It’s time to paddle in the great outdoors

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With so many opportunities in Michigan, whenever winter is finally over, I’m naturally drawn to various waterways for paddling adventures.

The canoe has a very old and prestigious history dating back thousands of years, and its design has remained virtually unchanged, although variations can be found. The oldest known canoe to date was a canoe discovered during an excavation in the Netherlands, believed to have been used between 8200 and 7600 BC.

The canoe takes its name from the word “kenu” (meaning canoe) of the Carib Indians of the Caribbean islands, who used their handy canoes to navigate the ocean. In fact, this primitive and very durable design is still in use today, and my wife Ginny and I had the opportunity to ride in an actual canoe manned by Embera Indians on a remote river in the jungles of Panama.

The hollowed-out tree trunk, obviously very tall, was carved in a way that allowed it to float as light as a feather, and it was stable enough to transport a large amount of tourists without any effort. Like all canoes, it soared through shallow waters, even with a full load on board, while being powered by a Yamaha outboard.

The name “canoe” would continue to stick when referring to the primary watercraft of Native Americans in North America. Besides the design of the canoe made by hollowing out and carving a tree trunk, what comes to mind for most people is the birch bark canoe made famous not only by the Native Americans who created, but also by French Voyageurs during the fur trade era. Other types of tree bark depending on availability in an area such as elm, cedar and spruce were also used to cover the canoes.

The birchbark canoe had the ability to maintain a shallow draft while carrying a heavy load, and when empty was light enough to portage through dangerous or unnavigable situations, such as traffic jams, roaring rapids and waterfalls, which could be frequently encountered on a long journey.


The demand for canoes during the fur trade era was such that the French established the first known canoe factory in 1750 at Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Voyageurs used canoes that could be up to 35 feet long and with a crew of up to 12 people, but they were generally somewhat smaller with crews of eight to 10 people.

A beauty of the birchbark canoe was that it could be easily repaired with natural materials found on the wooded shore, and it would remain popular until the early 20and century for wilderness trips. What eventually replaced it was the wood-framed canvas version that first appeared during the latter part of the 19and century (canoes made from wooden slats are still custom made and used today). However, it paid to have a repair kit for the canvas version, as the material to fix the issues didn’t grow on nearby trees.

Eventually aluminum would become the material of choice for building canoes, and for good reason, as it is quite strong and relatively light, and it remains popular to this day. Fiberglass would also be used, and we now have a variety of modern plastics (composites) used in the construction of very strong and durable canoes.

The first canoe I used as a kid was the wood/canvas version, and it was pretty tough until we were camping on the edge of a pasture and a cow walked into it having a drink . Yes, folks, this canoe needed some repairs!

I’ve probably used aluminum canoes more than any other type because they can really take a beating and, despite a few bumps, still work. I’ve owned and used one for a while now, and while a cow stepping on it would probably leave a dent, I’m pretty sure it would still be seaworthy. However, if an aluminum canoe has a hole in it, you’re looking at major repairs for a repair job (I’ve been there and you have).

Because Michigan is blessed with so many opportunities to have a great time paddling in the great outdoors, I’ve canoed several rivers in the state, even Isle Royale. The canoe, after all, is Michigan’s historic watercraft.

I also canoed in Canada and will always remember being out in the North Atlantic with my Inuit hunting guides in a big cargo canoe with an outboard motor. This canoe was also handy for navigating an ocean fjord, even in shallow water at an ebb tide. This is clearly a much-needed “workhorse” piece of gear to get motivated in the wild.

There are two types of canoes, K and C, with the ‘K’ version relating to kayaks, which originated in the Far North and were originally built with a frame of driftwood and whalebone covered with skins. ‘animals. It usually had an enclosed deck to handle travel in a very rough environment. There are different types of kayaks today made from high-tech materials, and they have become very popular because they are quite nimble when used with the typical two-blade paddle. Some are closed and some are open, and they are extremely versatile.

Type “C” (for Canada) is the typical canoe design, and I’m very much a dyed-in-the-wool Type C canoeist. I feel right at home in this time-tested craft, but have developed a deep respect for the deft maneuverability of a kayak, especially after paddling the historic Cass River (my favorite river in Michigan) from Cass City to Saginaw in 2018, which involved five-day trips. The avid paddlers accompanying me on the trip who were in kayaks really impressed me, and I did the final stages of this paddling adventure with a variety of kayaks provided by Frankenmuth Kayak Adventures.

I learned a long time ago to use reputable canoe/kayak rentals available throughout Michigan as they are convenient and really save on transportation logistics of your own (most will also provide “round trip” transportation for a small fee if you bring your own). Another Cass River company is Cass River Boat and Tube Rental from Sivak in Vassar.

One of my old heroes is George Washington Sears (1821-1890), who went by the pseudonym “Nessmuk” (which was the name of a Native American who befriended him and taught him carpentry when he was a child). Nessmuk was not a very tall man, standing 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing not much more than 100 pounds. He was also physically frail and suffered from consumption (a combination of tuberculosis and asthma), but he was obviously tougher than fingernails. He was able to live off the land with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing and whatever he had in a little bag. It was he who invented “ultralight camping”.

Nessmuk wrote articles about his adventures for “Forest and Stream” magazine as well as an 1884 camping book titled “Woodcraft,” which still remains a classic. In the early 1880s, he undertook five long canoe trips in the Adirondacks, using unusually small and light canoes that were ‘clinker’ constructed using strips of cedar and without stencils or bracing.

One example was a canoe he named the “Sairy Gamp” (after a Dickensian character) that was nine feet long and weighed only 10 1/2 pounds. He used a double-bladed paddle to negotiate 266 miles of the Adirondack wilderness in this small craft. None of his solo canoes (he called it “a fool in the middle”) were more than 10 1/2 feet long, and they all individually weighed only 22 pounds or less. Nessmuk’s writings popularized this type of canoeing adventure for generations to come, and I know he certainly influenced me.

I had long wanted a “crazy in the middle” canoe and finally bought one. It’s an LL Bean “Discovery” made by Old Town, and at 11 feet, 9 inches in length, it weighs 49 pounds and is made of three layers of tough polyethylene. It can carry up to 500 pounds, and while it’s a little longer and heavier than Nessmuk’s cedar canoes, I’m also a foot taller and weigh more than twice as much as it, so I’m sure he would understand.

Needless to say, folks, I truly enjoy the paddling adventures an old and very durable craft has given me in our wonderful state of Michigan, which has a truly bountiful supply of lakes and rivers for enjoyment. of all.

Email freelance outdoor writer Tom Lounsbury at [email protected]

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