Earlier this week, I returned from another bout of being an amateur housewright at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. As always, it was a pleasant and vigorous week marked by a near total news blackout. I listen only to an AM oldies station from Albany. It’s a nice chance to listen to a little Sinatra and read a good book. Since some other soul beat me to our local library’s copy of Farley Mowat’s “The Boat Who Wouldn't Float,” I settled for a Project Gutenberg EBook copy of “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe” by John Macgregor. This is a fascinating account of an English gentleman’s 1865 journey across Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland is a fifteen foot lapstrake sailing canoe.
John Macgregor is an interesting individual. He grew up as an Army Brat, British Army that is. For a time, he served in the London Scottish Rifle Volunteers. He won first prize in the regimental shooting competition at Wimbledon at least twice. He was a barrister at law, trained at Trinity College. He could write in classical Greek and Latin. He spoke French, but not German or Schwabisch. His accounts of interacting with those he met along the way are most amusing. He exuded an abundance, perhaps overabundance, of pride, confidence and pluck of what I would expect of an English gentleman explorer of the period to exude. He was a real life Peachy and Danny. “Not gods, Englishmen. The next best thing.”
Since I so enjoy reading our local newspaper, I have the circulation department hold my papers until I return from a trip. Then I can catch up on local happenings as well as the adventures of Beetle Bailey. Earlier this week, I sat on my deck with a mug of tea on a glorious morning and began reviewing my stack of papers. It was a joy to find an article by Rob Hedelt on the upcoming family boatbuilding week at the Deltaville Maritime Museum. I observed one of these events at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. Ten or so families were working under a tent building Bevins skiffs out of precut lumber and plywood. Alexandria Seaport members provided assistance and guidance. At the end of the week, the families were rowing their skiffs on the Potomac.
This Deltaville event is run the same way. The biggest difference is that the families build Wright skiffs out of fir and cypress lumber, no plywood. These skiffs are things of beauty, almost museum pieces. Even though my sons are in their thirties, I wouldn’t mind getting the clan together to build one of these sweethearts.
Mouth watering, but I have to Finish building my aircraft before I take on another project, besides, my Vertue class yacht is feeling unloved at the moment. I want to build something like a drascombe lugger to sail/motor on our lake and provide opportunities for camping adventures.
An almost lost art–true craftsmanship. Count me jealously impressed.
One thing I do miss in Wyoming is an ocean nearby. The few close lakes are brutally cold. I’ve done some canoeing on high mountain lakes, but with soulless aluminum craft.
I am struck by your admiration for hand-crafted skiffs. I find it puzzling, just as I find the Cult of the Horse so puzzling.
There are better materials available today than wood and better construction methods to build skiffs or many other things nautical.
Likewise, the horse – like the donkey & camel & dog – has outlived its utility.
What is the source of this love of anachronism?
Do you know?
Read The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee to begin to get the idea.
“What is the source of this love of anachronism?”
This love is more widespread than you may realize. I think a lot can be attributed to one’s experiences in youth. I grew up in New England surrounded by the northern forests. I lived in an old post and beam constructed house and played in a barn of similar construction. I studied and admired the old methods of mortised chestnut beams and oak trunnels. I’ve worked with wood ever since I had my first pocket knife. I recommend the writings of Eric Sloane for a better understanding of this love for anachronistic things. Here’s a passage from his “Reverence for Wood.”
“Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight that iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘a substance with a soul.’ It spanned rivers for man; it built his home and heated it in the winter; man walked on wood, slept in it, sat on wooden chairs at wooden tables, drank and ate the fruits of trees from wooden cups and dishes. From cradle of wood to coffin of wood, the life of man was encircled by it.”
“One of the remarkable things about wood is its self-expression. Whether as the handle of a tool, as a dead stump, or alive in a forest where every branch is a record of the winds that blew, it is always telling something about itself. This is why man has an affinity with wood not only as a mere material, but also as a kindred spirit to live with and to know.”
It may be presumptuous of me, but John Minnerath understands this when he talks of canoeing in a soulless aluminum craft. The tinny sound of water on aluminum, or worse, a paddle clanging on aluminum is a real turn off. The dull aluminum is hot to the touch in the Summer and cold to the touch in Fall. A cypress and fir skiff, on the other hand, is warm or cool to the touch. The sounds produced by a wood craft are melodical. If I was given the choice of owning one of those loud, fast and shiny top of the line personal watercraft or one of those Wright skiffs, I would take the skiff in a heartbeat.
This love for anachronism extends far beyond wooden boats and old barns. Just ask anyone who has refurbished an antique car or owns a 66 Pontiac GTO. I hope this gives you a hint of what makes us lovers of traditional old things tick.
I always felt “The Grey Seas Under” by Mowat regarding the Salvage Tug Foundation Franklin was his best book. If not already read give it a try but only on rainy day, you will know why when done.
First book of Mowat’s I ever read. Must have been 1956, I was about 13.
Never forgot it.
I will answer off the top of my head for horse, camel, donkey folk. Handling livestock is personal, intimate and on some level it is spiritual. It is life, need, and personality engaging with those same aspects in the animal. It sometimes makes me think of or feels like call and response singing. Performance is based on your own skill and ability to observe, learn, respond, and cooperate. It is the very stuff of life. You never know everything and you learn something important with each engagement. It is a relationship that is full or wonder and miracles. I suppose it is love and love cannot be explained or defined.
I cannot imagine a machine having a sense of humor and making me laugh nor making a tremendous effort to please me nor having a care to avoid harming me.
I doubt this explains the attraction to animals and certainly doesn’t explain the willingness to invest significant time and effort into getting the desired performance from one’s self and the animal.
Perhaps it is nothing more than left over primitive instinct.
I wish I could collect my thoughts and write as well as you. Then, perhaps, I could come closer to explaining to Babak the attraction to working with animals and the attraction to the old barns and houses of Appalachia built from trees harvested from the land and with the skill of hands that was so common among older generations. Not least in the attraction is the simple and lasting beauty of the structure.
You’re doing fine, Jill.
It must be that we/I lived in mud-brick houses only the roof beams and the doors were made of wood and sat on beaten earth floors covered with hand-made rugs.
Thank you all I will look into the books that you recommended.
What is the source of this love of anachronism?
Wondering what Makkinejadistan would be like – esp. how the utility criterion would be applied to H.sap.sap.?
“Makkinejad-istan”would be devoting herself to the construction of interstellar spaceships rather than medieval hobbies.
It is the difference between that Fox-Hunting man, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilbur & Orville Wright.
sounds good. nature was not mingy with that beauty stuff. be sure to post selfies once it’s off the ground.
P.S. thank you for the first laugh of the day.
Actually, wood has unique properties not found in any other material.
Take a simple wooden pram vs. Fiberglass or aluminum.
A wooden pram is warmer than either on a cold day, cooler than either on a hot day, and if you drop something in the boat, much quieter.
Wood flexes in a manner other material’s don’t match.
In canoeing for example, a wood and canvas canoe can often strike a rock with out damage, ( the wood and canvas flexes) while a metal canoe dents, and a fiberglass canoe cracks. My 1908 Chestnut canoe is in perfect shape, where the 1980’s Royalex ( plastic) canoe I inherited from my Dad, is hogged and misshapen, as heat and desert dirt roads has taken it’s toll over the years.
In a rather interesting study, it was found that “exceptional” violin’s, are partially exceptional by having a long history of being played by exceptional violinist’s. The stresses of being played to “extremes” over hundreds of years, causes compression and vibrational forces to actually change the shape of the wood fibers.
There is a “feeling” you get in a wooden boat that just doesn’t exist in any other boat, it’s a feeling that the boat is shifting, changing and adapting to no only you, and your “style” of paddling, rowing or sailing, but that the boat is also shifting and changing because of the wind and waves.
“This documentary shows how a canoe is built the old way. César Newashish, a 67-year-old Attikamek of the Manawan Reserve north of Montreal, uses only birchbark, cedar splints, spruce roots and gum. Building a canoe solely from the materials that the forest provides may become a lost art, even among the Native peoples whose traditional craft it is. The film is without commentary but text frames appear on the screen in Cree, French and English.”
Ray Mere’s “Bushcraft” Birchbark canoe episode:
“Ahh…wood! If it did not already exist we would have to struggle to invent it, and it would be a daunting task indeed!”
A comment from a master I-14 builder and all around expert in composites, including much experience at Boeing in Everett WA which was made in my hearing. To this day the older spruce/cedar skinned I-14’s are sort of competitive, and a hell of a lot more pleasant to build. There is no matching the weight of Kevlar skinned racing canoes and rowing shells, the things are too long and thin, but whenever the structure allows for a bit of “box”…
Recommend John McPhee’s CANOE about the last American builder of birch bark canoes.
That film on the Newashhish canoe was excellent. I’m so familiar with César’s beat up and stained fingers. Makes me want to start a project tonight. It’s amazing what he can do with an axe, a pocket knife and a crooked knife. I think I’ll try to get myself one of those. Seems like the most modern tool he has is a brace and bit. I remember chewing spruce gum as a youngster. You would tire of chewing it long before the flavor would go away. It also reminded me of the pine tar I would use to impregnate the bottom of my cross country skis. I would burn it in with my little Svea white gas stove. Thanks for those links.
Welcome, when I was younger, I had the opportunity of taking many canoeing courses from Bill Mason, and some of those courses involved multi day trips.
Ray Mear’s Bushcraft series was on TV at the same time as Les Stroud’s Survivorman, and Bear Grills’s Man vs. Wild.
One week, just by coincidence, all the shows featured Alaska.
Survivorman faked a kayak accident, built a driftwood shelter that required a constant fire to keep warm, unsucessfully tried to find shellfish, crab and handline, wound up fighting a bald eagle for the carcass of a halibut, which was inedible as food and didn’t work as bait.
Man vs. Wild showed how to cross the alpine safely, with the best of modern gear, but took a helecopter back to the hotel because it just wasn’t safe at night.
Bushcraft, with nothing more than a knike, hatchet and crook knife, showed how to make wedges and split cedar planks, then build a lapped and dowelled traditional native small house, wove a cedar basket, gathered a spring mix/ seaweed/huckleberry salad, then carved a traditional salmon spear and lure, showed how you used the spear to push the lure to the bottom, and how it would whirl and flash on it’s float to the surface, speared a coho, then cooked it on a cedar plank in front of the fire while drinking labrador tea.
But surely not all woods have these nice properties to which you allude?
Per chance, only dense, old-growth, fir, spruce, mahogany and teak?
Can they be used in space?
For example, if the wood is carbonized when irradiated in the space environment, would not those very thin layers of carbonized matter offer protection from radiation?
You left out the oaks, maples, hickories, and scores more. Each has its unique properties, its weaknesses and strengths. As a youngster, I would make a long bow out of hornbeam (we called it ironwood) while chewing spruce gum and sipping sassafras root tea. Lignum vitae is used to make shaft bearings in ships, including the USS Nautilus. You’re right about old growth wood. A modern pine 2×4 cannot compare with the old fir 2x4s I’ve found in my 50 year old house in New York. You almost have to pre-drill holes for nails and definitely have to pre-drill screw holes.
Didn’t the Chinese use Oak as a heat shield for re-entry on their early manned spacecraft?
Cheaper and perhaps even better than the tiles we used on the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia that incinerated over Texas a dozen years back.
As TTG noted, there’s lot’s of woods with specific properties for boatbuilding, somewhere around 100,
But all woods have their unique properties and unique applications.
There are encyclopedia’s written about wood types, properties and applications.
Old growth is “best” for dense forest type woods, but for other woods, that tend to grow in open meadow area’s, just the size and age of the tree matters.
Mike’s comment about Chinese oak heat shields took me by surprise… and it answers your question in the affirmative.
“The Chinese have been a whiz with rockets for thousands of years. Now they are successfully launching, and recovering, wooden spaceships. To be precise, only the heat shield in the nose cone of the rocket is made from wood. But it’s the part that is exposed to temperatures of some 1500 °C, so hot that most known metals get soft and begin to flow.”
“On re-entry, the friction between the atmosphere and the skin of the spaceship could melt the whole thing into an expensive blob unless a heat-resistant material is used. On the space shuttle, for example, the Americans have settled for a ceramic made of silica.”
“The Chinese, however, have used a 15-centimetre heat shield made of oak. On re-entry into the atmosphere, air friction causes the wood to burn and the nose cone chars into charcoal. As the craft descends, the outer layer of this charcoal is stripped off by the wind, molecule by molecule. At the same time, the new outer layer of wood turns into charcoal. So the nose cone is always coated with charcoal, even though its total thickness is decreasing. Very little heat gets through to the metal underneath because charcoal and wood are great insulators.”
Grey Seas Under is one of my favorite books. Haven’t read much more of Mowat than that.
The Boat who Wouldn’t Float is a marine classic,
And No Birds Sang is his autobiographic of The Italian Campaign of WWII with the Hasty Pee’s.
Farley Mowat lived to the great old age of 92.
He was a prolific writer, many of his works considered classics.
If one could grow this skin in situ, then the ships will always have a new fresh skin after each re-entry.
I wonder with the application of CRISPR techniques, the days of living space ships are not too distant.
Way off topic: Where did you grow up? I expect you’ve mentioned it somewhere along the way but I missed it. I ask because you frequently mention things and “ways” that are well known to me (ironwoods, sassafras tea, old barns and houses, familiarity with the flora and fauna of woods and fields, and much more). I am supposing New England? One of my favorite, half-baked opinions is that New Englanders and Southerners share a bone, blood, heart, and soul attachment to their land.
Yes, I grew up as a New Englander in a small, rural Connecticut town. Being close to the land was rather natural when I was growing up. Farming was still pretty big at the time. I learned all manner of farm skills on a neighbor’s dairy farm. My first paying job, besides delivering the New Haven Register as a paperboy, was on the Roaring Brook Poultry Farm. I made the princely sum of $1.50 an hour, cash from the weathered hand of Mr. Schweitzer to mine with all those Rhode Island Reds as witnesses to the transaction. Our grammar school incorporated all manner of nature activities and crafts into our education. Now I’m trying to become a proper Virginian without losing the New England within me.
As far as your theory goes, you’re probably onto something. Rural people everywhere share a kinship with nature and their land no matter how different that land may be.