If I lived in an alternative universe of unlimited budgets I could easily convince myself that I need to buy a lot of different boats for my upcoming self-propelled trip from Kittery to Fort Kent. We live in an age of extreme specialization of watercraft– and Maine is famous for offering different places to paddle almost every kind of boat known to exist.
The first leg of the trip on the Maine Island Trail, between Kittery and Casco Bay, clearly calls for a sea kayak to deal with the winds and currents along the state’s coastline.
Upstream travel on the Saco River requires something completely different. Canoe poling still survives as a means of travel for a few backcountry paddlers. The experts prefer a Kevlar 16-foot canoe, with a shallow “V” hull design and limited rocker.
I could run the fierce whitewater section of the Dead River below Grand Falls if I had a new whitewater kayak. These stubby plastic, bomb-shaped boats are the most common choice of modern big-water paddlers.
The ideal boat for the Rangeley Lakes section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail and the big lakes on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway would be a long, low, solo tripping canoe made of Kevlar or graphite with an adjustable tractor seat. These boats have a sharply flared bow to cut through waves and severe tumblehome to allow direct access to the waterline by the seated paddler.
Of course the remainder of the Allagash is made for a classic tripping canoe, with plenty of maneuverability, durability, and a large capacity for carrying gear. A Royalex™ 16-foot boat with plenty of rocker and a shallow-arched hull is ideal.
This wish list represents about $10,000 worth of space-age synthetic materials, whiz-bang engineering and computer-generated design. It does not represent anything close to the reality of my personal budget.
Although each of these boats is ideal for its intended specialized use — they have some drawbacks. Their extreme specialization makes them impractical for a long trip over varied terrain.
Each of these boats also have a single, limited useful life-span — at the end of which, their fancy polymer hulls are good for nothing but a landfill. Even minor repairs are difficult or impossible and modifying, restoring or rebuilding these boats is not an option.
On July 15, 1953 the Old Town Canoe Company shipped a 17-foot wood and canvas canoe to Camp Takajo in Naples, Maine. It was an OTC A (Old Town Canoe model “A”) built in the “CS” or common sense grade with white cedar ribs, red cedar planking, open gunwales and elegant 20” hardwood decks. At the end of its boys-camp career the boat became a pleasure craft at a family camp in Monmouth where it slowly fell into ruin.
Many years later, it was rescued by a very talented woodworker from Lewiston. After undergoing hundreds of hours of re-canvassing and restoration the canoe hung in the woodworker’s garage for several years. Then three years ago the boat rode to Farmington on the roof rack of my truck where it now lives safely under cover in the attic of my barn.
Modern plastic boats will never match this kind of history. My reliable Old Town, Tripper, made of Royalex™, will always hold a special place in my memory. But after the color is completely faded, and the keel under the bow wears through, my heirs will never spend hundreds of hours restoring it to its original shiny plastic luster. Nobody will use the serial number to research the exact date that the black vinyl gunwales were originally attached.
If you wanted to choose just one boat for a self-propelled trip from Kittery to Fort Kent –maybe a boat that was almost infinitely repairable and restorable would be a good idea. And if you could modify that boat for changing conditions it would be even better. Seven foot spruce oars, with round oarlocks set into retractable, outrigger brackets will make the OTCA feel at home on the Maine Island Trail or any other big-water crossing. When I turn around in my seat to paddle and pole the OTCA upstream on the Saco it will not be as light or responsive as Kevlar. I may need to line down or even carry around some of the roughest whitewater on the Dead River. The high bow will undoubtedly catch some wind on the big lakes. And the wooden keel will make dodging rocks in Chase Rapids more of an adventure. It’s not the ideal boat for every part of the big trip. And upon my return it won’t look as pretty as it does now. But short of reducing the OTCA to kindling in some remote rapid those scars can be healed.
It’s a Maine boat for a Maine trip.