April 28, 2013

Big appeal for big canoes

The voyageur-style canoe -- with a history dating back more than two centuries to the fur trade -- is like a schoolbus on the water, but enthusiasts love to barrel downriver in them.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

KENDUSKEAG - Bill and Tammy Kelley have been racing their 26-foot homemade canoe for 10 years in the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race, the highlight of a 20-year racing career. The giant "Kenduskeag Screamah" they raced last week falls under the "open" class in the Bangor race, although in other races it's part of the so-called "war canoe" class.

click image to enlarge

Cho Loring mans the bow seat of a voyageur-style canoe named the Kenduskeag Screamah, as it takes a practice run on Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor. The voyageur-style canoes, some of which seat 10 or more paddlers, have long been popular in Maine.

Photos by Michael C. York/Special to the Telegram

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The Kenduskeag Screamah holds six and has molded seats instead of having paddlers kneel on the floor of the craft. Mainers have been racing in these big voyageurs for decades.

Additional Photos Below

Here in Maine, however, the common term is a misnomer.

These longer voyageur canoes -- crafts that can seat 10 paddlers or more -- have been raced in Maine for decades. But historians say there are no roots in the state for the so-called "war canoe" or even for the voyageur canoe used in the fur trade.

"There weren't any special war canoe constructions in Maine. In British Columbia and Alaska, but not here, not that we know of, not in the Northeast," said Arthur Spiess, senior archeologist at the Maine Historical Preservation Commission in Augusta.

Spiess said the tradition of longer canoes came to Maine only in the last century.

Then, he said, they were a throwback to the Canadian fur trade activity, chiefly the commerce fueled by the Hudson Bay Company of the early 1800s.

The canoes built by European settlers in the 1700s, called voyageurs, were in excess of 30 feet long and could move a lot of fur quickly along rivers to the coast for transport to Europe.

Birch bark canoe builder Steve Cayards of Wellington, who has studied canoe-building techniques with native tribal communities across the Northeast, said the big canoes used then were for commercial use.

"From the 1700s and well into the 1800s, it was a long era of furs trapped in Canada being shipped to Europe," Cayard said.

"The beaver hat like Lincoln wore, those were the fashion of the time, and the roads were the rivers back then. They had a system of canoe routes through Canada to the coast. They had canoes up to 36 feet long. They were big birch bark canoes. Not many of them survived."

Cayard said native tribes outside of Maine may have used longer canoes for wartime purposes, but not the Wabanaki tribes in Maine, and not the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac or Maliseet.

"What the tradition of these war canoes in Maine comes from, from what I understand, is something that started from summer camps and canoe clubs, probably in the wood-canvas era in the early 1900s. It was not native. It was an invention of white people," Cayard said.

Indeed, in New England summer camps of the early 1900s, voyageur-style canoes were a big hit. The longer canoes could pack a lot of campers in one boat.

"In southern Maine there are old postcards picturing canoe activity with big 25- and 35-foot canoes at summer camps," said canoe builder Mike Maybury in Brewer.

"I went to camp when I was a kid, 50 years ago, in the Berkshires, and they had a 35-footer, and a 25-foot canoe."

Maybury has become something of a Maine authority on the voyager-style canoe. He and his wife, B.J., have been running canoe trips on the Penobscot River in Brewer in big, 28-foot canoes for most of 20 years at Riverkeepers, a nonprofit environmental education organization.

Maybury now has seven voyageur canoes and the Riverkeepers have four, all of them 25-31 feet long. The big boats are the most efficient way to teach students about the Penobscot and its rich history.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Bill Kelley helps to pull the Kenduskeag Screamah out of the water at the “Shopping Cart” portage on Kenduskeag Stream.

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A voyageur canoe needs all of its crew to help with a portage – a group effort seen here at 6 Mile Falls on the Kenduskeag.

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Tammy Kelley, center, and crew mates Ander Thibaud, left, and Leslie Winchester try to figure out the best course to take through obstacles on the low-water Kenduskeag Stream.



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