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Floating Down the Comeback River

All Over North America, Rugged Wood-and-Canvas Canoes, Which Flourished at the Turn of the Century, Are Being Rediscovered, Restored and Returned to the Water


top the blocky hulks of a pair of sawhorses are the fluid lines of a 17-foot-long wood-and-canvas canoe.

Undergoing a complete restoration, the canoe, manufactured in 1922, is typical of the boats brought to Thomson Canoe Works in Norfolk, Conn. It fell into disrepair over the decades but is nonetheless dear to someone.

Nearby, in various stages of repair, are nearly a dozen other canoes, almost all of them more than 30 years old, some much older.

"These canoes are mostly old family heirlooms," said Schuyler Thomson, a craftsman who rebuilds each boat by hand and is the principal owner of the business. "Emotion and sentiment have a tremendous part to play here."

Wood-and-canvas canoes, which flourished from about 1880 until the Great Depression, are experiencing a robust revival; all over North America people are pulling them out of garages and barns and giving them another look.

And Thomson is among a few people in the United States who work full time restoring and building them. Often, before a boat can be returned to the water, before its varnished wood frame is fussed over by passersby, it will spend time at Thomson Boat Works.

The artisan who will revive these often-dilapidated hulls is a college-educated, middle-aged man who early in life realized canoes were his calling. A history major and 1969 graduate of the University of Connecticut, Thomson taught school for a decade before yielding to his love for wood canoes.

He learned to use a boat as a young child, at a family property on Long Island Sound. He later spent summers at a camp in Vermont, where he eventually became a canoe instructor and learned to repair wood-and-canvas boats when no one else did.

By then, fiberglass, aluminum and plastic boats had seized the market, and the people who knew how to work with wood and canvas were dying off or retiring.

"There was this period when nobody really knew much of anything," Thomson said. "I really had to teach myself."

In 1980 and 1982, Thomson won national white-water canoeing championships, using modern synthetic boats. He owns and still occasionally uses a plastic canoe, but only if a river is especially low and the canoe will scratch a lot of rocks.

But even for white-water paddling on the Housatonic or Farmington rivers, which he enjoys, he prefers his wood-and-canvas canoe. These boats are far tougher than people realize, he said.

"They weren't created as works of art," he said. "They were created as functional, usable tools. And the fact you can still use them now, 80, 90 or 100 years later, appeals maybe to the historian in me."

On a recent day he and a partner, Ray Jansen, moved from boat to boat, sanding the ribs of one, applying a first coat of varnish to another, a step that enhances the rich wood grain of the boat with each brush stroke.

"This is one of the magic moments," Thomson said. "You take this dull-looking wood and the coat of varnish comes on, and that wood comes right through the clear coating."

No two boats that enter his shop are the same, and that, for Thomson, is the charm of the business.


Since opening his business 18 years ago, Thomson has become as much a part of the wood-and-canvas canoe revival as witness to it.

Now, instead of a couple of canoes in the shop and a few awaiting work outside, there are a dozen in the shop and more than 60 stored on racks outside. He is always busy.

The number of people like Thomson who are working with these boats is tiny, but it appears to be growing along with the revival of interest in the boats themselves.

"I would say there are less than 15 people actually doing it full time, making a living at it," said Rollin Thurlow of Atkinson, Maine, who opened Northwoods Canoe Co. there 20 years ago. "There are maybe 50 to 60 people doing it on a part-time or semi-serious basis."

In Connecticut, at least two others work on wood-and-canvas canoes part time: Carl H. Williams in Salisbury and Ken Morrisroe in Brooklyn.

Thurlow and his partner, Jerry Stelmok, struggled to make a living when their business opened two decades ago, but no more.

Canoe & Kayak magazine, sensing the trend, this fall issued its first edition of Canoe Journal, a magazine devoted to wood canoes. The magazine, based in Seattle, plans to publish Canoe Journal annually.

"Where in some sports and activities you get people passively or mildly interested, with wooden canoes people are either fanatic or getting there in a hurry," said Bryan Chitwood, editor of Canoe & Kayak.

Meanwhile, membership in the Wooden Canoe Heritage Assn., a nonprofit organization based in Paul Smiths, N.Y., has doubled since 1990 and now has 2,050 members. It works to promote and preserve wood canoes and their lore.

One reason for the heightened interest is that many canoeists who own plastic boats have decided they want a wood boat, too.

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