This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

Photo: John Lehmann

By Conor Mihell

Canoeing for me has always been about escaping the crowds, cruising alone across a misty lake or working with a partner to negotiate a boiling whitewater river. Big canoes, however, the curious 20-foot-plus behemoths powered by a half-dozen or more paddlers, are the exact opposite. Big canoes require a crowd.

The big-canoe tradition comes to us from the French Canadian voyageurs who carried beaver pelts across the continent in 36-foot birch-bark canoes for nearly three centuries. The historic role of these big boats, often called war or voyageur canoes, was celebrated during Canada's 1967 centennial with a province-versus-province, cross-country race from the Rockies to Montreal in voyageur-canoe replicas. Clipper Canoes has kept up the tradition since then. The British Columbia-based builder now dominates the market niche, which means sending dozens of boats each year to summer camps, scout groups and other organizations across North America. "The attraction is that you can take people out that could never paddle a tandem canoe," says Clipper's Marlin Bayes. "They're stable and seaworthy."
And over the years, Bayes has realized he's often manufacturing something much more profound than large boats. "We've heard some inspiring stories," he says, alluding to the Los Angeles Boy Scouts who paddle big Clippers around Catalina Island; the 42-foot voyageur-style canoe he sent to England to foster cross-cultural experiences for youth; and a 29-footer that helped curb chronic teen suicide in a small British Columbia town. Something was happening in the big canoes.

In 1997, a retired Mounty named Ed Hill first got a glimpse of that magic when he paired native youths and cops on a 31-day journey on the west coast of British Columbia. The group paddled the same Pacific Northwest-style canoes that traveled the coast for millennia: massive 40-footers (replicated in modern composite materials) and authentic cedar dugouts. Hill's original "VisionQuest" expedition eventually morphed into "Pulling Together," an annual multi-day trip with native and non-native participants that Hill has organized since 2001. They cover huge distances—up to 30 miles per day—and stop in the longhouses of coastal First Nations communities for traditional potlatches and healing ceremonies. The idea is to bridge cultural gaps and ease racial tensions through communication and developing a sense of trust—lofty outcomes achieved by setting common paddling goals.

"The canoe is the mere vehicle that takes us on the water," says Hill, who expects up to 300 "pullers" to paddle 15 to 20 canoes in this year's eight-day trip in July. "There are lessons to be learned around every point. Every village we stop in has its own [traditional] way of greeting a group that arrives by canoe. To do one of these journeys is to take part in a continuum of thousands of years."

Whereas Hill has witnessed the easing of cultural tensions, Mississippi River outfitter John Ruskey has been battling nature-deficit disorder with trips in six- to 14-person homemade wood-strip and dugout canoes for impoverished Deep South kids since 1998. Ruskey's "Mighty Quapaws" after-school apprenticeship program gets youngsters "away from the crowded house, and breaks the never-ending cycle of poverty," says Ruskey, the owner of Clarksdale, Mississippi's Quapaw Canoe Company.

For Ruskey, paddling a big canoe is "a true democratic experience." It enforces the need for consensus, compromise, self- and group awareness, and sets the stage for what he calls "spiritual experiences." Ruskey remembers one apprentice laying down on a sandbar and marveling at the size of the sky. Regardless of demographics, he insists that there's a "connection that every paddler makes when they step into the canoe and enter that special place that exists on the water."

As much as paddling a big canoe is a communal effort, it also takes teamwork to build one. This summer, while Hill is wrangling hundreds of paddlers on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver, and Ruskey is leading canoe-loads of neophytes on the Big Muddy, two friends from New York City will be organizing the construction of three 25-foot birch-bark canoes on Bear Island, a native reserve on Ontario's Lake Temagami.

In 2008, Adam Wicks-Arshack and John Zinser paddled into the wilderness of northern Ontario in one canoe and came out a month later with a second fashioned out of birch-bark, cedar and spruce roots. The next two summers they returned to Temagami to build two more birch-bark canoes at Camp Wabun. Wicks-Arshack says the local Bear Island band became very interested in the projects. Glen Guppy, a native builder who passed away a few years ago, crafted the last birch-bark canoe in Temagami a decade earlier.

"It was amazing how many people came and helped us out," says Wicks-Arshack, who helps run Voyages of Rediscovery, an outdoor education nonprofit on Washington state's Columbia River that uses traditional birch-bark canoes exclusively. "When we finished [a 25-foot birch-bark canoe] we paddled it over and showed them. When we took the canoe out of the water, the elders put the young people it and performed a blessing for the canoe—it was a beautiful thing."

Wicks-Arshack hopes that reviving traditional building methods will preserve a fast-fading art. But he assures it will also yield other rewards. "The canoe is a vessel of education and exploration," he says. "The canoes we build are not meant to hang on the walls, but to paddle, to explore the land, and to help foster a stronger connection between the youth and their land."

I finally experienced the synergy first-hand from the stern seat of a voyageur canoe on Lake Superior. Suddenly, paddle strokes and recoveries became synchronized whooshes and whishes. The ponderous, 650-pound beast leapt forward and cruised effortlessly, and silent reverie or conversation came easily. It became obvious that this canoe was more than just a canoe. It was the foundation of a community.