Photo courtesy of Doug Brooks

Photo courtesy of Doug Brooks

By Katie McKy

Herbert M. Howe, 69, is a "mostly retired" professor of African politics and military affairs at Georgetown University. He has paddled many canoes over the years, but he prefers old school aluminum boats. His favorite is an Alumacraft 18.6 that he calls Big Al.

With so many lighter, faster options, do people wonder why you paddle aluminum?

Because I'm in my late 60s, they really wonder why I don't paddle a faster, lighter boat, but they're not judgmental. Sure, it goes slower, but it's also surer. Because of its stability, I don't hold back; I can put it all out there. Plus, if you damage the boat, so what! Big Al was like your parents' Buick. It turned well, albeit from the stern, was stable, took a bruising and just kept cruising. It's not that I don't appreciate other materials. I've paddled Kevlar and have a carbon fiber canoe right now. If I damage my $4400 carbon fiber boat, it's a big deal. I also feel prouder doing the 70-miler General Clinton race in an aluminum boat. Al virtually screamed 'unpretentious' and especially when adorned with dinks, dents, and large amounts of duct tape. Bobbing and glistening at a start line, Al was an anachronism, reminiscent of bumbling family outings or of blister-hot summer camps.

Was an anachronism?

Some rogues made off with Big Al. My friends incredulously asked, “They stole your boat?”

A stolen canoe is a big loss, but an even bigger loss when you shared so much history.

Big Al and I paddled the General Clinton 70-miler in New York some 15 times and various other races in New York, Maryland and Virginia. His excellent stability encouraged friends of mine (and their kids) to start canoeing. At times, ten of us paddlers plus friends travelled from Washington DC to the Clinton relays. Al's stability also allowed neophytes to enjoy whitewater’s rock and drops: a loud clang in the bow or a whump along the hull, but Al just kept cruising. Turning was surprisingly agile; a stern draw or two and we could avoid (most) rocks, branches, and banks.

Photo courtesy of Doug Brooks | Canoeing Washington D.C.

Photo courtesy of Doug Brooks | Canoeing Washington D.C.

Sounds like a perfect partner!

Nobody's perfect, obviously; carrying Big Al over hilly portages exacted exquisite morning-after agonies.

So, you had to portage Big Al in the General Clinton 70-miler day race?

Three portages, one up a hill and running along a ridge line. Taking it down the hill is harder than going up. I also feel prouder doing the race in an aluminum boat. It's a race on flatwater to Class II and even III. It's also one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Your finishing position doesn't matter.

Speaking of finishing position, have you ever won the aluminum division in the General Clinton?

In 2006, Alex Payson and I “won” the aluminum division for the 70-miler, but we were passed by another canoe with three guys and the one in the middle looked purple. They came across the line first but didn't win because of the third person. The guy in the middle was Ron Muir, who had paddled the 70-mile aluminum race nine times and wanted to do it the tenth time, but was dying of cancer. So, these two great guys, Bob Hessler of Ellsworth and Chip Loring of Old Town, were the real winners because they paddled him and the race people said, “If you do that, you can't qualify to win because of the third person even though he'll be extra weight much of the time.” So, they were disqualified. But after the race, we all got together and shared our cancer stories. We sent Ron one of our two trophies, and he died shortly afterwards.

With Big Al stolen, are you done with aluminum?

Nope, this 69-year old is done with being dumped! Clearly, stability trumps sexiness. I hope to find Al's replacement in time for the next Memorial Day Clinton. I'm ISO a non-sexy type (dents optional), who enjoys long trips along the water, has a wide girth, likes kids, and who will go where I ask.

Some retro canoes, like older Old Towns and wood and canvas canoes, are hip. Do you ever see aluminum becoming hip?

If Perry Como ever becomes hip again, aluminum will too.


Photo courtesy of Doug Brooks | Herbert and Big Al

Photo courtesy of Doug Brooks | Herbert and Big Al