Clay Shepherd, 67 and a retired city planner in Durham, N.C., is the Johnny Appleseed of canoeists, having nurtured a love of paddling in more than a score of friends and relations. Again and again, Shepherd would buy his latest Kevlar or Royalex canoe, take a pal paddling, see that the person was smitten, and sell them that canoe. Of course, that meant buying another and another and another. After owning a couple dozen canoes, plus or minus a few, you might think that Shepherd would settle on a Kevlar and carbon concoction or maybe a purely carbon, matte-finished black beauty, so light he’d be tempted to spin it on his finger like a basketball. You’d be wrong. The canoe that made Shepherd go gaga is old school, a wood and canvas 16-foot Island Falls Wilderness Guide, built in 1994 in Atkinson, Maine, by Jerry Stelmok.
CanoeKayak.com: How much does it weigh?
Clay Shepherd: It weighs around 65 pounds, give or take. It all depends upon how many times you paint it and shellac the bottom. Sometimes it can feel like 75.
It was made on one of the molds of E.M. White, who founded the White Canoe Company in Old Town, Maine in 1888. What influenced his design?
A professional guide in Labrador wanted a canoe two inches deeper to carry more gear. You can put the kitchen sink in there.
So, how did you acquire it?
I heard about a fellow in Minnesota who had a practically new canoe. He sent me a picture and explained that his wife didn’t feel comfortable in it because the seats are high in a wood and canvas canoe. For most people, it feels tipsy. I called the builder and asked him about it. He remembered building it for a guy in New York who changed his mind. He called the guy in Minnesota who took it. Of course, once he got it, his wife didn’t like it. I was a little hesitant to buy something I couldn’t see and paddle, but the more we talked, the easier I felt. He was a fireman and firemen take great care of their equipment. I drove to Davenport, Iowa, where we met. It was immaculate. The way he had it strapped onto his vehicle showed the care he had taken of it. I paid $1500, which was a great price.
Does your old time canoe turn heads?
People pull up beside me and say, “Where did you get that gorgeous canoe?” They ask the same questions when I stop for gas. A fellow at a stoplight just wanted to keep talking, even after the light turned green. When I pull up to shore here, paddlers all gather around it and ask questions. They always think it weighs a ton, so they’re always surprised when they hear what it weighs. They also say, “I’d never take that down rapids. It looks so fragile,” but it isn’t. If something breaks, you can just replace it, from ribs to seats.
So, do you take it down rapids?
Oh, yes. One time, I was with some friends on the Big South Fork River, which runs from Tennessee to Kentucky. I was solo in my canoe and we hit a stretch of Class III rapids. We scouted it and they wanted me to go first because I got them into canoeing, so they looked up to me. I hit a four-foot drop fully loaded. It came through it and not a drop of water came into it. I was glad I was in that canoe and not any of the others I’d owned.
You’re a man who’d owned dozens of canoes, but you’ve stuck with this boat for nearly two decades. Why?
For me paddling this canoe is very much meditative and has a spiritual side that is very hard to explain. Some folks go to church; I go paddling. It is extremely energizing and uplifting. No matter the weather or water conditions, there are no bad days paddling my canoe. In the end, star-studded evenings, full moons, and Class III rapids all contribute to my romance of a wooden canvas canoe.