January 26, 2022

Canoes: from bow to stern > Two-day symposium features intricate details

BRIDGTON — If it could be done in a canoe, on a canoe, under

a canoe, or to a canoe and more, it was taught last weekend at the Maine Canoe Symposium.

Held at Winona Camps on its 300-acre campus stretched along a mile of the eastern shore of Moose Pond, the two-day event featured professional guides and instructors in more than a dozen specialties. Attendees got lessons in freestyle poling from the likes of national champion Harry Rock, or expert instruction on sit-and-switch paddling from Jim and Lisa Lisius, formerly from the Bangor area, who were the first people to paddle a canoe across country from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean.

The symposium, started by L.L. Bean in 1986, is now run pretty much on a volunteer basis by Jerry Cocher of Wellsley, Mass. Besides expert instruction and hands-on paddling, the gathering featured discussions and demonstrations by the likes of canoe builder and Maine author Jerry Stelmok, wilderness trippers Ray and Nancy Reitze of Canaan who run Earthways guided canoe trips and the School of Wilderness Living, or northwoods travelers Dave and Lynne Lewis.

You could even buy a blank and build your own black walnut paddle with instruction and tools provided by Caleb Davis of Tremolo Canoe and Crew of Jaffrey, N.H.

Or you could just chew the fat with the likes of Bert Libby of Litchfield who decided later in life that a retired man needed something to do — so he built his wife a cedar and canvas canoe. He liked it so much he decided to build one for himself. He liked that as well and decided canoe building would keep him out of trouble.

While Libby hasn’t made a big a name for himself yet as has Stelmock or Kevin Slater of Mahoosuc Outfitters or others, he makes several good looking boats — from 13 to 18 feet. His stable 13-footer with full keel paddles looks like a dream and it’s light as a feather. He also has made a series of scale models about three-feet long which depict the construction phases of a wood-canvas canoe. They are so good looking you wish you could be 12 inches tall and try them out on a local brook.

Slater, a master Maine guide and canoe builder, helped kick off the weekend with a narrated slide show of his close working relationship with Cree Indians and their simple, efficient lifestyle.

The symposium drew people from all over New England and the Northeast as far south as Virginia. Most of those attending had been to several of the past symposiums. As a matter of fact when Cocher asked for a show of hands of those attending for the first time, there were very few.

Those attending have a choice of staying in one of the camp’s wall tents, or in a bunk house or in their own tents or campers. Meals are available on a package plan or individually, so you may package your weekend anyway you like and do as little or as much as you wish.

One drawback was the limitation on group sizes for instruction. The hands-on water instruction activities were booked early. The concept is good if you get in, but not so good if you can’t do what you would have liked. Past attendees knew to sign up early.

On Friday night each of the pros attending got an opportunity to introduce themselves and explain what they did. Harry Rock stole the show with his poling salesmanship. He spoke while perched atop a table extoling the virtues of this “upstanding sport.”

Rock, you may remember, was in Bangor earlier this spring with Warren Cochrane of Allagash Canoe Trips of Greenville to conduct a clinic for people interested in learning about the ancient method of poling a canoe. Rock and others have taken it to a different level, using a freestyle variation and an aluminum pole.

On Saturday morning he showed how to make a canoe flit about by using the aluminum pole. Later, some got a lesson on poling. In no time people were motivating about the lake, even in deep water where they couldn’t touch bottom. The secret in deep water is using the pole like a kayak paddle to make forward progress. It works, believe it or not.

But no one was making as much headway as those of us who learned that you can put a sail on a canoe and let the wind push you around. What a blast! A leeboard acts as a keel to keep the canoe on course and upright. Under the watchful eye of Jim Boman of Exeter, N.H., we got a shore-side introduction and then took to the pond for initiation.

One of the canoes was set up for sailing, complete with an attached rudder. The other, a 17-foot Mad River Explorer, was pretty much a stock canoe with a sailing rig clamped to the gunnels. It could be converted back to paddling in minutes. A paddle dangled over the leeward side served as the rudder. The harder the wind blew, the harder it seemed it was to keep the rudder in the water. If you get the chance and you have sailed other boats, canoe sailing is definitely worth a try. Bowman’s sweat shirt said it all: “Sail when you can, paddle when you must.”

For those who got hooked on canoe sailing, Bowman said you could purchase a sail for around $220 and for another $180 or so you could build the rest of the rigging necessary to sail. The only permanent alteration to your canoe is a mast step block epoxied to the bottom near the rear seat. The rest of the rigging is attached with clamps.

While all the professional instruction was aimed at making a canoe perform on the water, one couple attending from Gardiner showed how they survived comfortably camped under a canoe. Jeff DeHart and Lisa Bragdon are re-enactors of the pre-1840s trapper lifestyle.

Dressed in appropriate garb, they showed how to tan pelts, camp under a tarp-covered canoe, fix meals and survive using muzzle loaders and their wits. They plan to marry at the Northeastern Primative Rendezvous in New Sharon on July 10. Their guests will include mountain men, buckskinners and voyageurs.

At the opposite end of the technical spectrum sat the Lisias, who now live in Farmington. Their high-tech carbonfiber, bent-shaft paddles and ultra lightweight canoes, have taken them across the United States. Lisa, a nurse who worked at Eastern Maine Medical Center, explained that the seeds for the first-ever canoe crossing of the U.S. were planted at the Maine Canoe Symposium. Jim, a former University of Maine teacher who was “downsized” during budget cuts, and Lisa decided in 1992 to cross the U.S. by canoe.

They were on the water two months later. During 14 months in 1993-94 the couple made their way up rivers like the Columbia, Snake and Salmon. They portaged only 24 miles crossing the Rockies. They paddled 200 miles on the Mississippi, paddled on rivers like the Ohio, Tennessee, French Broad, the Broad, Cooper before hitting the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston, S.C. They attended the sumposium to provide expert advice on how to paddle faster than the current is coming at you.

From expert to novice, adult to child, the symposium had something for everyone. So much, in fact, it was impossible to experience all the offerings. It is not hard to see why people attend it annually. It was an entertaining and educational weekend.

Here’s a calendar note. The Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust invites canoeists and kayakers to join them on Saturday to paddle Alamoosook Lake and the Dead River in Orland. They’ll put in at Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery at 9 a.m. and paddle up the Dead River to Hell Bottom Swamp, a great place to spot eagles, osprey, loons and songbirds. Bring a lunch. For more information and directions call 326-8473 or 469-2008.

Jeff Strout’s column is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at 990-8202.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like