Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Celebrity Paddles: Sigurd Olson's Canoe Paddle

Most wilderness canoeists certainly know about the paddling exploits, wilderness writings and environmental advocacy  of Sigurd Olson (April 4, 1899 – January 13, 1982).

1942 photo of Sigurd Olson in a Border Lakes Outfitting Company Canoe

Well known on both sides of the U.S. / Canada border, he was instrumental in the establishment of today's Boundary Waters wilderness parks as well as being the most famous member of the "Voyageurs", a group of hardy canoeists that retraced historical Canadian trade routes in the 1950s & 1960s.

There is a quaint 2 part wilderness film on Vimeo entitled "Wilderness Canoe Country" featuring Olson in some beautiful vintage footage.

Turns out the online collections of the  Minnesota Historical Society has a paddle belonging to Olson. It's a graceful hardwood paddle but unfortunately cannot be specifically dated. Here is a pic with details below.

Hardwood stern paddle is long and made of single piece of wood. Belonged to Minnesota Nature writer Sigurd Olson. Date unknown.
Length: 71-1/2 inches 
Blade Width: 6 inches 
Shaft diameter: 1 1/2 inches 
Dates Creation: 1900 - Not later than 1978
ID Number 1978.81.3

As an aside, there are some more posts on the site about other "Celebrity Paddles" like Bill Mason's Clement paddle sold at auction or this writeup of Archie "Grey Owl" Belaney's paddles.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

c1880 "G.W." Etched Maliseet Paddle

The good folks at The Cherry Gallery have once again posted another vintage paddle find.  I always look forward to a new month in order to check out their lovely current selections postings. This one is utilitarian birch paddle with a simple flattened grip. Photos and their detailed description below...

Maliseet Canoe Paddle
Circa 1880
6" w, 66.75” h

This birch canoe paddle has the characteristic details of Native paddles including a wide, flat handle, chamfering along the edges of the neck, a square-to-round profile transition at the throat of the shaft, a center ridge extending from the lower shaft to the upper blade, and a graceful beavertail-shaped blade. It also has two incised lines on each side of the handle which is a minimalist decoration seen on other Maliseet paddles. It retains its original dark, worn surface. The blade is chipped along one edge. There are incised initials “G.W.” on the back side of the handle.

Grip closeups

Blade closeup including chipped side

The Cherry Gallery's new find reminded me of another "user" paddle that was also authenticated to be a utilitarian Maliseet item. Back in 2011, I was contacted by someone wanting to post about a circa 1900 paddle for sale in their collection (read full original post here).

Circa 1900 Maliseet Paddle

Diamond shaped secondary grip

This paddle had been appraised in 2007 by Donald Ellis, one of Canada's renowned experts on native art. It had also been identified as a Maliseet paddle by the Curator of Cultural History and Art at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. At one time someone painted it white, then green which the curator mentioned likely preserved the piece. Not sure about the fate of this one, but hopefully both paddles have gone to a good home.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Historic Paddle Photo: Admiral Digby Museum Collection

A photograph in the graphic collections of the Admiral Digby Museum in Nova Scotia features a paddler about to embark in his canoe. The closed gunnel canvas canoe is a real beauty. Likewise, the paddle has pretty shape with a simple flattened grip.

Title: Man standing by boat looking at it. 
Admiral Digby Museum
Accession number: 1980.25.59
As per their Educational Usage Policy

Friday, November 25, 2016

Book Review - Canoes: A Natural History in North America

I was fortunate to receive a review copy of a highly anticipated book set for release in November 2016.  Canoes: A Natural History in North America by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims is a richly illustrated hardcover containing a whopping 416 pages of content to satisfy the interest of canoe lovers everywhere.

A Natural History in North America

Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims
Foreword by John McPhee
$39.95 cloth/jacket ISBN 978-0-8166-8117-4
416 pages, 95 b&w plates, 228 color plates, 10 x 8, November 2016

The style of the book takes one on a formal history lesson of the canoe in the Americas. Beginning with the story of various dugout forms, the book continues with the evolution of the birchbark and the subsequent transition to all wood canoes of the late 1800s. The natural progression to wood canvas canoes sets the stage for the era of aluminum craft and today's modern marvels engineered with industrial chemical synthetics. At each stage, one begins to realize that the basic form of the canoe has remained timeless but generational "improvements" in materials have been the defining feature of the craft.

Hardcore canoeists often view the world in paddling metaphors. Reading through each chapter felt like an adventurous backcountry journey, sometime through familiar territory, but with pleasant surprises along the way. The over 300 illustrative plates (some never before published) offered plenty of visual diversions, not unlike the excitement of spotting elusive wildlife on a trip. Historical maps, classic artworks and rare photographs had this reader frequently pausing  to take in the visual feast. Interspersed amongst the general text are short 2-3 page essays on various satellite topics such as "Canoe Sails", "Canoe Patents", "Canoes in Wartime" . These breaks felt like literary portages, a chance to get off the main route a bit and stretch your legs on the trail.

Published by the University of Minnesota Press, the book does have the obvious feel of being heavily American influenced to this Canadian observer. Of course, we Canadians have often arrogantly hijacked the canoe as our own national symbol but the book does the craft justice in representing the canoe as having a truly North American story.

Of particular interest to this reader was the writeup on the world's oldest known bark canoe, now at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Previous posts on the topic have been featured on the site here and here. The most detailed description of this vessel was written by  legendary bark canoe builder, Henri Vaillancourt and appeared in Wooden Boat Magazine (Sept/Oct 2011 - Issue 222 - Page 72). A bit of a shame that more detailed photographs of this historic craft were not included in the brief excerpt of the book.  

As a bit of consolation however, a beautiful colour photo of another aged birchbark canoe (rarely available for public view) has been reproduced in its full glory. The famed "1826 Penobscot Canoe" in the collection of The Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts was the subject of a restoration and construction analysis in 1947. The resulting article published in  The American Neptune (Vol VIII, No. 4, 1948) has been graciously reprinted with permission online by the WCHA. It was a real treat to see this elegant craft in full colour after being exposed to only grainy black and white photos from the past. 

When I first read the table of contents on the book's press release page, I was ecstatic that Chapter 7: Canoes and the Human-Powered Movement contained a subtitle for "Paddles". Working under the assumption that a detailed discussion of paddle forms with perhaps photos of historically significant paddles would be on display, the teasingly short, 2 page write-up contained few photos or satisfactory information on this rich topic. Granted, the focus of the book is obviously the watercraft, but just as canoes have evolved over the centuries, the paddles that have propelled them have as well. To this obviously biased paddlemaker, it was akin to seeing a bunch of meticulously restored vintage cars without their engines on display.  

These very minor short-comings aside, this new publication adds fresh perspectives and novel content to the topic. Given that paddling season is now over for most of us in North America, the timely release of the book will allow us to go on a very satisfying literary expedition over the winter. No matter what era of the canoe story you might have a special spot for, this book will certainly take a cherished place in your library collection.

About the authors:
• Mark Neuzil is professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of seven books and a frequent writer and speaker on environmental themes. A former wilderness guide and summer park ranger, Neuzil is an avid outdoorsman who began canoeing in the 1960s with his family. He is a past board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Friends of the Mississippi River.

 • Norman Sims is a retired honors professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a past president of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. This is his sixth book. A longtime whitewater canoeist and an active member of both the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Sims has a small collection of antique Morris wood-and-canvas canoes. 

• John McPhee is the author of more than thirty books, including Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975), and Coming into the Country (1977). Since 1963, his articles and all of his books have appeared in The New Yorker magazine. He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World in 1999. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

William Armstrong Inspired Ash Paddle

It's been an enjoyable fall working on some more paddles in the backyard workshop. This next one was carved out of narrow plank of ash. The limitations of the board meant that this design would have a slender 4-1/4" blade. Had a chance to test this one out on the earlier Toronto Islands Daytrip to get a feel for it. The shaft felt a little too bulky so it was worked down a bit more.

Also finally purchased a cabinet scraper to help with the finishing stages. After multiple wettings it was scraped downed and then sanded with 320. Never really liked the open grain feel of ash but with this extra work, it is much smoother.

As for decoration, I felt like doing something simple and once again looked back into history for some inspiration.  A common theme seen in many historic paintings is a red checkered pattern on the paddle blade.

Paddle image from A View near Point Levy opposite Quebec with an Indian Encampment, Taken in 1788 
Thomas Davies (1737 - 1812)

Decorated Paddles from Indian Encampment near Amherstburg, c. 1819-1830
William Bent Berczy
Original Post Link

This paddle pattern is most apparent in multiple artworks by William Armstrong (1822–1914) that have been posted about many times on the site.

Paddle image from The Distribution of the Government Bounty on Great Manitouling Island 1856
William Armstrong

Paddle image from Indians Completing a Portage
William Armstrong
1873 watercolor

Paddle from Hudson's Bay Store, Fort William
William Armstrong
c. 1860-1870

Anyway, I had some left over Regal Red Tremclad rust paint left over from repainting the 14' Chestnut / Peterborough earlier in the summer so thought I would put it to use here. This oil-based waterproof paint doesn't need a topcoat of varnish which works well given that I prefer to oil all my paddles.

My older son was interested in helping so he assisted in laying out some tape. Painting has never been my strong suite or favoured medium and there's no way I could replicate the clean lines otherwise .

As an extra bit of decoration, I also painted part of the elongated grip...

It still needs to be oiled which will turn the plain ash into a much more golden hue but the weather outside has turned.

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