Jerry Vandiver, 66, is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Tim McGraw, LoneStar, The Oak Ridge Boys, Phil Vassar and others. But when he’s not writing or recording, he can often be found paddling his Souris River Quetico 17 in Le Tigre kevlar, which does double duty as a tandem and solo boat. Vandiver loves the canoe’s “beauty, stability, and playfulness on Class I Tennessee streams,” but he’s happiest on the tea-colored lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota and western Ontario in the boreal forests of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area (BWCA), Woodland Canoe Provincial Park, and Wabakimi Provincial Park. The Canadian Shield is land scoured clean by glaciers, where even the rock, much of it igneous, is still relatively young, and this clean, wild place is where Vandiver had his bachelor party, was wed, and even had his honeymoon in his Souris River Quetico 17.
When most people think of bachelor parties, they think of wild times. What was yours like?
Well, we did see sorta see two wild women, but they were two moose cows. We also saw something we considered a stripper, as it was a cedar strip canoe.
And your wedding and honeymoon?
We got married at a Boundary Water’s entry point, had our reception at the Chainsaw Sisters Saloon, which has since been absorbed by the wilderness, and my bride and I put in at Moose River North. We paddled to the pictographs on Lac La Croix. It was a great honeymoon!
Still, the Canadian Shield is a long drive from Tennessee. Why do you keep doing it?
One night in the Boundary Waters explains it. We had picked a particular campsite that gave us a clear view of the Perseid meteor showers. I’d never seen them without light pollution, so we were excited. While we were watching, the Northern Lights added their glow to the sky and a wolf started to howl. It was a hat trick.
And you’ve driven even farther north.
A friend in Nashville got me hooked on tripping in Quetico 20 years ago. A couple years ago, he said Woodland Caribou was on his bucket list. It’s primarily set aside as a refuge for the Woodland Caribou, which are solitary animals, unlike the barren ground caribou, whose herds can number in the hundreds of thousands. The first day in, we saw one, which is rare, as there are only 150 caribou scattered over 1,100,000 acres. We were paddling in September, which is near the end of the season that far north. When we came back out, we learned that we were only the third party to see one that season.
What else did you see?
Woodland Caribou is much more rugged than the Boundary Waters and Quetico. Portages are difficult to find and you almost have to bushwhack your campsites. We decided to basecamp on Mexican Hat Lake. There are some pictographs a few lakes away and I’m a pictograph junkie. I asked if anyone wanted to go. They didn’t, so I went ahead by removing the bow thwart, turning the canoe around, and paddling from the bow seat. That is how I’m able to center myself when facing tough headwinds. It was really an adventure because the portages weren’t easily found. In retrospect, it wasn’t a wise thing, but it was stirring and a moose and her calf looked at me while I looked at the pictographs.
How has your Souris River performed on those northern lakes?
On my bachelor party, we were lunching on an island and the wind really kicked up. The water was white capping. I was soloing in a canoe that’s primarily a tandem boat. Well, again, I put my kneepad at the center thwart, lowered my body, and dug in with my paddle. I just scooted across the lake. I was really impressed with how it made a difficult paddle relatively easy. It’s designed for stability, so I never felt endangered.
You sing about paddling. Tell me about that.
I write songs for a living, so I pitch them and hopefully a major label artist will record them and I can continue to pay my mortgage, but when I write about paddling, no major label artist will record that, but I still keep writing them and they keep coming. I gathered enough for a CD. Then I recorded a song with a Mohican Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and wood flautist. He wanted to add a chant and the band stood in the corner and were amazed into silence even after he’d finished. That motivated me to do a second paddling CD and perform at Canoecopia in Madison. I was surprised to find a niche audience that shares my experiences. I have people from all over the world who talk to me about my paddling songs and I never thought that would happen.
–Listen to one of Vandiver’s songs below.
–Listen to more great tunes from Berlin’s Canoe Concerts series.