The artist and his masterpiece. Photo courtesy Joe Pikul
By Katie McKy
Here's something that all fathers should know: Telling a kid "you can't do that" is the best way to make sure he will do it. Even if it takes him 15 years.
When Joe Pikul wanted to buy a canoe kit advertised in the back of Popular Mechanics, his dad said no—the elder Pikul had a better sense of what it takes to build a canoe, not to mention the attention span of a pre-teen would-be paddler. So Pikul learned to paddle in readymade Old Town wood canvas and Grumman aluminum canoes, eventually moving to Royalex for whitewater and a lightweight Bell Carbon Fiber BlackGold for trips with unmerciful portages. But he never lost sight of his boyhood dream to build his own canoe. When the time finally came, he didn't use a kit. Instead he chose to build an all-time classic, from scratch. The shape was conceived in the 1920s, beloved by a legendary paddler, and still paddled today by dint of its steadfast performance: the Chestnut Prospector Ranger 15′.
Katie McKy: Why wood?
Joe Pikul: There's an allure of wooden boats. It's warm, inviting, and seems part of the environment. It flows and belongs there. You can glide so silently and it responds to the slightest touch. You can keep the paddle in the water and just gurgle along and you hear the sounds of nature and not your sounds. I don't feel the same in a store-bought canoe.
Passing the torch. Photo courtesy Joe Pikul
Why the Chestnut Prospector Ranger?
After building a Merlin cedar strip, I had the itch to build another canoe. There's nothing casual about building a cedar strip canoe, so I did the research. Bear Mountain Boats has a "Study Plans Catalogue" and I liked their description of the Prospector canoe, which they called the "Workhorse of the North." It was Bill Mason's favorite boat. Many of the canoes he paddled were made by the Chestnut Canoe Company, which made Prospector models from 12' to 18', all designed to carry paddlers and equipment into the Canadian bush. Bear Mountain Boats used a SmartScan device on a Prospector hull from the Chestnut Canoe Company to create their plans. The Prospector is good for flat water and whitewater and carries substantial loads. Designs come and go, but this design was so well conceived that it's still made and valued today.
Did you have any reservations about building such an old-fashioned design?
The first wooden boat I built was a Merlin, which is shaped like a dagger. It's only 27 inches at the gunnels. You can see the speed in the hull of the Merlin. The Ranger is nearly 34 inches, so they seem opposites. I feared that I was building a brick, and had no idea how it was going to paddle. However, when I put it in the water, that's when I knew I had built a fine canoe. I understood why it's been built for so many years. The responsiveness to the paddle delighted me. It's safe too and a remarkable piece of engineering. Plus, I simply love to look at it. The lines give me joy.
More than just another pretty boat: Pikul launching his ride. Photo courtesy Joe Pikul
What woods did you use?
The hull is all Western Red Cedar. The gunnels are all white ash. The internal stem is cedar and the external stem is white ash. All of the interior trim, the seat hangers, thwarts, and deck plates are black walnut. Everything that went into the canoe, I built other than the epoxy, webbing for the seats, and the screws.
Was your father right about the commitment it takes to build a canoe?
It does take a lot of commitment to build a canoe. It took me 14 months to build the Ranger. However, when I look at it, I want to build another.
Chestnut Prospector Ranger 15
(Cost of plans: $85.00; Chestnut Prospector at Woodenboat.com)
Beam Length: 33.5″
Displacement: 375 lbs
Materials: Wood Fiberglass
Skill Level to Build: novice