Peterborough Canoe

When I was a teen, one of the most important influences on my life and my personality was the time I spent at summer camp, at YMCA Camp Beausoliel, on Beausoliel Island in Georgian Bay. I think I went to this camp the first time when I was about 11, and went every summer until I was in the “senior cabin”, around 15 or 16 years old. The last time I went, I actually went for two or three straight terms instead of just one – when you’re there on the day in between the last batch leaving and the new batch arriving, you start to feel and act like one of the staff.

The most important part of every session at this camp was the canoe trip. The first time there I found it a little disorienting, because as soon as we arrived, we did the usual introductions to everybody in the cabin, and then we immediately started planning our menu for the trip. What did I know about planning menus for canoe trips? Not much. Neither did the other campers – so basically it was a monologue by the counsellor. The next day we had a lesson on basic paddling skills, and another lesson on basic wood craft, and the next day we set out on our trip. All the cabins from the 11 year olds to the 16 year olds set out on their trips that day. It must have been very quiet around the camp after that.

With 5 or 6 cabins full of boys setting out on simultaneous canoe trips, and a watercaft program for the more junior cabins, obviously the camp had a lot of canoes. All of them were wood and canvas except a couple of horrible wood and fiberglass canoes that nobody liked. There was a definite heirarchy of the canoes, and the heirarchy of cabins meant that the older you were, the more likely you were to do your trip in one of the Peterboroughs. A bit younger, and you might have had to muddle through with one of the Chesnuts. And the really young cabins ended up with Lakefields. To tell you the truth, I don’t think any of us knew the difference between the canoes, but all the staff fought over the Peterboroughs, and so that’s what we wanted too.

Peterboroughs were classic canoes, built in the glory days of classic canoe building in the 1920s and 30s, in (not too surprisingly) Peterborough Ontario. And when I was an active canoer, I always wanted one. Although, thanks to Bill Mason’s endorsement, I probably would have settled for a Chesnut. I built a “stripper” when I was in college, but even its racy lines and beautiful looks couldn’t still my desire for an old classic.

In the early 1990s, I was working on a contract job where I’d work for nothing for two months, and suddenly get a chunk of cash (with no tax taken out of it) – sometimes as much as $10,000. So I’d be practically starving maxing out my credit cards, and then suddenly I’d be flush with cash. And instead of budgetting for the next two months, I’d rush out and buy a bunch of stuff. One of the times when I was flush with cash, I saw an advert on Usenet. A woman in Kingston had a couple of Peterborough canoes that used to belong to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. I rushed down to look at them. All of them had been badly treated by the cadets – some had broken or missing boards, or badly done patches. worst of all, they’d slathered layers and layers of fiberglas over them. But they were Peterboroughs, and I was blind to the practicality, seeing only the possibilities of finally having one for myself. So I bought the one that seemed the least damaged – although in retrospect I probably should have taken the one that was more damaged, but which wasn’t missing the name plate.

I took my Peterborough home (and at the time I was living in a house I shared with other people, and didn’t have a proper wood shop). I bought some of those metal folding saw horses and a few tools. I figured the first thing to do would be to get the fiberglas off the outside and the horrible blue paint off the inside. I had it in my head that what I wanted to do was to strip it down to bare wood, and then give it a clear coat of ‘glas and epoxy resin, so rather than having the classic old (and hard to maintain) canvas, it would be durable but show the beauty of the underlying cedar. I got a lot of the fiberglas off – fortunately it was old and hadn’t adhered well to the underlying wood. Actually, it might have been applied on top of the old canvas – I don’t remember. But after working on it a bit, I discovered something I should have realized before I started: that with my bad knees, I can’t stand around a canoe project any more than I can run or ski. So I stopped working on it, and unfortunately the canoe has been sitting outside, unprotected, ever since.

Since we’re moving, I decided it’s time to finally get rid of this poor unfortunate mistreated canoe. I can’t stomach the thought of breaking it up for garbage. So I tried listing it as “free to good home” on the local Usenet forsale newsgroup, and the local paddler’s web forum. One person wrote to me to say that I should try the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association web site. So I did – I listed it this morning before I left for work, and in the next two hours I got 8 phone calls and emails. I guess I’m not the only person who fell in love with Peterboroughs.

3 thoughts on “Peterborough Canoe”

  1. Paul:

    Good stuff. I was offered an opportunity last year to take (for free) an old canoe from the neighbour of a friend. The canoe owner was elderly and on his way to the happy hunting grounds… his kids said I could have the canoe, except it leaked. OK, worth a look any ways.

    But first let’s go back in time. Your story about camp, canoeing and Peterboroughs is almost like mine!

    When I was a kid, I was sent off to a camp in BC; 4 weeks per session – some urbanites feel my parents were inflicting cruel and unusual punishment and must not have liked me at all to send me off for a month!

    I loved it.

    My first summer was when I was six; I went back every summer until I was 15. I, like you, became a veteran.

    We were in the Purcell and Bugaboo mountains backpacking, taking horse pack trips, sailing on the valley lakes in sail boats, doing riflery, archery and of course, lots of canoeing.

    The canoes were all Peterboroughs from the 1950’s and 60’s. We canoed Lake Windermere, the Columbia River, the Kootenay River and many other creeks and mountain lakes.

    Ever since if I have enjoyed a bit of canoeing here and there but never owned my own canoe. If you asked me 14 months ago – “what would your dream canoe be?” I would have replied – “an old Peterborough from the 1950’s or 60’s”.

    So off I went to see the canoe that could be mine if I was willing to take it. Lo and behold – an old Peterborough. I had no idea how old but it was my dream canoe. It was in excellent shape; a tiny bit of rot on the gunnels (outwhales actually) and that’s it.

    I took it and did some research – it turns out to be a 1941 Peterborough Riverdale model – made BEFORE the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

    I am now almost done a refinish and canvassing. It turns out the original boats were not canvassed, but this one needs the canvas as the planking has shrunk and experienced a bit of warping. The old Petes I canoed as a kid were all canvas covered, so this will truly be “my canoe” when it’s done.

    I’ll be thinking of you when I launch and go for my first paddle on the Rideau River in Ottawa in 2 weeks.


  2. I don’t have the guts to try my 1930’s Peterborough 8′ (2.5m) snow skis as the leather on the compound downhill bindings is weak.

    I gave my son Wes (10) an even nicer pair of 1920’s Petes with poles. The sigle leather strap on his 4 footers is ok.

    These Petes are nice antiques.

    I will report back next winter


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