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There's Supposed to Be a Canoe


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There's Supposed to Be a Canoe

Cy Whitling


When I was much younger my grandfather bought my family a book for Christmas. Normally his gifts are much bigger, much flashier, a pingpong table, or a trampoline. This year it was a book. But, consistent with my grandfather, this was no ordinary book. This was Building the 6 Hour Canoe.

It was green, the title font looked suspiciously like Comic Sans, and the woman paddling the canoe on the cover was wearing all white, with hair straight out of the 70’s. However, inside, the book promised great things. Namely your very own, fully functional canoe after only six hours of work.

I don’t know how the author came up with the 6 hours number. It seemed a little optimistic, but I guess my grandfather figured this guy probably knew what he was talking about, and I think he might have taken it as a bit of a challenge.

My grandfather is the sort of man who always has a project going. I like to think that’s one of the things he gave my dad, and eventually me. He’s always got a new idea, something’s always cooking in the shop, and he’s not very good at just sitting around.

When he comes to visit my family we usually give him a project. We ask him to help build a porch, or paint the kitchen. He gets something to do, and we get a new porch, or a yellow kitchen.

When we visit him, he picks the project. Sometimes we chop wood, but usually it’s something more creative. We’ll draw targets for the shooting range, or build a log stand to throw axes at. The project that really mattered though, was the 6 Hour Canoe.

We were with my grandparents for Christmas, trading a snowy Idaho for smoggy California. Somewhere close to the end of the frenzied flurry of recycled gift bags and tattered wrapping paper I tore into a present dedicated to all of us — “The Whitling Boys.”

Just from the shape it was pretty obviously a book. I like books a lot, but my excitement drained as I gave it a cursory skim. There were too many diagrams, which doesn’t usually bode well for the plot, and there were no dragons, or even talking animals. I moved on quickly to other presents, leaving The 6 Hour Canoe to rest in my pile of loot.

My Grandfather though, had other ideas. As we recovered from our sugar-and-turkey induced coma the day after Christmas, we heard a saw whine to life in the garage.

By the time we went out to investigate, a canoe was already taking shape. Not your traditional, graceful, smoothly curving canoe. No. This was the 6 Hour Canoe, and it’s hard to shape marine plywood into a graceful curve.

I think my dad and my grandfather put a good 20 hours of work into that canoe over break. They invited my brothers and I to help, to invest in the project, but we were more interested in annoying the dog.

At the end of the week they had something that was approximately the shape and size of a canoe, reclining in all its plywood glory. It wasn’t fully ready yet, it still needed fiberglass at the seams, and a coat of paint, but break was over, and we had to head back north.

So we strapped our plywood boat to the top of our rented Suburban and hit the road. I’m sure we made more than a few people’s days. There’s something impressive about 5 carsick children spilling out at a gas station in the middle of nowhere while their dad fills the tank and checks to make sure the enormous plywood boat isn’t going to blow off the roof. I distinctly remember one man with a camo hat and a lifted truck commenting that, “If there isn’t a country song about a plywood boat already, there dang well should be.”

In Idaho the canoe sat in the garage all spring, waiting for sun, and another visit from my Grandfather. He came for spring break, and helped us finish up the fiberglass and paint it.

I wanted a camo canoe, or one painted to look like a drake Mallard, but the adults intervened. We went with a dark green, and I’m pretty sure the excess paint ended up on my brother’s bedroom wall a few years later.

It took us somewhere between 6 weeks and 6 months to actually finish the 6 Hour Canoe, but once we did, the excitement was palpable.

That first voyage was magical. The 6 Hour Canoe was rated for one adult, but we set sail on our maiden voyage loaded down with my dad, and three of us boys.

My grandfather tried to teach us how to paddle the right way, how to get in and out without tipping the thing. We didn’t care, we just wanted to go to the middle of the lake and catch fish, and maybe jump out when it got too hot.

For a few long summers our lives revolved around that canoe. All that mattered was where we were going to take it next weekend.

As we got bigger, and more siblings came along it sunk lower. We sat just inches above the water, all delicately balanced with our fishing rods staggered out the sides. The guy in the back was responsible for paddling, and the guy in the front got to deal with the fish when anyone caught anything.

Every once in awhile my dad would swim over and threaten to tip us, and we’d giggle nervously and threaten to hook him with a fishing lure. At the end of the day he’d take my mom for a canoe ride, and we’d giggle as they sank low, the water lapping the canoe’s plywood edges. It probably looked romantic, the canoe gliding through the twilight, the tranquility only broken by the littlest brother screaming because we didn’t let him eat PowerBait, and the ever present stench of the dried out worms that coated the bottom of the canoe.

Eventually we grew out of the canoe. We bought rubber rafts, and eventually I got a green plastic johnboat with a two stroke engine, and my brother got an old fishing boat. The 6 Hour Canoe spent more and more time on sawhorses behind the garage, its once bright paint peeling.

I never really did anything epic in that canoe, never had any real adventures, instead it opened up the water to me, and I started looking at rivers and lakes as a gift, not an obstacle.

When I visited my parents last it was sitting behind an outbuilding, covered in spring pollen. I was graduating from college, writing off that chapter in my life. We talked about getting me a graduation present, maybe a gun, my grandfather would like that.

I asked if I could have the canoe. They were going to find some friend who wanted the thing anyway. So now it’s my 6 Hour Canoe. I’m not sure my car can handle the 10 hour drive home with the plywood boat strapped to the top, so it’s still sitting in the backyard, waiting for me.

It may not be the most elegant boat out there, and it sure took us a lot longer than 6 hours to build, but somewhere between the spilled paint and the dried worms I learned something about making things, something about my father, something about his father, and something about being a man.

Someday I’ll figure out how to get it home. Then maybe I’ll load it down with skis and go climb sluffing peaks, or maybe I’ll throw it on the Snake and see how long it takes to float from the Tetons back to the Palouse. Maybe it will just sit in my yard until a new generation of kids comes along to splatter paint on it and spill soda in it.

I don’t have much of a concrete plan yet, but I do know, there’s supposed to be a canoe.