Boats, Canoes, Too©
|Dad fishing from one of the boats at the cabin|
My first boat was a salvage job. For several years a wooden boat lay, bottom side up, in the yard across Pearl Street from the high school. It had been left when Mrs. Farmer, the Home Ec teacher, left Springport High School. She and Bill, her husband, lived in the small house and Bill did not take the boat when they headed out.
After an event at school, I asked Mr. Schwei, the school Superintendent who lived in the house, what he was going to do with the boat, now covered with several inches of snow. He said, “Saturday morning I’m going out there with a sledge hammer and smash it all to pieces. If someone comes and gets it before then, they will save me the trouble.”
Though dubious, Dad helped me dig the boat out of the snow, load it in the back of the Chevy pickup, take it home, and carry it into the basement. It was a sorry sight. Perhaps ten feet long and three feet wide at the stern, it was not very large. Several of the boards on the bottom were rotted. One side was split. The transom was shot. The bow needed to be replaced. Dad wondered whether repairing it was worth the effort. But it was my boat and I wanted it to go fishing. So, Dad helped me replace floor boards, put in a new transom, install new seats. When we got it put back together, we caulked all the joints. Given the quality of the remaining wood and the problematic character of the enterprise, Dad got out the oldest, thickest paint he could find and told me to paint it. He said, “Maybe this thick paint will fill all the holes.” If I went alone, all the holes were patched. When someone went with me, however, there was a leak halfway up the transom and after an hour or so we had water up to our ankles.
When summer came, I took the boat to Clark Lake, one of the Gang Lakes, west of Springport. A farmer, for a small fee, let people use his lane to access the lake. There were several pipes driven into the ground near the lake and I took my boat to the lake and chained it to one of the pipes. Once, after fishing late into the evening, I got the truck stuck in the muddy lane a few feet from the gate. I had to go to the farmhouse and rouse the farmer to pull me out of the goo. Over the years I suspect this happened often, but he did not complain – at least not to me.
And I caught fish. Usually I fished alone. My senior year in high school I made several trips after classes. Fishing near weeds or over the top of them, I caught four, four pound largemouth bass and earned a reputation as a big fish angler.
Dad went with me a number of times and Johnnie Reule also accompanied me. Nancy, my sister, caught a smallmouth bass trolling one evening, the only smallmouth I saw in southern Michigan. Once when a largemouth leapt and tossed my popper within a few feet of the boat Nancy exclaimed, “Just like on the cover of Sports Afield.”
What became of the boat after I left home for college, I do not know.
Dad made several boats. The first I recall was rectangular, perhaps eight feet by four feet, just the size of a single sheet of plywood. It had seats across the stern and the bow, while not technically a seat, could tolerate a couple of fannies. About a quarter of the way toward the bow, there was a well open to the water. The well was to accommodate Dad’s outboard engine, a Sears five horsepower with the gas tank circling the cowling. Once, fishing at Bar Lake near Arcadia, a wave lifted the boat and then dropped the well over a piling. Of course, we could not get out to let the boat float off the piling. Dad stuck his foot through the well, pushed on the piling as he lifted the boat, and at some delay we floated off.
Eventually the boat ended at the cabin in the UP. When our stay ended, we carried it inside to keep it out of the weather. For several years, this was the only boat at the cabin. Somewhere I read, probably from Ted Trueblood (oh for the days when outdoor writers really knew), pike anglers did not need wire leaders. Rather, a length of monofilament could be used as a leader. And, monofilament, according to my source, could be dyed to make it less visible to fish. I took a spool of monofilament and dyed it a pale brown to match the tannin-stained lake and used the dyed mono as a leader. Fishing with Nancy I tested the visibility of my leaders. I cast to one side of the boat, swung my rod to the other and began to retrieve so the line was directly under the well. With a jacket or some other covering over her head, Nancy peered through the well as my line passed. Suddenly she yelled, “Your line broke, it’s gone.” No, the dyed monofilament really worked.
When she read a draft of this chapter, Nancy reminded me of something I had forgotten. She said, “Remember you used to drop the anchor through the well in the middle of the boat. A couple of times when a pike you caught tangled the anchor rope, you walked around the top of the boat on the edge opposite the way the fish went. That boat was so stable, you couldn’t tip it over. Maybe that’s why Mom and Dad let two kids go out in the boat alone.” The part Nancy left out is, one year for Christmas I bought her a life jacket after asking our folks if they would let me take her out in the boat if she had one.
June 27, 1954, according to Mom’s log, friends from Springport showed up at the Jones’ cabin across the lake. Were they invited or did they just appear? I have a lingering suspicion it was the latter. The Jones did not have extra space, so the adults and the smallest child stayed in a house trailer near the Jones’ cabin. Sam and Elizabeth stayed at our cabin. Sam was a couple of years ahead of me in high school and Elizabeth was a year behind. Turned out, I took Sam fishing several days in the rectangular boat.
Toward the southwest corner of Carpenter Lake there was a log in the water. Based on something I read in some magazine, I figured I could catch pike on a topwater lure. Near the log I had a strike on a Heddon Crazy Crawler from what I was sure was a big fish. I still have the lure and never caught a single thing on it. On one of our revolutions of the lake, Sam hooked the pike near the log. Then he reached down to slap a mosquito on his leg and the fish was gone. I was disappointed, no offended, that I took Sam to a spot where he could catch a big fish – a couple of pounds? – and he let it get away.
When we sold the property in Springport, the boat was on the loft in the barn. It did not get sold at the auction, so I gave it to Phil Lonsberry.
Dad built another boat at about the same time. It was longer, wider and shaped like a boat. It was hard to row, at least for me because it was so big, perhaps 14 feet, and wide. It was stable and I could stand anywhere I wanted to cast. About the only thing I remember specifically about the boat was a day when I was fishing at Carpenter Lake and two teen age girls rowed all over the lake wanting to talk to me. I was either just finishing high school or early in my college years. Once I rowed at fast as I could the length of the lake to get away from them, but they followed me. Dad thought the episode pretty funny.
For many years, I did not have a boat. Over time, the idea of what a fishing boat looked like, at least the top end, changed. Bassmaster and other magazines were filled with images of new-fangled bass boats. And those images were burning a hole in my psyche. In 1978 I answered an ad in Bassmaster for a kit to enable me to build my own bass boat. I was enticed, also, by the assurance I could become a field rep for the company and soon make enough to recover my investment.
Late one afternoon, I got a phone call at work. I female voice asked if I was the person who ordered a bass boat kit and would I be home in the early morning. The voice said, “We’re in Pittsburgh and we can be in Virginia by 6:00 A. M.” I assured her we would be ready. To myself I thought, “So the truck driver travels with his girlfriend.”
Sure enough, the next morning an 18-wheeler with several bass boat hulls came down our twisty-turny suburban street. A tiny young woman jumped out of the passenger side and came toward the house. She asked if this was the right place and I assured her it was. I wanted the boat unloaded as close to one side of the two car garage as possible. The young woman went out to the street and started waving her arms. The driver put the rig exactly where it needed to be. And got out. Another tiny young woman. The driver and cohort were in their mid-20s, not more than five feet and a few inches tall, and neither weighed more than 125 pounds. But they could drive the truck and unload boat kits.
The kit itself was of three parts – a hull, a deck and a console. Assembling them into a boat was not a simple task. For one thing, there were errors and inconsistencies in the instruction manual. Had I not experienced building and the lessons from it with Dad, I could never have completed the task. The most important error concerned the ribbing on the hull and under the deck. The ribbing was parallel to the center where the hull was depressed to allow water in the boat to run to the stern, with other members crossing the width of the hull. These pieces were to be fastened in place with fiberglass matting and liquid resin. Carefully, I measured the pieces of plywood for the ribbing, making sure the pieces I cut matched the template provided.
Before I fastened the pieces to the hull, I put the deck over the hull with the ribbing and floor in place. I went across the street to get Fred Rudder to help me. When we set the deck over the hull it did not fit. The ribbing was about half an inch too high. Fred asked if I wanted to lift the deck off and I said, “No, I want it to sit here while I try to figure out what’s wrong.” Fred went home. For an hour or so, I contemplated what I saw, tried to wiggle the deck to get it to settle in place, contemplated some more. Finally, I asked Fred to help again and sawed half an inch off the ribbing before fastening it in place. Had I fiberglassed those pieces as originally created, correcting the error would have been next to impossible.
Over the 60 or so hours it took to complete the boat, I had help. Mom and Dad came for Thanksgiving and Dad helped for two days. With his time and expertise, the project went much faster. Next door, Jere Richardson, Jr. was 11 years old and he came eagerly each time I needed someone to hold a piece, steady something, or do another task an enthusiastic boy could do. Jere was particularly helpful when something had to be done under the front deck as he could slide in the opening better than I. Several years later I learned Jere had been grounded and the only time he left the house was to help me. And Craig, though he was four, helped too. When Dad and I put down the carpet, we had Craig lay on it to hold it in place while the cement hardened.
The kit included a 35 horse Evinrude engine. It did not include the connectors like a gas line, steering cable or wheel, bolts to fasten the engine in place. On my lunch hour, I hiked to the waterfront in D. C. and purchased the necessary parts. Nor did it include a trolling motor, so I purchased a Minn-Kota and installed it. In the spring of 1979 the boat was finished. I took Jere and Craig to a boat ramp on the Potomac River a short distance from the airport. When I dropped the trolling motor into the water and moved us away from the bank, Jere said, “This is cool.”
Craig now has the boat. Over time, the carpet and the plywood portions of the deck needed to be replaced. And Craig helped me do that. He now is replacing them again, along with the ribbing under the deck.
Lots of good times in that boat. Dad and I, sometimes with Craig, fished Currituck Sound when it was one of the top largemouth spots in the country. Once at Kitty Hawk Bay off the Sound I realized Craig did not have his rod. I said, “You just dropped your rod in the water, didn’t you?” He said, “Yes.” I tossed a marker right there. With the trolling motor, I went back up wind and anchored. I took off my shoes and socks and my pants. I slid over the side of the boat and scuffed along the bottom. I found something with my feet and lifted Craig’s gear and we continued fishing.
One evening, fishing Kitty Hawk Bay, Craig’s duty was to jump up, grab the net and capture any bass Dad or I caught. Most of the time, Craig, three years old, nestled in a corner reading Charlotte’s Web. I hooked a fish and Dad yelled, “Craig, get the net, your dad’s got a fish.” Craig did not move. Again, “Craig, get the net, your dad’s got a fish. Hurry.”
Craig answered, “I can’t Grandpa, I have to finish this paragraph.”
When we first moved to North Carolina, Craig said he was sorry we came because there were no catfish in North Carolina. I got some nightcrawlers; we went right out to Lake Wylie and he caught five channel cats between school letting out and dinner. About the same time, we were fishing at Mountain Island Lake. Craig was mostly standing next to me, talking. He said, “Lots of families don’t have a mommy,” and I agreed. “Lots of families don’t have a daddy,” and I agreed. “And lots of families don’t have a little boy so the daddy will have someone to go fishing with him.” And I agreed with that, too.
My current boat is a 17 foot Ranger R71. When Craig graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, the desire for a new boat began to gnaw at me. In the small bass club I belonged to, no one wanted to fish out of my boat. And it’s true, the live wells in it were not sufficient to keep fish alive over a long day fishing. It was not as fast as other bass boats. I contacted Cliff Shelby at Ranger Boats and Cliff helped me pick out a boat, color, and other amenities. And I ordered it.
It was delivered to Hubert Green in Spindale, North Carolina. Bill Shumaker rode over with me to pick it up. Green boat, matched my pickup perfectly, though I had not anticipated that. Shortly after I got the Ranger, Craig and I were fishing at Lake Wylie. He asked what I did with the earlier boat. I told him I left it on consignment and if someone would give me $1000 they could have it. Craig said he would give me that, so I went back to Spindale and got the boat. When I got the Ranger, Craig was living in Wisconsin, and I had not considered giving him the boat. Once he was back in North Carolina, doing so made good sense.
Ranger has long touted their boats as unsinkable. Craig and I had an early opportunity to test that. With the rest of the bass club, we were fishing Kerr Reservoir, Buggs Island to many, on the North Carolina-Virginia border. While many wandered out across the main channel, with Bill Shumaker and Harry Leamy in a companion boat, we decided the wind was too severe to leave Nutbush Creek. Indeed, a number of bass boats sank that day.
Slowly, we made our way south on Nutbush, an arm of Buggs Island as large as Lake Wylie. We were going into the wind and I was trying to ride up on oncoming waves deliberately, let the wave pass under the boat, then add a little power between waves, and ride up the next wave. Either I misjudged the speed or two waves came too close together, but water spilled over the bow and filled the boat ankle deep. Craig’s tackle box floated and we were sitting in the lake, at least the portion of the lake in the boat. We were now heavy and with little freeboard. The next wave did not spill over us, it washed over us. As it filled the boat, I thought, “Well, we’re going to find out if Ranger boats sink.” We did not, but it took 40 minutes for the bilge pump running full time to evacuate the water.
At the cabin there are two boats, both aluminum. The 12 foot boat is a Sears and Dad bought it at least 60 years ago. We dragged that boat all over. One of our favorite spots was down the steep bank to fish Pickeral Lake. When Craig was a teenager, we wanted to fish Pickeral but Dad said he would not go. The bank was too steep. Craig and I assured him we would handle the boat and help him up and down the bank. Once we got Dad and boat both down the bank, Dad backed over something at the edge of the lake and fell into the water. Only his dignity got hurt. We each caught two pike in a five to seven pound range, and Craig did not catch his until we were almost ready to leave. He had been pretty down until he redeemed himself.
The 16 foot boat is a Starcraft. Dad often said, “They don’t make boats like that anymore,” implying the Starcraft was better. No so, Dad.
Long ago, Dad purchased Evinrude outboards to power the boats. One was a five horse and one a 9.9 horse, the latter, of course to avoid restrictions on engine size of 10 horse power. Both engines were at least 45 years old. While neither had been abused, they had been used.
A few years ago, I took the Starcraft and 9.9 engine to Nawakwa Lake. Before I left the cabin, I pulled the cord while the boat was in the yard, and the engine fired. Once I got to Nawakwa and under way, the engine died and I could not get it started. I rowed back to the ramp and loaded the boat on the trailer. While I was fiddling with the engine, a chap appeared who claimed to be a small engine repair man from Jackson, Michigan. Just what I needed. He fiddled a while, pulled on the starter rope and the spring broke. Not something to be repaired in the field. Back to the cabin. I put the six horse engine on the boat and it worked in the yard. Back to Nawakwa and the second engine failed.
I loaded both engines in the truck and took them to the nearest Evinrude dealer in Curtis, roughly 50 miles away. A mechanic asked, “Where did you get these? I have not seen one like either of them for years.” Mr. Watson, the shop owner, was not around, but the mechanic said he would look at the engines and see if one or both could be repaired. Call tomorrow.
So I called. The mechanic said the six horse was running but they would not guarantee that it would run again. The 9.9 could not be repaired. As I pondered what to do, I wondered if the dealer would take either or both as a trade-in for a new engine. When I got back to Curtis, I asked. Watson said he would give me $2000.00 toward a new Tohatsu 10 horse engine. Sold!
A little over a year later, on my next trip to the cabin, I took the Starcraft and Tohatsu to Nawakwa Lake. The engine fired and I made my way along a bank I had never fished and caught one small pike. When I came to a corner of an island, a boat was coming toward me, so I ceded that bank and headed across the lake. About 100 yards into the crossing, the engine died. And it would not start. The wind was blowing me across the lake, so I began to row hard to get back to the ramp lest I have to row the entire width of the lake. The other boat approached and asked if I would like a tow back to the ramp. I accepted the offer/
After boat and engine sat in the cabin yard for an afternoon and night, I pulled the cord on the engine and it fired right away. So, back to Nawakwa Lake. In the sense of the engine’s performance, it was a reprise. Engine started, ran a few minutes, died and would not restart.
Back to Curtis.. I explained while the warranty had expired the engine only had 10 or 12 hours use. Turned out, a plastic component of the carburetor was broken. When the engine got warmed up, the broken piece shut off the gas flow. Folks at the dealership said they were sure Tohatsu would honor the warranty (does that make me think lots of other folks had the same problem?) and the part would be ordered. Be fixed in 10 days. I was on my way out of the UP and told the dealer I would call in two weeks and come by and get the boat. When I called, the part was back ordered and would not be in Curtis for some time. The dealer suggested I take the engine to North Carolina and have a dealer there repair it. When I explained the boat and engine combination never left the UP, the dealer said to leave it with him for the duration I would not be in the UP. When I returned, he assured me, the engine would be ready to go. And the next year, it was. I have been reluctant, however, to take it where it might be hard to get back – like downstream on the Taquamenon River.
In the fall of 1955, we bought a canoe. It was (and is) a 15 foot Grumman aluminum light weight model. It weighs, I recall, 57 pounds. Though it has not been used for several years, it hangs in the garage. At one point, Dad ceded his half of the canoe to Craig, but Craig now has his own.
Among the early trips with the new canoe was down a portion of the St. Joseph River in southern Michigan. The St. Joe’s wanders from rural Calhoun County in southeastern Michigan, through a corner of Indiana, eventually dumping into Lake Michigan. We put in at a bridge on a county road upstream from Clarendon and took out at 20 mile road downstream from the small crossroads. This portion is upstream from what James L. Souers identifies at the headwaters in A Paddling Guide for the St. Joseph River. Mom provided the shuttle service, as she so often did.
Dad was eager to paddle the St. Joe’s because this portion was near the farm where he grew up. Several boys used the River as a fishing and swimming hole. Dad and Uncle Steve were often together in a small boat. I have a vintage photo of three boys in it. Dad claimed he and Uncle Steve shared ownership of the boat. Uncle Steve told me it was his boat but he let Dad use it.
We persuaded Nancy to go on the trip on the St. Joe’s with us. She was a reluctant companion for some reason. She said she would go, but would not help. At one point we had to drag the canoe over a log crossing the River and Nancy sat, imperial-like, in the vessel as Dad and I wrestled it over the obstruction.
Brand new and shiny, the canoe scared every fish we came near. Carp and dogfish, the latter and also known as bowfin and grindle in different spots, fled in disarray. When we got home we turned the canoe upside down and painted it duck blind brown or some comparably named color. It has been repainted many times, always to the same purpose.
In addition to use at the cabin, Dad and I made several floats on the Manistee and Au Sable Rivers. And we caught some nice trout. When we fished the Manistee, we camped at a State Forest camp along the River. From Jim Bedford’s Flyfisher’s Guide to Michigan I presume the campground is now called Upper Manistee River Campground.
On one of the trips we had the misfortune of picking a day the University of Michigan dumped students and canoes in the Manistee. They came down in groups of five or six canoes, tied together, careening from bank to bank, running into trout-holding cover, probably under the influence of too much wobbly-pop. At one point Dad and I were pulled off to the side of the stream, under some alders, to permit a flotilla to pass. A guide who had seen us on the water on other trips, also in a canoe, passed and saw us in the bushes. His client was dutifully casting. As he saw us, the guide said in a low voice, “Great day for dudes, isn’t it.”
On another trip on the Manistee, we came around a corner, fast. Dad was in the stern. The canoe passed under a sweeper and I ducked. Dad didn’t. The sweeper caught him under the chin and pinned his head to the panel over the stern. Each time he pushed the sweeper away, the current drove his chin right back where it had been. On the same trip, different corner, we wedged the keel into a slot in a stump in the middle of the stream. Could not turn sideway to let the current carry us off the stump for fear we would swamp. We struggled backwards until we got off.
One day we were on the Manistee, we decided to make a longer than usual float. We fished, floated, fished some more. Mid-afternoon, Dad decided, since we did not know where we were and how long it would take us to get to the spot we told Mom and Nancy to meet us, we should stop fishing and paddle. Pushing hard enough I could feel my paddle bending with each stroke, we passed a cabin with several guys sitting in chairs along the bank. One of them said to me, “Young fella, the guy in the back isn’t paddling.”
I answered, “As long as he isn’t dragging the anchor.”
Further downstream, we swept around a corner and a man was standing in the River, fishing. We were coming fast, right at him. When I was right by his shoulder I said, “Sir, I’m sorry but we are going right through your hole.”
When we finally got to the takeout point, Mom and Nancy had been waiting several hours. They did not know where we were, when we might get there, if something terrible had happened. As I look back, my Mom put up with a lot of crap.
We never did as well on the Au Sable. It is one of the world’s famous trout streams. Grayling, Michigan, on the Au Sable, is the founding site of Trout Unlimited. On one of our trips, Dad and I were alternating on the stern. Guy in the bow fished, guy in the stern tried to position the canoe to maximize the fishing opportunities. My turn in the stern. I held the canoe close to the right bank. Rather than paddle, as I wished to reposition the canoe, I let go of alder branches, let the canoe drift a few feet and grabbed a new branch. Suddenly, at least from Dad’s perspective, the canoe shot into the current and ahead several feet. Dad turned, “What are you doing?” I nearly grabbed a branch with a hornet’s nest and dumped the whole thing in the canoe.
Many years later, when we lived in northern Virginia, the canoe got plenty of use. On Craig’s first fishing trips, we took it to Goose Creek Reservoir and fished for panfish and catfish. I bought a push button reel and rod combo for Craig. Once when I was casting and giving him the rod to fish, he told me, “Daddy, you have to throw closer to that rock. That’s where they are.” Just before we moved to North Carolina, Craig caught a couple of 18 or 20 inch channel cats. I kept my hand under the rod to protect against it being jerked out of his hand, but he caught the fish himself. On the trip home, I said, “You thought you were going to have the rod pulled out of your hand, didn’t you?” He agreed.
We also fished Goose Creek itself with Jere Richardson, Jr. I had an electric trolling motor and we went upstream from the bridge where we put in and got away from the anglers close to the road. One day, it rained the entire time we were on the water. The boys fished through it, caught a bunch of bluegills and sunfish and had a wonderful time.
The last time we went to Goose Creek, Craig was already seated in the bow and Jere was standing near the stern. I had the battery and was about to lower it into the canoe. Jere volunteered to help. “It’s heavy,” I warned him. He assured me he could lower it safely, but it clunked onto the bottom of the canoe. As we made our way upstream, I noticed water around my feet, lots of water. I lifted the battery and exposed a hole through the canoe where the battery hit. We turned around, got helped from the stream by anglers near the bridge. Jere, Sr. asked if he should pay to repair the canoe. I told him Jere and I shared responsibility for the damage. Jere should have said he was not certain he could hold the battery and I should have known better than think an 11 year old boy could hang onto a 70 pound weight. I patched the canoe with a piece of airplane aluminum and some liquid steel.
While this chapter was in draft form, I purchased a new boat – a kayak. I bought a Hobie Outback, the kayak I wanted rather than the kayak I could afford. This is a fishing kayak, propelled by fins operated with foot pedals. So far, it has been in the water once – a seven mile float down the Uhwarrie River in North Carolina. I’m looking forward to using it on the East Branch of the Fox River, the Fox River, the Manistique River, and other spots in Michigan. There should be shuttle services on the Catawba River below Lake James and on the New River in North Carolina. In the back of my mind, I have a solo trip in Quetico Park.
Kenneth Grahame, in Wind in the Willows, has Water Rat explain to Mole, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” That’s what I think, too.
Last updated on March 13, 2017