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The Headwaters Canoes

workshop in Wakefield, Quebec, is exactly where you’d expect custom wood-canvas canoes to be made. Weathered siding blends into the hills of Gatineau Park, a vast greenspace adjacent to Canada’s capital of Ottawa. Snow clings to the eaves on cold winter days. Woodsmoke curls from the chimney and warm light spills from the windows, drawing you inside where builders Kate Prince and Jamie Bartle shape cedar, ash, and cherry into the iconic canoes that defined Canadian wilderness canoeing.

Headwaters builds about a dozen new canoes each year, in addition to restoring twenty or so more. That’s a far cry from the heyday of the Chestnut Canoe Company, which inspired Headwaters’ founder Hugh Stewart to carry on the tradition of building “working” woodcanvas canoes. Stewart spent time in Chestnut’s New

Brunswick factory, a factory that turned out thousands of canoes per year, supporting the exploration of Canada’s hinterlands by geologists and foresters before the advent of floatplanes. He acquired several Chestnut building forms when the company closed in 1979 and started building canoes in the 1980s, before handing the business over to Kate Prince and Jamie Bartle in 2017. Countless other canoe manufacturers have attempted to reproduce Chestnut designs in modern aramids and plastics, but Headwaters’ high-volume Prospectors and sleek Cruisers come the closest to the originals’ style and performance—a point of pride for the builders at Headwaters.

For Prince, a big part of building traditional canoes is celebrating their history and demonstrating they’re still capable of hard wilderness trips. “Canoes of all types have a certain beauty and functionality,” says Prince, who grew up canoeing with her family at summer camps in places like Algonquin and Killarney provincial parks. “But my appreciation for wood-canvas has grown as I’ve learned more about their unique history and taken longer trips with them myself.”

When Stewart owned Headwaters, he always insisted on taking recess from canoe construction for summer expeditions in northern Canada. Such experiences shape “research and development” in profound ways. For Prince, using 17- and 18-foot Prospectors for a two-month trip in the Yukon confirmed her conviction that “there’s nothing you can’t do in a wood-canvas canoe.”

Each Headwaters Canoe takes more than one hundred hours to construct: Starting in autumn with the laborious process of milling locally sourced, rough- cut eastern white cedar into ribs and sheeting, and ultimately finishing in spring with the application of multiple coats of varnish and paint. Curiously, the defining features of a wood-canvas canoe—ribs steambent over a solid building form and a hull enveloped in a taut canvas skin—each entail barely an hour of work. Much of the effort lies in sheeting the canoe in waferthin cedar planking and painstaking jobs like sanding and rasping, which are crucial to creating smooth curves and a glossy finish.

Just like paddling, canoe-building is a reflective process. In her decade at Headwaters, Prince has come to understand how companies like Chestnut appropriated Indigenous technologies to facilitate the development of Canada’s frontier. Canoes are no longer being used to stake claim to the land, but Prince says paddling a wood-canvas Prospector, whose checkered history is inherent to its name, should encourage reflection and acknowledgment of Canada’s colonial past. “We’re all part of the historical continuum,” she says. “When you paddle a canoe, you have the opportunity to become part of the process of reconciliation and finding a better pathway forward.”

Conor Mihell has paddled and portaged wood-canvas canoes for many miles along waterways in the Canadian arctic and sub-arctic. Like Prince, he has found that there is nothing you can’t do in a wood-canvas canoe. Author of The Greatest Lake: Stories from Lake Superior’s North Shore, you can follow Conor at conormihell.com.