Half way there

Alan Gage, 37, a service writer at an auto repair shop in Estherville, Iowa, had a dog (Sadie the Wonderdog) and a favorite river (the wonderful Bloodvein River in northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba). Now he needed a boat. It’s not that he lacked a canoe, but he wanted a canoe made especially for a Bloodvein trip he was planning, a canoe stable enough for Sadie, light enough for upriver paddling, and sturdy and nimble enough for whitewater. He built that canoe, the eponymous 16.5’ Bloodvein, and he and Sadie paddled west to Lake Winnipeg and then east, making their downriver journey.

C&K: Tell us about the origins of your Bloodvein canoe.
Alan Gage: The whole thing started with a trip I daydreamed about for a few years but had pretty much given up on: paddling down the Bloodvein and back. Then, one cold winter, I finally resolved to do it the following summer. The Bloodvein River starts in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in Ontario and flows through Atikaki Provincial Park in Manitoba on its way to Lake Winnipeg. The plan was to put in near Red Lake, Ontario, and paddle a few days to get to the Bloodvein River system at Knox Lake. I’d then follow the river downstream to Lake Winnipeg before turning around and paddling back the way I came. I didn’t know if it would doable or how long it would take, but I wanted to try. Once on the river, you’re committed as there is no access other than by boat or plane the entire 186 miles of its length. It didn’t take me long to decide I was going to build my own canoe for the trip.

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You didn’t just build the Bloodvein. You designed the hull too. How did you do that?
I’d recently gotten the building bug and after being unable to find the exact plans I was looking for, I learned some hull design software and started designing my own. This one I needed to get right. If I got it wrong, I wouldn’t know until spring and by then it would probably be too late to build another before the trip. Many hours in front of the computer went into achieving what I hoped was the perfect balance of speed, capacity, and handling. it was an exciting day when I finally set up the forms on the strongback.

What about the actual building?
This was the longest build I’ve done in terms of hours invested. When I started, it was with a “weight be damned” mindset, as I knew it had to be strong in case of being dropped on a portage or pinned in rapids. But I have a hard time leaving the original design alone and soon I found myself thinking of ways to lighten the load while retaining strength. So, carbon fiber began showing up at my door. There would be a lot of portages (over 100 rods), so any way to lighten the load during the build would be appreciated on the journey.

I tested the breaking strength of different wood species and was dismayed at the strength variation shown within even the same wood species. I tried covering pieces of cedar with carbon fiber and was rewarded with something that was lightweight and considerably stronger than any of the wood I’d tested. Carbon fiber also found its way into the thwarts and float tanks along with the sliding pedestal seat with a base narrow enough to comfortably kneel around.

How did it perform when you first paddled it?

By spring, I had a boat I was very happy with and then spent the summer test paddling it in various conditions. By the time the trip came around in mid-August, I was convinced that if any boat could carry me down the Bloodvein and back, it would be this one. Fully loaded, it tracks well, but still allows for decent maneuverability. Empty, it spins around nicely. It’s easy to turn when empty and less so when fully loaded, but easier than my other solos.

How was it paddling your Bloodvein down the Bloodvein?
I wish there were harrowing stories to tell from the trip, but it went quite smoothly. This was my first real experience with whitewater and while even the small rapids were quite intimidating at first, I soon began feeling more comfortable and tried to run anything Class II and lower. I did run a couple short and straightforward sets rated at Class III (after portaging the gear) and those were pretty exciting. But most of the Class IIIs were too large and tricky, or had too severe of a penalty for dumping, to risk on a wilderness trip.

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And how did Sadie perform?
Sadie never did warm up to the whitewater. She didn’t like it at all and made a strong case for portaging every time we approached.

No troubles other than Sadie’s whitewater reluctance?
The only mishaps were after we turned around to paddle back upstream. We crossed an eddy line just below a large rapids and it was a harder line than I thought. Thankfully we dumped in the eddy close to shore. Everything stayed in the boat except the water bottle which I had to paddle after.

The other “oops” moment was trying to pull the canoe up a small rapids when the boat became hung up and turned sideways. The current pulled the upstream gunwale underwater and at that point I could no longer hold on. I could just watch my canoe float away from me down the rapids and across the bay. Thankfully I was still wearing my lifejacket so after stripping down I swam across the bay to retrieve the canoe. Sadie stayed on shore and looked worried.

Canoe at home in its native habitat

Canoe at home in its native habitat

How was it going up current and on big lakes?
The boat performed wonderfully. I enjoyed the challenges of paddling upstream and powering up the swifts and small rapids to avoid a portage. Sadie, however, preferred the portages, but she got plenty of them. The canoe also performed well on the large lakes and handled fine in the wind. We made good time and despite having four days of no travel due to weather, we completed the trip in 30 days, which was faster than I expected.

What’s next?
This was by far my longest solo and probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I felt like I could have kept going forever. The canoe surpassed my expectations. I was happy enough with it that I decided to build a carbon/Kevlar version to try and cut a little more weight as well as add more strength. I’m working on that one this winter and hope to take it on another 30 day or perhaps longer, trip next summer. Sadie and I are thinking, “Down the Berens and back,” has a nice ring to it.

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