Beautiful Sun

Like many lucky kids, for many of my teenage years I went to summer camp. I went to YMCA Camp Beausoliel, on Beausoleil Island in the Georgian Bay Islands National Park. It was a wonderful and very formative interlude in those years, and probably did more to create and reinforce my love for the outdoors that continues to this day. It was a very long time ago and my memories aren’t 100% complete of that time but I’d like to share my memories of my last year there.

The oldest campers were put together in a cabin called “Islanders”. Being an Islander was like being king of the camp. Our cabin was on a tiny island just off shore from the camp, so we had our own canoes to get back and forth to the main camp. It was actually a prank that seemed to happen every time that the kids from the second oldest cabin would sneak over in the night and steal the Islanders canoes, so they’d have to swim to breakfast. That wasn’t a bad thing, because any cabin that went swimming before breakfast got the “Morning Dipper” award that sat on your table for the day.

As the oldest cabin, we got the least experienced counsellor – I guess they figured with our experience we could take care of ourselves if the counsellor wasn’t great. In our case, we got a counsellor who was a major flake.

The most major feature of YMCA Camp Beausoliel was that it was a “tripping” camp. Generally you spent the first day or two preparing for your big canoe trip, then left on your trip. The time back in camp after the trip was almost an after thought.

As a senior cabin, we did the usual long ambitious trip that senior cabins did – up the Musquash River to near Bala Ontario, then down the Moon River to Georgian Bay, and then down the shore back to Beausoliel Island. It wasn’t an easy trip – the first night was spent at Flat Rock Falls at the top of Go Home Lake (if you think some of these names sound a bit familiar, maybe you’re remembering the song “You Sold The Cottage” by Martha and the Muffins). When I had been a more junior camper, Flat Rock Falls had been a multi day trip to get there, but back then we’d stopped at the diving rocks in McRae Lake.

All Beausoliel cabins had 7 campers, and each trip consisted of three canoes with three people in each canoe – the counsellor took the stern of one canoe, and either a junior counsellor (jc) or the camp’s trip leader Larry Owen took another, and the three most experienced and strongest campers made up the “camper canoe”. I was considered a strong paddler, so this year I got to be the bowman in the camper canoe. Generally the counsellor got the pack with the sleeping bags, because he was supposed to be the best canoer and therefore less likely to get them wet. The jc got the food, because you didn’t want it getting wet but it wouldn’t be a disaster if it did, and the campers got the tents and cooking pots because it didn’t matter if they got wet. This year that turned out to be a big mistake.

On the first or second day, the counsellor decided to show off and do a handstand on the gunnels of his canoe. That didn’t go well, and he ended up upsetting the canoe. While all of us had been taught how to roll a sleeping bag in a groundsheet to waterproof it, unfortunately only mine and four other sleeping bags had actually turned out waterproof. So we spent the rest of the trip with seven campers crowded into one tent with two sleeping bags underneath us and three on top. It was only years later that I realized that the counsellor in question must have been pretty damn high to do something that stupid. All counsellors were only a few years older than the campers, so you’ve got to expect some immaturity, but that was just crazy.

The third or fourth day, we were on the Moon River, on a stretch called The Seven Sisters which is a sequence of rapids. As is usual in these trips, at each rapids everybody got out to scout the rapids. At one rapids, the camper canoe had a look, and said “we’re portaging”. The counsellor and jc had a bit of debate on the best line, and either the jc decided on a different line or they decided to portage. The counsellor said “HELL, LET’S SHOOT THEM!” We all portaged and then walked back to watch the action. The counsellor’s line went between two rocks that nobody but he thought the canoe could fit between. And as soon as he got into the rapids, past the point of no return and lined up on them, he realized we’d all been right and yelled “BACKPADDLE!” They didn’t have a hope in hell. The river was running too fast and with him in the stern and his strongest paddler in the bow paddling on the same side only balanced by the weakest paddler on the other side (whose name was Jeremy – don’t ask why that’s the only name I remember of the other 8 guys), it was inevitable that they’d turn sideways and be carried into these two rocks. The rush of the water under the canoe flipped it on its side, and the force of the water pinned it there, and the contents of the canoe, including sleeping bags, paddles, life jackets and Jeremy were carried down river to be rescued by the rest of us watching this performance. Meanwhile the counsellor and jc were finding it damn near impossible to pull the canoe off the rock, and they only managed to do it after the bow split open, relieving some of the pressure.

We spent a considerable time on the shore of that rapid, trying to dry out our sleeping bags and clothes in the sun while the counsellor and jc repaired the bow of the canoe with every canvas patch, tube of ambroid (a glue that we used for making canvas repairs) and piece of wire in the canoe repair kit. It took a while, but at the end of it they had a mostly water tight canoe that would have gotten them home if the counsellor hadn’t been such a moron.

One funny thing that stocks with me – the counsellor’s clothes were completely soaked, just like all of us (his canoe load from dumping, the rest of us from jumping in to rescue them), and we were all sitting in the sun stripped down to our underwear, except the counsellor was naked. And as we sat there eating lunch and waiting for our clothes and the repair to dry, a giant horsefly bit him on the penis. You’ve never seen a guy jump so high!

After the repair, we crossed under a bridge, the only road that crossed our route from Bala all the way back to camp. We went through one set of rapids safely and sanely, but at the next one the counsellor proved that there is no way in hell he should have ever been in a leadership position. The rapid had a shelf, about a two foot drop. An experienced canoer might have managed it, but not a moron in a canoe held together with baling wire and partially dried ambroid. He took one look at it and yelled “HELL, LET’S SHOOT IT!” Those of us in the camper canoe thought he was completely mental and we portaged. But the jc agreed to try as well, and he went first. Now he was a lot heavier than the campers in his canoe and I think the fact that it was stern heavy helped him get through it. The counsellor’s canoe was more evenly balanced, and when they hit the shelf they kind of hit the water below nose first, and dumped in the whirlpool below it. I have a vivid memory of Jeremy getting smashed between the canoe and the rock wall on the side of the whirlpool before we could drag him out. He also lost his camera in the whirlpool, although god knows how he held into it on the previous disaster.

This time the canoe was a write-off. The split now went beyond the bow seat and no amount of wire was going to hold it together, even if we’d still had any more canvas and ambroid. So we did the only responsible thing we could do – we distributed his packs and campers to the other two canoes, making them dangerously overloaded and tippy, and paddled back upstream to the bridge. The counsellor paddled his banana split of a boat from the stern deck, which kept the bow out of the water. We made camp at a fishing access that was not a legal campsite while the counsellor and jc hitchhiked to a phone to contact the camp. Much later that night a truck came from camp with a replacement canoe, but sadly not a replacement counsellor.

For the next couple of days, the trip went as they usually went. I don’t recall if the counsellor stopped trying to shoot unshootable rapids or if he just got overruled, but we ended up making it most of the way home without further incident. Until the very last day, when once again this moron decides he wants to try another handstand on the gunnels. Fortunately by this time the two campers in his canoe were more seasoned paddlers and so when he inevitably fell into the water, they kept the boat upright and prevented him from further soaking people’s sleeping bags. (I should mention that campers used the same sleeping bags as bedclothes in camp, and the camp didn’t have laundry facilities of any sort, so even without this a few of the campers still had damp sleeping bags for a night or two after we got back.)

Rereading this, I sound awfully angry about the incompetence of the counsellor. But the amazing thing about being a kid at camp is that we weren’t mad at him. Well, except for getting the sleeping bags wet. Everything else was dumb, but we just took it in stride. Just part if the adventure. It’s only afterwards as a parent I think back and think “we’re lucky he didn’t kill anybody” and I get mad at him.

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.

More about my canoe building experience

I forgot to mention a few things in my previous blog entry.

The first is that some years after finishing my canoe, I got the bug to build another one. This time without the mistakes, or at least with new and better mistakes. So I bought the Harrowsmith Press book Canoecraft.
One of the prime reasons I’d wanted to build a canoe in the first place was lusting after the canoes from Bear Mountain Canoebuilders, and this book was written by the owner of Bear Mountain, so I knew it would be good. And it is good. But the most important thing I discovered in that book was that Ted Moores, the guy who built those perfect canoes that I’d coveted for years and years, in describing every detail of his canoe shop, pointed out his “crying chair”. Yes, Mr. Perfection himself every now and then felt the need to sit down, cry about the mistake he’d just made, compose himself and figure out how to fix it. Suddenly I felt a lot better about my own tears.

I don’t know if it was in the version of the book when I used it, but the website for the book I used in the first place, David Hazen’s “Strippers Guide to Canoe Building” has a Builder’s Pep Talk online. The most important part, at least in my experience is:

Soon after that release I realized that not one of my customers ever saw those mistakes. They were usually too overwhelmed by the charisma of the boat and ignorant of what small details composed the multitude of “mistakes” that went into every boat.