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Canoes are perfect for sneaking up on the world. If you spend a lot of time on the water and are vigilant and lucky, you're certain to be rewarded with wonderful perceptions—the glint of starlight on a lake, the splashing liquid motion of an otter, the way the setting sun paints the water with swirls of orange and gold. The pace of a canoe makes us see with wider eyes and listen with better ears. Every bend in a river and every wooded point on a lake becomes an opportunity to encounter the unexpected.
Any canoe will do for such encounters, but the best for the job are wooden ones. This is personal opinion, of course, and not easily defensible. If I were a true traditionalist I would paddle a canoe of birchbark or a hollowed log. And I recognize that the modern revolution in synthetic materials has created canoes of unexcelled durability and superb performance. What I'm talking about is something else altogether. Call it soul.
It's probably a romantic conceit to believe that wood has soul while fiberglass, aluminum, and plastic do not. But there is a crucial difference between wood and synthetic materials: Wood was once alive. It was a supple, growing thing, shaped by wind and rain into a one-of-a-kind material with heart. You can see the uniqueness in its grain, feel the heart of it in the grip and heft of a gunwale or paddle shaft. There are qualities involved that can never be reproduced synthetically.
It takes time to appreciate such qualities. Skin-deep beauty is easy to find, but to recognizeit at its deepest and most enduring levels you have to invest a great deal of time in close contact with it. Spend hours playing a fine old Gibson mandolin and you gradually come to recognize its superiority to other mandolins—how subtle and bright its tones are, how responsive it is to individual styles of play. A similar responsiveness exists in any good tool, canoes included. At first, except for its appearance, a wood-and-canvas or wood-strip canoe might not seem special. It might seem clumsy compared to a Kevlar racer or fragile compared to a Royalex tripper. But paddle it all day, and you witness a transformation. The virtues of those other boats are in mechanical characteristics that make them efficient, fast, and durable. The wooden boat's virtues are less utilitarian and less tangible. Instead of characteristics, it has character. Instead of following the shortest distance between two points, it meanders. You can hear it hum and whisper as it slices the water. It seems to come alive beneath you.
The wonder is not that canoes are light, responsive craft that can be paddled over a river or lake with relative ease, but that they can be paddled at all. Water is not an ideal medium of transportation. Its molecular structure is such that a foreign object tends to cling to it, to be stopped by it, to be swallowed by it. Flotation is a relatively simple process, achieved by predictable steps. Elegant passage requires more effort. It requires a design shaped by water and refined by the ages. That refinement—the graceful evocation of form by function—explains why canoes are beautiful.
The essayist E. B. White had a few things to say on the subject of functional beauty. "I do not recall," he wrote, "ever seeing a properly designed boat that was not also a beautiful boat. Purity of line, loveliness, symmetry—these arrive mysteriously whenever someone who knows and cares creates something that is perfectly fitted to do its work." The late paddling sage Bill Mason felt similar reverence for properly designed boats. He went so far as to call the canoe "the simplest, most functional, yet aesthetically pleasing object ever created."
Mason did not specify which kind of canoe he had in mind, but it's a good bet he meant a wooden one, a direct descendent of those built by the woodland Indians. The bark canoes of the first Americans were built on frameworks of white cedar, black spruce, maple, or ash that were astonishingly similar to the frames of modern canoes. Indian boat-builders, who understood how hull shape and size affect speed and performance, built specialized craft for such purposes as maneuvering in whitewater rivers, crossing open lakes where high wind and waves were a hazard, transporting large amounts of cargo, traveling at high speed, and hunting and fishing. Many of their designs, perfected through a hundred generations of trial and error, are still used in modern canoes. Each is part of a continuum; paddling one is a way to reach across the centuries.
If your purpose in going out on the water is to get as far as possible from the linear, nine-to-five place where you earn a living, there is no better boat for you than one built without concern for clocks. So much time goes into the construction of a wooden boat that it is the kind of project often saved until retirement or for long winters or other fallow periods. It is not a job you want to tally in hours and dollars. The people who build such boats commercially are far more concerned with tradition and craftsmanship than with profit.
In our culture, where anything new is automatically assumed to be better, it is considered a kind of blasphemy to argue for traditional ways of doing things. But, as canoe builders have known for hundreds of years, sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Sometimes we need to be gloriously impractical. Sometimes we need to find the soul in things before we can find the soul in ourselves.
The Scent of Canvas
A tent is more than just shelter from rain and wind and insects, it's a temporary home. When we make camp we erect a roof of nylon or canvas, cut and stack firewood, procure drinking water, and cook a meal—usually in that order. We often stop short of hanging pictures on the walls and nailing a mailbox to a tree out front, but clearly we're trying to make a home for ourselves, a place where we are safe, at ease, comfortable.
Tent manufacturers know this and take pains to make their products as comfortable and attractive as possible. The revolution in camping equipment during the past twenty years has made it possible for almost anyone to afford a tent that is waterproof, sturdy, quick to set up, and light enough to be carried easily. When the weather turns bad and every pound counts, you can thank the stars—or the wizards at Sierra Designs—for the roof over your head.
Yet I'm struck by how little sanctuary is required to satisfy the homing instinct. A carefully excavated snow shelter or a lean-to of saplings and tarpaulin can seem as luxurious as an Adirondack lodge, one with a guesthouse, a front porch, and a fireplace big enough to roast a hog. The satisfaction of a good camp rises in proportion to the amount of time and effort you put into it, but you don't always need a state-of-the-art mountaineering tent to feel well sheltered.
When I was a kid we used only two types of tents, A-frame pup tents for sleeping one or two, and wall tents for groups. Both were made of canvas. Canvas is cloth with backbone; it's the fabric equivalent of oak. It holds firm beneath heavy snow and stands before wind that would shred lesser materials. When you bed down under canvas, you become steeped in its smell, the musty fragrance of army-surplus shops and old gear stored in utility closets. Even its flaws are charming: Run a finger down the wall and condensation wicks through like nectar.
Canvas is woven coarsely of such fibers as cotton, flax, and hemp and in its various forms is strong enough to serve for sails, tennis shoes, duffel bags, tarpaulins, and tents. Drill is an inexpensive canvas that weighs six to seven ounces per square yard, more if the fabric has been treated with weatherproofing. Poplin is sturdy and windproof, with a weight of about six ounces per square yard. Duck is the canvas made famous by such military applications as duffels, ammo bags, and wall tents; its fill and warp are doubled and twisted before weaving, making it among the most durable of all fabrics but heavy—about ten ounces per square yard. Balloon silk is not silk, and it doesn't balloon (except in heavy winds), but is a canvas woven from Egyptian cotton. This lightweight material (four or five ounces per yard) is strong for its weight and was the fabric of choice for most campers at the turn of the twentieth century. It was exceeded in quality and expense only by silk, which is extremely lightweight—a London advertisement for a one-person silk tent in the 1890s claimed that it weighed under twelve ounces—and can be woven so tightly that it needs no further treatment to remain waterproof.
One of the things I like about canvas in general is that a square of it is so useful. Fitted with grommets and tie loops it can be draped over a rope stretched between two trees, staked to the ground at four corners, and it becomes a serviceable and nearly indestructible emergency shelter. Rig it as a lean-to or wrap it around a turned-over canoe, and it becomes a good shelter on summer nights. Extend it in an awning between trees, and you have a dry place to cook when it's raining. Lash it over your gear in a boat, and it makes an effective splash guard. Spread it on snow, and you have a rug on which you can roll up your sleeping bag, change your clothes, and wrestle with your dog. A ten-by-ten-foot canvas tarpaulin is too heavy to fold into a backpack, and it can't serve any purpose that a square of polyethylene can't serve, but it's a chunk of tradition in camp. And it's got that smell.
When you buy canvas tents and tarps today, they come already waterproofed. If your tent starts to leak, you can treat the seams with two coats of Thompson's Water Seal and you won't have to worry for years (this excellent tip comes from Cliff Jacobson's The Basic Essentials of Trailside Shelters). It's easy to take waterproofing for granted. We forget that a generation or two ago it was no easy matter to prepare a tent for harsh weather. In 1897, Perry Frazier's Canoe Cruising and Camping offered the best advice of the day on ways to make canvas shed water. The initial suggestions in the list below are the simplest but also the least effective; the latter ones, though more effective, become correspondingly more complicated, until the final recipe resembles a formula in an alchemist's notebook:
1. A coat of boiled linseed oil will render [canvas] nearly waterproof; two will make it waterproof, but somewhat heavier.
2. Dissolve paraffin in naphtha or benzine, and soak the goods thoroughly in the solution.
3. Dissolve a half pound of sugar of lead and a half pound of powdered alum in a bucket of rainwater, and pour off into another vessel; steep the canvas in it, but let it soak thoroughly. Hang canvas up and let it dry, but do not wring it. Add to the quantity in same proportion, if insufficient.
4. Take 11 pounds of alum and 11 pounds of sugar of lead; dissolve in 10 3/5 quarts of boiling water. Pour both solutions, while hot, into a wooden dish, whereby a white precipitate of lead takes place. Let it cool; then draw the fluid off; dilute it as needed with 53 quarts of water. Then dissolve in water 17 1/2 ounces of isinglass, or 5 1/2 pounds of white glue. Pour the first solution into the latter. Let the canvas soak in this solution over night. Hang up to dry without wringing.
Every October a dozen old friends and I make a hunting camp in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Though we sleep in separate quarters, the heart of our camp is a wall tent so large we can gather inside to eat our meals and play cards. The tent is too heavy and bulky to carry on our backs or in a canoe, but that is not an issue at this camp. We transport it in a truck and have plenty of willing arms to wrestle it to the ground and set it up. After the poles have been fitted and raised and the stakes driven into the ground and the guy ropes adjusted, we always make one or two additional circuits to tighten every line and give the canvas the snappy tautness necessary to repel water. It takes some time, but once it's up it's there to stay. We use it for only a week, but it could easily last the winter. With chairs and tables and a couple of suspended lanterns, it becomes a kind of community house. When it rains or when early snow sweeps down from Lake Superior, we hang our wet clothes inside and stand around drinking coffee and planning future hunts.
Such tents have limitations, of course. For expeditions on foot or in paddle craft, canvas tents are best left folded on a shelf in the garage. I'd hate to give up my nylon dome tent with its waterproof fly, its shock-corded poles, its windproof zippers, and its sealed seams. I don't miss the tent of my youth—a floorless canvas wedge supported by an armload of ropes, stakes, and wooden poles—and the water and mosquitoes that were always finding their way inside. But sometimes the new-car aroma of nylon tents makes me nostalgic for the earthy, all's-well-with-the-world scent of canvas.
Memory can't always be trusted in these matters, but it seems to me that I have never slept as well as I did in the canvas wall tent my friends and I set up in the field behind Ken Norris's house when we were twelve years old. We slept in the tent two or three nights a week that summer, staying up late telling stories and inventing dreams for the future, then falling one after another into sleep so profound it was like a distillation of all the purity and innocence of childhood itself. I remember waking in the morning, nested deep in my sleeping bag, and breathing the odors of canvas and freshly cut hay. The sun was high enough to warm the walls and make the inside of the tent glow with emerald light. Birds sang in the trees outside, as if announcing the arrival of something too marvelous to miss, and I jumped up and threw open the canvas flaps and stood amazed and dazzled by this latest bright wonder: a new day.
The Scent of Canvas
The Art of Portaging
Just Me and My Jacket
All Hail the Union Suit
The Mysterious Thermos
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Joining the Madding Crowd
Let There Be Light
Revenge of the Map
Cast in Iron
Putting a Lid on it
A Good Night's Sleep
In Praise of Duct Tape
A River by Any Name
Paddling at Dawn