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Maine attraction

Wooden canoe convention focuses on iconic Old Town boats

June 30, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

PAUL SMITHS - Wooden canoe enthusiasts from throughout the United States are at Paul Smith's College this week for the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association's annual gathering.

Anne Burke, executive director of the WCHA, said she expects about 450 people to attend the four-day event, which kicked off Wednesday and ends today. Most of the participants are members of the nonprofit WCHA, but members of the public are welcome to attend.

The event features workshops on actives such as building cane canoe seats and paddles, and lectures on wooden canoe-related topics. There are also hundreds of wooden canoes to peruse on the campus lawn next to Lower St. Regis Lake.

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Jerry Stelmok and Andrea Myers of Island Falls Canoe company of Atkinson, Maine, stand next to an Old Town Otca canoe, which they built, Friday at the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association’s annual gathering at Paul Smith’s College. They are Old Town’s only remaining wooden canoe builders.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

The theme for this year's gathering is Old Town canoes, and many of the boats on display were made by that Maine company, which was founded in the 1890s.

A few of the more interesting Old Town boats on display are owned by Benson Gray. He's the great-grandson of George Gray, one of the Old Town Canoe Company's founders.

One of Benson's boats is a Old Town Otca that was built in the 1930s and belonged to his grandfather, Sam Gray, who ran the company at one time. The canoe was used by the Gray family for a while, but then the company sold it.

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"We always had canoes available, but typically they went back to the factory and were sold," Benson said. "It's the classic case of the cobbler's children going barefoot.

"When this canoe went back, it was actually sold to someone else. ... Then, many years later, I was lucky enough to find it again and was able to identify it as my grandfather's canoe because the bill records showed it was shipped to him."

Benson isn't involved with Old Town anymore. His family sold the business in 1974 to Johnson Outdoors, which still owns it, but he's become fond of his family's heritage and has spent a lot of time studying the history of wooden canoes. He also collects wooden canoes and has about 10 of them. He actually only owns wooden canoes. He sold his only plastic boat after his kids grew up.

"Plastics obviously have durability and somewhat less maintenance, but wood has got a feel to it," Benson said. "You take a wood canoe out and you paddle it, it flexes a little bit in the waves. It doesn't make as much noise. The way the water laps on it is different. It's a whole different aesthetic, and it connects you to a much longer history of canoes."

Old Town still produces wooden canoes, but it no longer makes them in house. They are made by Jerry Stelmok and Andrea Myers, who own Island Falls Canoe in Atkinson, Maine. Their shop is about 45 minutes away from Old Town, Maine.

Stelmok said he and Myers got a contract to build Old Town's wooden canoes after the company relocated to a new plant in 2009.

"When they moved into the new plant, there was no provision for building the wooden canoes they used to build," Stelmok said. "There was a time when Old Town used to build four or five thousand wooden canoes in one year, so it was huge plant - the biggest manufacturer in the country, in the world really. It had scaled down tremendously in the last 30 to 40 years."

Island Falls Canoe now makes an average of two boats a month unless there's a special order - like one it recently received from L.L. Bean, another iconic Maine company, which wanted a dozen boats for its 100th anniversary this year.

The small wooden boat manufacturer makes a 16-foot Otca, 17-foot Molitor and a 16-foot Guide under the Old Town brand.

"We're using the original forms and the same materials: white cedar ribs, red cedar planking, mahogany or cherry or spruce in whales and canoe seats," Stelmok said.

The wooden canoes aren't as fast or light as modern kevlar or carbon fiber boats, but that's OK for most of those attending the gathering.

"Wooden canoes in general, it's the aesthetic of them," said Dan Miller of Cape Vincent. "They're quiet on the water. They are a whole lot different feeling than when you're paddling an aluminum canoe or a fiberglass canoe."



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