Bryan Whitehead, 61, of Chicago, Illinois, might paddle the world’s most expensive canoe. Whitehead is a consultant for PWC and applying his hourly billing rates to the building process, he calculated that he’d have to charge $23,000 to build another cedar strip canoe. It took Whitehead and a friend 12 days to build it out of red cedar, white cedar, white pine, and cherry. They alternated the two cedars and the white pine to configure more color into the hull. The thwarts, seat, and some of the trim are cherry. The canoe, which has no name, was built to paddle the lakes of the Boundary Waters and Quetico, so it has little rocker, making for a boat that tracks well and travels far. At 42 pounds, it’s also easy on a portage. The building was greatly eased by renting the strongback, the mold for the canoe, and buying 80 percent of the strips already milled.
C&K: How much woodworking experience did you have coming into building this canoe?
Bryan Whitehead: It was my first boat and as far as experience, I had the usual homeowners stuff, but nothing that rose to the level of doing something this complicated.
So, how did you do it?
The guy who rented the strongback and sold me 80 percent of the strips we used gave us 20 minutes of much needed instruction. Then he vanished and we figured out the rest on our own at a friend’s woodshop in Minneapolis. I had a couple books I bought off of Amazon. Most of it is just getting in and doing it. If you’re reasonably handy, you figure it out step by step on your own.
Was there a part of the building process you especially enjoyed?
I liked the magical transformation that takes place when you drape it with the fiberglass cloth and apply the resin. A light brown, unexciting boat shell comes to life; the colors pop with the epoxy resin.
Was there a part of the process you didn’t like?
I didn’t like the staples. Do you have any idea of how many staples are used in building a cedar strip canoe? You burn through thousands. Better builders than I can do it without staples, but I needed them and each staple had to be removed.
If someone is contemplating building their own boat, what would you suggest?
You generate so much sawdust building one that you’re better off buying a partial kit like I did. We didn’t have to find clear knot-free cedar and you’ll become unpopular at Lowes if you’re sorting through all the cedar. Then you have to cut that cedar into 18’ foot strips. On a table saw, 50 percent of a cedar strip is reduced to sawdust. I expect the professionals use really tight band saws to reduce waste. So, buying a kit is a pretty good value and makes a lot less mess.
So, was it worth it?
It’s like dating a supermodel. Everyone stares at it. No, it’s like taking a supermodel camping, so you get even more attention. One guy in a canoe even gave my boat a wolf whistle.
Why did you build it?
It was purpose built for the BWCA and Quetico. I’ve done deep solo trips into Quetico and it performed beautifully. It handles really severe weather surprisingly well. I’ve been out in weather I should have avoided. I was out on a very large bay called North Bay on Basswood Lake and the boat handled it fine in 40 mph wind gusts. I managed it very nicely and most of the credit goes to the canoe. It has good glide and is very stable with good initial and final stability.
Share a story about something you seen on your wilderness solos.
I was west of Quetico and I saw something swimming across the lake. I thought it was a beaver, but realized it was two wolves. They were enormous in the water, but when they emerged, I was struck by how skinny they were. They looked like basketball players because they were so thin and lanky. It was early May or June and I realized that winters are tough for wolves. I didn’t mean to interrupt their swim, but it was a sublime moment to see the apex predator undressed, wet, and so skinny.
Have you made any changes to it since the initial build?
I’ve done some tweaks, such as a foot brace and a backrest. So, that lets you lock into your paddling position so you become much more efficient when your feet and back are locked. I’ve done 35-mile days in that canoe. It doesn’t have a lot of rocker, so it’s not a river canoe, but it turns fine. It is nicely trimmed and tracks straight.
I need more time to go out and paddle. There’s never enough time to use it properly. However, I also built it as an heirloom to hand down to my two sons. Both are very familiar with wilderness camping and good at it.