Video by Shawn Sienkiewicz, KDVR
AURORA, Co. — It was late August 1944 in Orono, Maine when the workers at the Old Town Canoe factory started building a 16-foot-wood and canvas canoe.
The war that had consumed the world was in its last year. Soon, many Americans would be getting back to their lives which had been put on hold, first by the Great Depression and then by conflict.
It took those workers several months to finish the job and the following June, the dark green canoe was shipped to a boat dealer named Angus Taunton in Lake George, NY. Made of ash and spruce, the H.W. Model Canoe was designed to be “ready for any use” according to the catalogue. It was listed for $95. (Today, a similar custom-built Old Town canoe will cost you $10,000.)
Where it journeyed from Lake George that summer is unknown. What is for certain is that it was bought by my father, Bud Stewart, around 1967. By that time it was beige and light blue and had an eye painted on the ends. He brought it home to South Windsor.
My father painted it red soon after buying it. And he would use that canoe every summer for the next four decades. It was one of his prize possessions. He taught his children how to paddle it. While on camping trips in the Adirondacks, he would get up early and head out to go fishing. Sometimes he would take one of us kids with him when the lake was quiet and as smooth as glass.
Every camping trip, the canoe came along. From the boys camping weekend in the spring, to the last gasp in the late summer, the red canoe was there. One time in Rhode Island it was stolen and found soon after a little father down the beach. Shorter trips to the Farmington River with my mother would also take place. There was a ritual to tying the canoe on the roof of the station wagon that we were only allowed to watch.
During the winter it hung from the ceiling in the basement, where it would be a hiding place for Christmas presents.
He decided to replace the canvas with fiberglass. It served him well, becoming part of his identity. His CB radio handle was Big Canoe. Our mother’s became Canoe’s Paddle (because in his words, a canoe is nothing without its paddle.) He carved at least one small canoe, while talking to friends on the CB. He often joked about having a Viking funeral. Legality aside, he laughed and said he wanted his body placed in the canoe, then someone would shoot a flaming arrow and set it adrift on an Adirondack lake.
Around the time my father retired, he bought a second canoe. This one, also an Old Town, was green and made of fiberglass. It was much lighter and easier for him and my mother to get on the roof of the pickup.
The red canoe stayed in the basement for many years. As his health declined, he considered selling it. We had a long talk and eventually he agreed that my brother Dave, an experienced wood worker, would be the best person to take care of restoring it. At that time, Dave lived in Hawaii, so getting the canoe to him would challenging.
Several years passed, and Dave eventually moved to Colorado. The green canoe was in my care for awhile and then went to my brother Jeff.
Our father passed away after battling Parkinson’s Disease in September 2014. At the service there were pictures of him in the canoe.
In 2016, I came up with a plan that I would drive the canoe to Chicago and meet Dave and his wife Melissa, who would take the canoe back to Colorado. Jeff helped me tie the red canoe securely to the roof of my SUV and I took off.
Several days later, I met Dave and Melissa in Joliet Illinois and they took it from there.
Since that time, Dave has worked hard to restore the canoe. First there was the research to determined the best methods. Stripping the fiberglass, revealed the old wood and what needed to be replaced. He spent months crafting all the pieces, many needing to be steamed and bent into shape. For a time, it looked less like a canoe and more like a skeleton.
After two years of work, it’s now reaching the final stages. It again looks like a canoe, albeit a naked one. Dave estimates that he’s replaced more than 70 percent of the wood.
Dave’s work is meticulous. We receive monthly updates via email. It's great to see him giving the canoe his dedication and craftsmanship. He hopes to have it done and in the water next spring.
Some 73 years after it was first sold, the canoe will have a new life. It was an indelible part of our growing up and holds many memories of a good man who was dedicated to his wife and family.
And, in case you were wondering, My father did get a Viking funeral of sorts. About nine months after his death, his four children and one grandchild, Allison, traveled to the Adirondacks to stage a small Viking funeral with a model canoe made by Dave that carried his ashes. We set the small, red canoe adrift and my sister Cindy shot the symbolic flaming arrow as Jeff pushed a button on an igniter that started the fire. We let it burn for a couple minutes before gathering everything and heading back to the campground. My father would have laughed his head off.