In fact, this year I hooked up with a group of Canadian paddling companies for some Movember fun, but more on that later.

How does growing a mustache help the cause? Well, can you think of a more manly, uniquely masculine thing to do? I’m not talking about just growing facial hair, but sporting a particularly unpopular style of growth. Sure, mustaches fit certain people – Tom Selleck or Sam Elliott for example – but not others. It’s the social bravery that separates a man and a MO – a term used interchangeably to describe both the mustache, and the grower himself. The guys at Movember have made the mustache cool again – granted, perhaps only in November – and so by doing that, have made it easier to talk about men’s health and those embarrassing check ups. “Man up”, so to speak, and get it done, gentleman. If I can walk around all month with this thing on my face, not to mention the awkward period where the mustache isn’t growing as fast as you’d like.

Mo Paddles

Mo Paddles! Canadian paddling companies care about men's health

The Impact

When I first signed up, while I felt this was a truly great cause, admittedly I didn’t start doing this because I felt extraordinarily passionate about it. (In fact, Jen from Backcountry With The Kids wrote a great post reminding us not to forget about the true intent of Movember.) However, the more I read about men’s health issues, I became much more resolved. Movember, after all, is about awareness. I knew I was doing something good. Then a strange thing happened.

As my mustache grew, as I spoke to people about what I was doing, more and more people started to follow my progress. The initial snickers turned into morbid fascination, then genuine interest. Towards the end of my first month the “ha-ha”s turned into ad-a-boys. People spoke to me about what I was doing, several times talking specifically about those embarrassing examinations that we all have to go through. I don’t know how many times I heard “Yeah… I should make that appointment.” That, is Movember. Even more poignantly, I also started to speak with people affected by the very issues for which we were raising awareness. It seemed everyone I met had a relative, a friend, a friend of a friend or just someone they knew that suffered from prostate or testicular cancer. While not always the case, often the more tragic stories probably could have been prevented. All of these people I spoke to made me proud of my mustache, as silly and awful looking it may have been, and as embarrassing those examinations can be, we were all talking about it. As a great indication of how much Movember is working, and something I’m quite proud of, is just how many people ask me each October about whether or not I’ll be growing another mustache.

Fun Movember photos

Here I had some fun with those mirror phone images. I suggested my phone got hacked.

Mo Paddles!

Of course I will. In fact this year when announcing my new ‘stache growth, I connected with a couple of others who were doing the same. Jim Walton, of H2O Performance Paddles was one, and had a great idea for a bunch of us paddlers to join forces and have some fun with it. When Swift Canoes, Badger Paddles, Parkbus, Dog Paddling Adventures and Backcountry With The Kids joined up, Mo Paddles took shape. Throughout the month, we’d post our own pictures and get others to do so as well. To sweeten the deal, we’d offer up prizes. To enter, you can post your own Movember photo, but you can also like, comment on or retweet anything Movember related on any of the participating facebook pages or twitter accounts (listed below).

We’ve been having a tonne of fun with it too. Between the six of us, we’ve been posting funny messages back and forth, commenting on each other MOs. (You can see my mustache progress here.) Jim along with Scott from Swift, are pretty funny guys, posting regularly on our progress. Fiona from Badger Paddles and Kathryn from Dog Paddle Adventures have each “volunteered” their husbands into growing a ‘stache, not being able to grow their own. Of special note is Jen, who also cannot grow her own, and so has offered up her son. While he’s a little young to be growing a proper MO, Jen has creatively figured out a way around that small problem.

Join in on the fun and visit all the pages! And if we entertained you at all, and you can spare it, please consider donating to the cause here: Oh, and don’t forget, guys: Get yourself checked out.

The Pages:

Not only great Canadian paddling companies, but great people too (Twitter handle, facebook page):

@BackcountrykidsBackcountry Camping with the Kids

@ParkbusToronto – Algonquin Park Bus Service

@H2OPaddlesJWH2O Performance Paddles

@Swift_CanoeSwift Canoe & Kayak


@BadgerPaddlesBadger Paddles… for those who dig the water.

Paddle Making with Bruce Smith

Once again, with the paddling season nearing it’s completion, it’s time to talk about how us paddlers and campers can keep ourselves busy with activities while the rivers are still frozen.  What would be great is to do something productive and it be paddling related. How about making a paddle?

Making Paddles

As I wrote about in an earlier post, last year walking around at the Great Outdoors and DIY Weekend, friends and I walked past a paddle maker’s booth and were absolutely stopped in our tracks. These were some really beautiful paddles, made by Bruce W. Smith, and we found out that he offered a paddle making course. For $100 and a day’s work, we could walk away with a custom paddle, styled and sized as we choose. As you can imagine, me and my paddling buddies could not pass this up. We enthusiastically signed up and spent the next few months talking about how cool this was going to be, and discussing which blade styles we’d all choose, like the giddy little paddling nerds we were. (There’s a change it may have only been me.)

Bruce Smith's ShopAgonizing Decision

I had a major problem. I spent many hours pondering which paddle style I wanted. Seriously, to the annoyance of those around me, I could not stop thinking about it and so talking about it. I really wanted to make this paddle perfect for me. Two of us – Gavin and Bill – had decided on Bruce’s custom designed “Bruce Smith Classic” style, as it combined many advantages for general tripping. Brad and I finally decided on the Ottertail, a nice and long blade but tapered thinner towards the bottom. This would slice through the water smoothly for long distance and have plenty of control for solo paddling. Perfect for me. It also looks very, very cool. (Admittedly, part of my difficulty in deciding was worrying that I was choosing form over function. Brad didn’t have this problem. He told me later his decision was exactly that.)

The Shop

Bruce’s shop is in the Elora area (Arliss, ON), so we got up nice and early and headed out on an overcast but warm day. The shop is a barn on a big lot surrounded by farms. When we got there we met up with the other guys in the class, and it was neat to see the group’s different perspectives. We were all paddlers at different levels of enthusiasm, but some of us were trippers, others campers or cottage canoers while others still were wood-crafters. And so we were all here to make paddles, but our reasons and appreciation for them came from different places. No matter how often this happens – more and more so the further you get from school – I still really appreciate when a group of people get together wanting to learn about something. To a man, we all seemed to have mentioned what a unique opportunity and downright cool experience this was going to be.

Bruce Smith show's us how it's doneThe Paddle Maker

I’m not really sure how to describe Bruce. He’s very easy going, obviously loves his work, and loves to teach. As he went over the general plan for the day, the tools and the general concepts of working with wood, Bruce kept an atmosphere of a group of buddies getting together. He’s also pretty encouraging. Knowledge or confidence was never an issue with any of us, probably because he never let it be. We’d be fine, we’ll go through all that, we’d see. No problem. Except there was one, tiny, insignificant but hugely important one: I absolutely suck at wood-working.

Can I do this?

While Bruce was showing us our tools – our planes, spokeshaves, files and our rasps – I had a sudden and almost paralyzing thought. I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. I once made a napkin holder in shop, way back in the seventh grade, but that was pretty much it. And that napkin holder, it really sucked! My parents had very politely used it as a pencil holder for a while, but it was always falling over, at which point it became just a decoration, until it disintegrated into flat, non-matching pieces of wood. My plan to make the perfect beautiful kick ass paddle had a huge gaping flaw – and hopefully my paddle wouldn’t. I was used to chopping, snapping, cutting, splitting, chainsawing, or otherwise abusing wood. Carving it into a fine tool? Not so much.

As a testament to Bruce’s teaching methods, he assured me there was nothing to it, and if I followed his instruction I’d manage to get this thing done. We started with a “blank” – a pre-cut piece shaped and sized properly so we could get started carving right away. Rightly, Bruce felt most people get there ready to start at this stage, and it saved a bunch of time. It also had the added bonus of leaving me with one less thing I could screw up. (This is also why we needed to decide on size and shape a few weeks earlier.) We started by shaping the grip. Bruce showed us how to mark it with a pencil, and use that as a guide – a “no touch zone” – then rotate and repeat. The problem I had was that it didn’t seem to look like the crucial oval shape we were hoping for. I kept staring at it, certain I was doing it wrong, but trusted the instruction and worked away with my rasp. (Bill had the best line of the day, when he said that he would not have believed we could do so much with a cheese grater.)

Brad at workTeacher’s Pet

Of course what didn’t help was that I seemed to be the only one having a problem. Brad, for one, was really impressive. Bruce mentioned on a couple of occasions how quickly he took to paddle making. It didn’t surprise any of us though. He has the patience and eye for detail for this kind of thing. He probably made a great napkin holder when he was younger. As I moved on to shaping the blade, most of the others were past that, shaping their grips. It was clear I needed some help, and Bruce was quick to come over and help. We figured out my problem (one of them at least) was that I was way too tentative, afraid to make a mistake I couldn’t take back. (One thing I do remember from shop was that you can take more off, bet you can’t put back on.)

Shaping the blade is important to the the function for the paddle. It needed to be thin and rounded at the edges for a smooth catch of the water. But the great thing about these designs is that if you look at the bottom of one of Bruce’s paddles, it almost looks like a duck bill because the very tip is much thicker, but rounded. This makes the strength of the paddle much higher. I know none of us do this, but in the rare, rare occasions when you push on the tip of your paddle, it’s going to last a lot longer. I never, ever do this of course. Never. But if I did, it’s covered. (Turn your paddle upside down if you have to push off with your paddle. Do as I say, not as I do.)

Proud Paddle MakersThe Final Product

To carve the expected shape of the blade I finally started to get the hang of things, and even started to feel confident that this was going to happen. When the blade was done, I moved on to the grip feeling like a pro. Of course Bruce was there again to help out, as we were nearing the end of the day. It was kind of comical to see my tentative movements then to see Bruce show me how it’s done. He cut threw the wood with ease and confidence. I couldn’t help being a little impressed.

After a bunch of filing, some sanding, more sanding, a little more filing, I was looking down at a really nice looking paddle. I was also pretty happy with myself. There’s no way I could have done this on my own, but I was  proud with what I had done. Maybe amazed might be a little more appropriate. This is an experience I couldn’t recommend more highly. You get a custom paddle, size and style of your choosing, a great day of fun hanging out with other paddlers, and the added bonus of a sense of achievement.

If you’d like to give this a try, contact Bruce at

So how did it turn out?

Another great element of the custom paddle is moving to an oil finish. It’s much nicer than varnish, for example. I even got to use an environmentally friendly option provided by Badger Paddle’s oil. The oil makes it so much smoother and more comfortable, and I might be alone here, but it also gives your paddle a great smell. (I was also quick to get one of their paddle socks to protect my new beauty.)

My paddle turned out quite well, and I’m very happy with it, but I waited out practically the whole season to use it because I wanted to finish it by burning the Portageur logo on it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get anyone to do it for me. (Along with woodworking, I also lack in artistic talent, so I wasn’t about to try this myself. If you know someone who can do this, I’d be very appreciative if you could send me a contact.) I spent most of the summer paddling with the guys, quite jealous of how happy they were with their paddles. Of course once I got that bad boy wet I was more than thrilled. I had decent paddles before, but this was a whole different experience. Comfortable and solid, with smooth dips in and out of the water and fantastic pull and control. It’s almost like test driving a high end performance car. Thanks again Bruce.

The Final Product

Tom Thomson Documentary

With the lakes about to freeze, once again there comes a time when us paddlers need to find ourselves something else to do. Like I mentioned in a previous post, there’s plenty of stuff to do, but what’s really great is to find something that’s canoeing or camping related. I can think of nothing better than a documentary about a famous paddler and outdoors-man, Tom Thomson.

Last night I had a unique good fortune to go to the Toronto premiere of the new documentary “West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson”, made by the appropriately named film company White Pine Pictures.  How did I get such a prestigious opportunity? Was it my because of my minor celebrity status of running the best and most famous website dedicated to portaging in Ontario (with a little white spotted dog named Nancy, starting with the letter “P”), and the fact that I had done so much Tom Thomson related research and trips this year? Well, no. I happened to hear about it and bought tickets. Nevertheless, I was very glad to get to go.

West Wind Invitation

The Big Smoke

It did mean that I had to drive to Toronto, in bad weather and traffic as it turned out, and navigating the city streets. I barely made it there on time. The other problem I had was that it looked to be quite a fancy, with directors, producers, actors, benefactors, contributors and art lovers all in attendance. It meant yours truly might have to dust off the fancy clothes (way back in the closet) so as not to stand out. I’m an outdoors guy who’s comfortable wearing shorts and t-shirts. As I wandered around in my showy outfit, I wondered what Tom Thomson would have thought of all this. He was certainly an outdoors guy as well, but he did know how to put on a collar and check out the city night life back in the day. If he could do it, maybe I could as well. While I felt like a monkey wearing makeup, I should also mention that I did look quite smashing.

While I did feel a little awkward in my duds, by myself, among a crowd of people I’m normally not around, I found a nice comfortable seat and when the lights went down I was immersed into the documentary. From the beginning, the voice performances, lead by Canadian icon Gordon Pincet, created the perfect mood for the film. It began with shots of the outdoors, trees, skies, fog, and of course a lone man paddling a canoe. Beautifully filmed on locations from Tom’s life – Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, Leith, Toronto, Seattle, and in particular Canoe Lake – these places would star throughout the film as a secondary character. The film-makers obviously know that to understand what Tom did, what he painted, what he saw and hoped to convey, you’d have to understand where it was that he came from, where he traveled and from what he drew his inspiration, and they did a great job showing it to us.

Some Big Names

Obviously Tom had a unique connection between what he saw and felt with how to express that on canvass. I think we all know that, even though we might not be able to express exactly how and why. What was great was that the film included many interviews with people that have spent a lot of time trying to figure that part out, and shared that with us. For example, they demonstrated how Tom’s paint strokes emphasized texture and mood, and explained the brilliance of his use of colours (pun totally intended). A prestigious list of art historians and curators contributed throughout the film, along with thoughts from noted art collector David Thomson, who we found out during the Q&A session after the film allowed the producers use of any of his privately owned Thomson paintings. This explains why some of the paintings included in the film are some that are rarely seen. (One interesting note was the inclusion of Ian Desjardin, the director of the Dulwich Gallery in London, England, where as I write this, many Group of Seven and Tom Thomson paintings are on loan.)

The contributors to the film also included some renowned biographers of Tom and the Group of Seven, including Ross King, Roy MacGregor, and David Silcox – who was in attendance and participated in the Q&A session after the film. From interviews with these authors, archive footage and a subtle amount of dramatic recreation, we were presented with a detailed picture of Tom’s life, included much of Roy MacGregor’s most recent discoveries regarding the painter’s mysterious death. What was truly impressive was the inclusion of so many pictures, film and even audio from Tom’s life. What absolutely blew me away was hearing the voices of some of the well known names of people involved in Tom’s life, specifically that of  Ranger Mark Robinson. I’ve read much on Tom Thomson, and with Robinson being such a central character in Tom’s life in Algonquin Park, much of that reading involved Robinson’s writings and interviews, usually written down, paraphrased by someone else. I’ve heard about the audio tapes that he made for a historical project for the park, I’ve seen transcriptions of his letters, and it’s been said that he used to regale campers about the life of Tom Thomson, often and enthusiastically. But for me to hear his voice, to hear him say specifically, out loud, in his own voice, what other people had told me he had said was very, very powerful. To hear him telling the story of meeting Tom Thomson for the first time, and the story about the “artist” (“what kind of thing is that?”) would have been by itself worth the price of admission.

A Big Reception

I should mention that this film is about Tom Thomson’s life, his work, and the affect of both. First, it doesn’t really get into is specifics about particular paintings, focusing instead on his style. Secondly, the film focuses on his life rather than being solely about the mystery behind the painter’s death. I thought that this choice was appropriate, and a little unconventional. An entire film could be dedicated to each of those other elements, and the most important information was covered, but there is plenty out there about the paintings and his death – especially his death – but I found it refreshing to celebrate the author, his work and his lifestyle. Perhaps with all the material they’ve collected doing this film, it might justify sequels and follow-up documentaries. That might be good too.

Eventually the film did have to end, and when it did, the credits ran in front of more pictures of Thomson paintings. There was a reluctant attempt as applause just as that happened, but was instantly muffled. We all sat and watched the paintings, obscured by the contributor’s names. I thought for a moment that we were all trying to soak in just a little bit more, and I really liked that idea. It was only later that I had the thought that because of who was in attendance, perhaps they were paying respect for their colleagues, or even looking for their own names. All kidding aside, we sat and watched the last of the paintings, watching for those strokes and use of colours about which we were told, and when the credits ended, there was a great round of appreciative applause.

When the lights came up, we were invited to ask questions to the film’s directors and producers, Michelle Hozer and Peter Raymont, along with Sound Recordist Bruce Cameron and the aforementioned David Silcox. Questions were asked about the paintings involved in the film, what the Thomson family felt about the film (not answered, by the way), and of course how the film-makers believed Tom Thomson had died. Then something strange happened.

A Little Problem

A question was asked about whether or not the film included places where some of Tom’s paintings had actually been painted. After mentioning there were some obvious locations that had been used and shown when it was possible or relevant, the question was handed over to David Silcox. “It’s not really about the location, at all. It’s about the paintings,” he declared. Now, I know where he was going with that, and what he meant, but I’m still surprised at how taken aback I was at hearing that, offended possibly. Not about the location? No, it was in fact all about the location. Admittedly, it wasn’t about exact spots – what was surely his point – but the location, the setting was what all this was about. The thought stayed with me while I made my way out of the theater and on to the reception. That’s when I happened to spot Jim and Sue Waddington (as if on cue), and went over to say “Hi”. You’ll recall they have dedicated a lot of effort in finding the exact painting locations of Group of Seven works. (So great to see you guys again, by the way. Thanks so much for not making fun of my mustache.) Almost the first thing he said to me was about David’s comment. “I’d be very interested in what you have to write about that,” he said to me. “Me too,” I replied. So here goes….

Tom Thomson painted the outdoors, the Canadian outdoors. Something that had previously been seen as an ugly, useless subject. The “Algonquin School”, comprised of Thomson and the original members of the Group of Seven, was dedicated to change that perception, to prove it was completely wrong. The love of our, local, Canadian, natural environment was the binding force behind their movement. What is said most often about why Thomson’s paintings are great works is the fact that it captures the environment  – both the visual but also the mood – even when on the surface it shouldn’t. Personally, it’s what draws me to his work, as I’m sure is the same for many. If he painted anything else – buildings, portraits, abstracts – I might have an appreciation for it, but not a strong connection to it.

Aside from his own paintings, obviously, what made Thomson truly influential, his greatest affect on future works, was him inviting and encouraging others to pursue and appreciate it. They called Tom their guide, even after his death, and would go on to continue where he and they had left off, and did some pretty good stuff I might add. They would continue to search for more inspiration that would take them further north, west or just further in. Or to put it another way: to more locations. At the risk of over-emphasis and analysis of a point that I’ve taken the wrong way, I would say that I disagree, respectively, with it not being about the location. I mean, what would this film have been had it not been for their gorgeous cinematography of all those locations helping to show the Vision of Tom Thomson?

That being said, it was a great film, a great chance to experience the legend of Tom Thomson and possibly catch a few things you may not yet have seen or heard. The film will be touring film festivals, including a showing at the McMichael Gallery this weekend that I’m also going to attend – this time because Roy MacGregor will be there giving a talk. (My niece is studying the Group of Seven in school now, so I thought this might be a great opportunity to get some extra research in.) Next year the film will be shown on Bravo, then later available on DVD. For more information check out White Pines website (they’re also on facebook).

Interesting Thoughts Postscript

What a time to be looking researching Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven! I started to focus on Tom because I became captivated in his story, relating to his life (sans the artistic talent), and have of course always admired anyone who shares an strong admiration of the outdoors – especially the Canadian outdoors – and expressed it in unique ways. With this film coming out, Roy MacGregor’s new discoveries, the Tom Thomson exhibit in Kitchener, Jim and Sue Waddington’s exhibit, the Dulwich Gallery and european tour of our great Canadian paintings, all happening within the last year or so, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to have been exposed so much on the subject. This year I have focused many trips and experiences on the Group of Seven, but particularly Tom Thomson, and will be writing about all of them over the winter. You’ll hear about visiting a bunch of landmarks, painting sites, and the interesting people and places I happened upon on my journey, so be sure to check back here often.

The Frozen Offseason


Getting the camera read for Movember

Getting the camera read for Movember

With November coming up in a few days, it’s probably safe to say the portaging season is pretty much over. Depending on where you live, there might still be a few paddling days left, but tripping is left only to the truly hard-core. And so it is that we must start thinking about things to do while the water is frozen. Get ready, because it’s coming.

For me, it’s a time to catch up on my writing, which will keep me pretty busy considering all that’s happened this year. So for you I guess that might mean getting some reading done, so keep your eye on the RSS feeds, facebook and twitter for new posts. For the latter two options, you’ll get some bonus pictures of Nancy, news on other paddling related stuff, along with the occasional smart ass remarks. Either way it should fight the boredom a little as you stare out the window waiting for the seasons to change.

So what else can you do in the meantime to keep up your portaging interests? I’ve included a short list of ideas:

Yeah, that's no good

Yeah, that's no good

Best in Shows:
This is actually the best time of year for outdoor and paddling shows. This is a great way to not only to do something canoe and camping related, but also keep up to date with new products, services and trends. You can also pick up some tips and tricks from a demo offered, or meet some well known outdoor personalities. The best part is just being around outdoor people, meeting new friends and chatting about your favourite subject. Here’s a short list of upcoming shows that I’m considering attending this year:

  • November 25-27: Great Outdoors & DIY Weekend. If you have a cottage, like woodworking along with your outdoors interests, this is the place to be. It’s also slowly becoming the outdoor show of choice (in my opinion) because of all that’s available. They have guest stars and an extensive speaker and demo series (for each interest) – including Portageur favourites Kevin Callan of Happy Camper fame and “Uncle Phil” Cotton from the Wabakimi Project. Of note is the “Women of the Outdoors” panel, which I’ll be sure to check out – in my finest, cleanest outfit with a bouquet of flowers just in case. (In the off chance any of them read this, I am kidding of course. I already have a never-gonna-happen-girlfriend to chase.)
  • February 24-46: The Outdoor Adventure Show. There are three cities this show visits, and each is slightly different. Calgary and Vancouver may get Mantracker, but we get Kevin Callan and Les Stroud – though I’m not sure who the special guests will be this year yet. Plenty of demos here and a lot of other outdoor interests other than camping and canoeing. In fact, they usually have a pretty big section of travel exhibitors that’ll help you get somewhere where the water is not only unfrozen but nice and warm too.
  • March 14-18: Toronto Sportsmen’s Show. By March, I’m usually pretty itching to get out there, so this show is a must, even though it’s not my favourite. It’s kind of like visiting Bass Pro Outlet – it’s really more oriented to people who go outdoors by motorized transport and/or to hunt and fish – and the relatively small camping section reflects that. What keeps me going is the dog section, which includes a Rare Breed Dog show, but I’ve found this is getting smaller and pushed aside. Having said all that, it’s got the biggest selection of outdoor gadgets (in Ontario) and the best place to stock up on some jerky.
  • March 9-11: Canoecopia. I’ve not yet been, but this is supposed to be the best paddling show around, even claiming to be the ” World’s Largest Paddlesports Exposition”. Looking at the list of exhibitors and speakers, I can see why. I’ve always wanted to go, but being in Wisconsin, I’ve wondered if it’s worth the drive all the way out there. I’ve asked around, and word is that it may very well be – specifically worth it for the best seminars, and a must to go for not just a day, but the whole weekend. I should submit a request to be a speaker, to justify the travel. What do you think? Should I do a seminar on getting poop off your dog, how to still look cool after falling out of the canoe in freezing April waters, or what to eat when your food bag gets a leak and fills with beaver dam water (aka “Thank goodness for Ziploc”)?
When I click this, it's supposed to take a picture. Why isn't it working?

When I click this, it's supposed to take a picture. Why isn't it working?

Find a Winter Activity:

This is always easier said than done, but there are lot of fun winter activities out there. I’ve been trying to find one I like as much as portaging, but still have yet to really get into something regularly. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing, downhill skiing, snowboarding or even winter camping… they’re all good. No matter what you do, try and get out there and keep active, and appreciate the season for what it is. It’ll make waiting for the water to melt much more pleasurable. Nancy and I sure take advantage discovering wild places just going back to the same parks as in the summer and appreciate the beauty of it’s snow covered look. Or you could do something crazy like the folks over at Swift Canoes. Being a canoe company, they might be especially susceptible to cabin fever waiting for spring.

Yeah, this isn't working

Yeah, this isn't working

Prepare for next year:

The most fun of the offseason, to me anyway, is planning next year’s trips. At this point you could go anywhere. Get the maps out. Have a planning party. Dream of all the places you want to see next year – perhaps those that you couldn’t last year. Then figure out how to do it. These activities tend to satisfy your portaging fix, but fair warning: it may make for impatient yearning. If nothing else, it should help you get through the offseason as you’ll have something concrete to look forward to.

Prepare yourself for next year:

Not as popular as the previous item, and sometimes considered a downright chore, finding a way to keep yourself fit during the cold months has a lot of advantages. It gives you something to do, sure, but it’s funny how you can use your want for paddling as a means to stay healthy. Imagine how many more lakes you can cross, portages you can get over, if you were just a little more fit (or conversely, not unfit from inactivity and holiday meals of the winter months). At best, this thought might keep you working out a little longer than you might have otherwise and at worst, keep you doing something, anything, that you may not have otherwise. If you’re one of those people who have found a winter activity, even better. Good for you (read: La-ti-dah!).

Just a little off

Just a little off

Distract Yourself:

The fact is, winter is going to happen, and you’ll just have to deal with it. It might be a good time to learn a new skill, catch up on your outdoor reading, or even get into things that have nothing to do with camping or canoeing (yeah, I know). For example, I’ll be participating in Movember – the month formerly known as November – where people grow mustaches to raise funds and awareness for men’s health. It’s a worthwhile cause, a lot of fun, and a great chance for me to post humiliating pictures of my attempt – and so for you to laugh I suppose. This year, I’m going to make my best attempt at a Frank Zappa (I can hear the laughter already). Again, keep up with me on facebook and twitter for full enjoyment, as I’ll be posting a daily picture of my progress – and there’s going to be a fun surprise coming up in a couple of days.

More to come

So make sure to come back soon, as I’ll be posting more on each of these items during the offseason, as well as posts on this year’s activities. Writing these posts is certainly one activity that I will definitely do while waiting for the rivers to open up again.

Ready for Movember!

Ready for Movember!