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Rebecca and Big Red


Big Red is a 16' Langford canoe that was oringially purchased in Dwight, Ontario by Rebecca's parents, Mike and Carolyn, in 1972 or 1973 (based on who you ask :)). As with many young Canadian couples exploring adulthood, Mike and Carolyn paddled Big Red with their faithful companion Toba on many adventures through routes in Quetico, Algonquin, Killarney, and Temagami. 


Paddling the canoe routes of Ontario with faithful companions. Circa 1972-1975 

Over the years, a lot of memories were made with Big Red as a family on the shores of Lake Erie, where Rebecca's family had a cottage, and when the family moved to the Maritimes in 1981, paddles with Big Red continued on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. When Mike and Carolyn moved to British Columbia a couple of years ago, Rebecca's brother tried to bring the canoe to his home in BC but only made it so far as Truro, Nova Scotia where it lived in a barn for 2 years! So, Rebecca adopted "Big Red" and brought him to Ottawa in 2020 and got him back into the water to enjoy with her family. Rebecca reflects on many happy paddles around Petrie Island east of Ottawa and notes that out on the water, Big Red burbles happily with each stroke. 


In order to get a better sense of the areas in need of the most attention, I will remove the following pieces:

1. Gunwales

2. Keel

3. Canvas cover

The Mystery of the Metal Plate

After removing the canvas and getting a better look at the wood, I can see the planks of the hull are in great condition. There have been a couple of boards replaced in the past but all is good for this recanvas. I also noticed the bow and stern ends have been rebuilt before. I will work on those next but what caught my attention was a hidden metal plate I found glued to the inside of the plank at he bow end. At first I thought it was a piece of wood used for bracing but when I started to cut, I realized it was a 2"X2" metal bracket that weighs about a pound. Why would the someone add this to the canoe? Was there a purpose? How long was it there? Did it hold something? Is it a Horcrux? I will do some sluthing to see if this is a common practice.


With the metal plate completely occupying my thoughts, I cut back the gunwales past the rotting ends and replaced them with oak. I am using oak because; 1. It's a hard wood and 2. it was found in a wood bin so it didn't cost me anything. I know oak is fairly heavy but I am only replacing small portions of the gunwale and honestly, it's not as heavy as that metal plate!

Mystery Solved!

It didn't take long to solve the mystery of the metal plate. I received a note from Rebecca after posting about the mysterious find. Apparently, Mike (Rebecca's dad), placed the metal plate in the bow of the canoe to act as a counterweight. 


Text from Rebecca:

Hi Cameron, I have a little info for you, based on your latest update ...perhaps an answer to the mystery of the metal plate! From Dad: I put the metal plate in because the canoe was stern heavy when portaging. The metal plate gave it perfect balance for portaging. From Mom: Metal plate provided the correct weight balance for Mike to portage big red solo!!! Check balance before tossing!!!


I reassured Rebecca I would indeed check the balance and the metal plate would not be tossed- It will stay with Big Red in some capacity. It is a rather ingenious idea to use a counterweight to balance a canoe. Simple and effective! I love the feel of a canoe in harmony with the rest of my body. There have been many portages where I needed both hands to scramble up an incline and the canoe resting perfectly balanced on my shoulders. I compare it to the feeling of a swish in basketball. Sweet. 

Gunwale Dilemma

I didn't realize that the word gunwale (pronounced gun-nel) comes from the term 'wale' which is used to describe the plank on the uppermost portion of the boat. And guns were fixed to this 'wale' on warships hence, Gun-Wale...hmm at least that what Google says, makes sense.

The inner gunwales of Big Red are in decent condition and I have only had to recondition small sections of the bow and stern. The outer gunwales are a bit different. Time and weather have deteriorated the outside gunwales to the point of fixing them or replacing them. I want to keep the repair costs to a minimum so I opted to rebuild and hopefully get a few more years from the originals before they need replacing. Imagine almost 50 years of memories built up in these old gunwales.

Canvas Time 

Now that the work on the hull is complete, I rub tung oil onto the planks to rejuvenate the cedar. Next is the canvas. I will use a come-a-long to stretch the canvas over the canoe, then using a pair of material pliers, tack tightly into place.

Painting Time
The Keel

Attaching the keel can be a tricky procedure by yourself  but I pre-drilled the holes and added filler along the keel to prevent water and debris from getting between the keel and the hull.

Reattaching the gunwales and Stem Bands

I'm getting close to the end and yet there are a few details I continue to fuss about. I am using the original gunwales so I have had to modify them a bit at the bow and stern ends so that they will cover the exposed parts of the canvas. It is fiddly work but because I am close to the end I feel like I am rushing things a bit. I pause, take a breath and slow myself down. It's not the destination, it's the journey with this canoe I need to focus on. 


It is a bitter sweet moment when the canoe is finished. After spending time getting to know the lines, curves, and straight sections I look for things I may have missed or overlooked. Perhaps I am looking for excuses to keep Big Red for one more day. But I am also excited to get BR back home and in the water where she belongs. I am in a good spot right now; doing what I love with vessels that have been an integral part in defining who I am. 

For Big Red and the family members that have, and will continue her legacy, I wish you strong paddles, calm waters, and the wind always at your back!

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