Canoe Totem honoring an old friend


I’m guessing that not too many folks have a full-size canoe totem in their yard. Ours came about by virtue of a bad moment last spring, when I was doing my annual assessment of canoe hulls at the end of winter. I always check for frost damage, spots that need touch-up work, the odds and ends of neglect and maintenance.


Our Blue Hole MGB sat in the middle of the three-boat rack. It has seniority in the fleet. We’ve had her more than twenty years. It’s the boat we paddled across Canada in a continuous, fourteen-month expedition back in 1985-86. It features a red, Royalex hull with mahogany gunwales and trim. The blend of ABS and wood is both the boat’s aesthetic strong point and its Achilles heel. The dark wood trim is beautiful, but because wood and plastic freeze and thaw at such different rates, the hull is susceptible to “cold-cracks”, especially in a climate like Montana’s.


It’s usually enough to loosen the gunwales a bit before winter to allow for the discrepancy. Over the winter we spent in the Far North, with long stints of forty below, we actually removed the gunwales completely. Still, a few hairline cracks had accrued over the years, and last winter, the hull developed the Mother of all Cold Cracks, a fissure right through the hull extending almost half way around the boat. When I saw it, it was like feeling a tumor one morning in the shower. I put my hand up to the weathered hull, felt the seam of crack that I could see daylight through.


We haven’t paddled the boat much in recent years, but the sentimental history runs deep. It was our trusty mule across the continent. It had taken us through Class III whitewater and across hundreds of miles of lakes. It had weighed heavily on my shoulders on dozens of portages, withstood storm and wind, served as a windbreak to cook behind, waited patiently in hundreds of wilderness camps.


I thought about taking it to the dump, adding it to the detritus of consumerism—piles of old televisions, upholstery, construction waste, garbage. The image knotted my stomach. I considered trying to patch the crack up with fiberglass, perhaps donating the boat to an outdoor center, but that just saddled someone else with the inevitable disposal chore.


The solution came to me in the middle of the night. I came awake and had the image of the red canoe buried in the yard, like a planter sunk to the gunwales and filled with sand and rocks, decorated with polished agates, beautiful driftwood, beach glass. I don’t know if I’d dreamed about it, or whether it bloomed out of my subconscious on waking.



In the morning I mentioned it to Marypat, feeling foolish, expecting her to roll her eyes. To her credit, she just got thoughtful. She immediately understood the impulse to honor the canoe. Her only hesitation had to do with presentation.


“What if we buried it upright,” she suggested. “You know, like a totem pole.”


“That’s it!” I said. I recognized the improvement of my concept instantly. “Perfect. Upright. Yes. And it has to be in the front yard, for everyone to see. Who ever heard of a totem pole hiding out back?”

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