To launch out onto a voyage of nature and heartland and Main Street and liberty, to embrace and fully explore the storied town and country and river landscapes of this land down low from the bow of a canoe, it felt only natural to consider my vessel to be as more than a mode of transport and lifeline, but as an allegory for freedom.
Which led me to the history of canoe making in the United States, and with it, the legacy of master wood-and-canvas canoe maker L.H. Beach of Merrimack, N.H., who in the 1950s first introduced a thin fiberglass hull reinforced with wooden ribs to the world. “THE FIBERGLASS CANOE THAT LOOKS LIKE A CANOE” was his slogan. A perfect blend of the old and the new.
From L.H. Beach to his son Lem, to grandsons Randy and Vernon, the authentic Merrimack design was passed along and remained true. While Randy retained Merrimack for many years in name, his “black sheep” brother Vernon moved West and started up Navarro in his California garage, a canoe design based on Lem’s old molds.
Fast forward to the present, with WhiteGold and Kevlar and Tuf-Weave Flex as one’s (pricey) choice of material, with manufacturers like Northstar and Wenonah and even my very own Old Town running through my mind (according to Paddling.net there are “900 or more canoe models to choose from”), I decided to look back to where the revolutionary balance of old and new originally began.
With Merrimack eventually purchased by Sanborn Canoe Co. of Winona, Minnesota, and Navarro bought (via Craigslist) by a pioneering retiree couple in Rock Island, Illinois, the choice came down to price and availability. And just the right model for this trip.
Thanks to an exchange of emails with Bruce and Sue Peterson of the reincarnated Navarro Canoe Co., I soon settled upon the Loon, which can track in wind and wakes and waves, and also carry a generous “expedition” long-distance load.
In the end, I took a lead from Sue and found my very own Navarro Loon on Craigslist up in Lake Bluff, just above Chicago. The nautically-minded gent who was selling had taken care of his craft with love and with oil and with grace, and as it dates from 2002, it comes with a Certificate of Origin, from Talent, Oregon, signed by Vernon Pew.
The canoe will be more than a partner in expedition. She will be my home base for the next couple of years, a focal point for the journey, and a canoe I’ll need to embrace with my life. I see it as a great honor to carry (and paddle) along a bona fide Merrimack/Navarro work of modern art from West back to East, to partner up and traverse and share via this blog the watery byways of this great land in style and with a tip of the cap to history. In so doing, hopefully living up to L.H. Beach’s good name.
6 thoughts on “The Picasso of canoes?”
Loved this piece. Keep writing and keep sharing 🙂
What a lovely writer you are! Enjoy all your adventures and especially enjoy your well-crafted, beautiful canoe.
I learned to paddle canoes on lakes in New Jersey and New Hampshire when I was a growing up in the 1960s. Canoes have always brought me joy, especially my beloved green 16′ Navarro Egret built by Vernon Pew up in Mendocino County. Purchased directly from Vern when my 27 year old son was just two, that slender Egret was well-loved and well-used by family and friends alike here on the San Rafael Canal in Northern California. Alas, it disappeared from the dock along with a paddle just last week. I was devastated but my son more so, even though he’s grown and long gone and lives in far away Cambridge. Wherever that pretty canoe is today, I hope it brings joy to others.
Anyway, I was so pleased to learn that the Petersons have brought Navarro canoes back to their former glory. People keep suggesting I replace my missing canoe with a sturdy little rowboat or a safe sea kayak: “You’re a senior now. Canoes are tippy.” But how can I quietly slice through an incoming tide at daybreak on the misty San Francisco Bay in a yucky old rowboat? Or gracefully disembark at Phil Lesh’s dock down at Terrapin Crossroads from a yucky old kayak?
At this late stage of the game I can’t afford a beautiful new Navarro – fixed income, expensive California, medical issues, divorce, blah, blah, blah. But from that deep knowing place we all have, I am sure that one day once more there will be a canoe in my life.
If you, dear reader, are new to canoes do try one out. It’s a lovely experience. Honest! And maybe, just maybe a Navarro canoe would be a perfect fit for you, too!
Happy paddling. Bon voyage.
Thanks so much, wanderersjunkyard!
So excited about this adventure! And your Navarro canoe!!
Cheers, Sue! I’d really love to come and visit you guys at the shop come the end of the journey!
Beautiful canoes made by beautiful people ❤