Friday, January 30, 2009

Low Tech Canoeing IX - What happened to the Old Town?

The history of the Watervliet Old Town:
The Watervliet Old Town canoe is an 18 foot Otca Model built in Old Town, Maine, in 1921. (That's the year before I was born). My family bought it from a family who had a home on Paw Paw Lake in Berrien County, Michigan. The owner was an executive in the local paper mill and his daughter was a couple grades ahead of me in high school. It was acquired in the mid 40s while I was a student at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado (where they brew Coors beer).
After serving in World War II (Army Engineers in the Pacific, Okinawa and Korea) I returned to Mines on the GI Bill and graduated as a Geological Engineer in 1948. During that last school year I started planning my big canoe trip and talked two of my fraternity brothers (Beta Theta Pi) into postponing going out into the cold, cruel world of career and work to go along. My younger brother, a Navy veteran and a student at Michigan State, was to be the fourth member of our expedition.
I have told you the story of our 1948 canoe trip in Western Ontario in earlier Emails in this series.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for one who fell in love shortly afterward and had to spend the next decades making a living and raising a family. Ned and Ken, my two fraternity brother companions, went on to careers in Mining Engineering all over the world and never canoed again so far as I know.
The next spring after the Canadian trip the Paw Paw River was in flood, so hot-shot canoeist that I considered myself to be, I decided to run it solo in the Otca. I put in at Paw Paw Lake, and sitting on the rear with the bow in the air I am off down the Paw Paw River towards the paper mill where there is a backwater behind a couple low-head dams. I passed up  the so-called Upper Dam and when I got to the Lower Dam there was enough water flowing over it that I thought I could shoot it which I did without even slowing down. I managed to avoid the back curl but in trying to make a sharp left turn just below the dam the canoe overturned ejecting me (still no PFD) and headed downstream, upside down and alone.
Well I got tangled up underwater in some submerged tree branches. I thought to myself "This is a stupid way to die, drowning less than a river mile from the house where you grew up!" (The thought took a lot less time than the telling). Obviously I extricated myself or you wouldn't be reading this. I caught up with the canoe, pulled it out on the bank and emptied it, got in and finished the trip. I landed in the flooded woods behind the house and got my brother to help me carry the canoe up to the barn and hang it up. I don't remember what I did for a paddle but I always had a spare lashed into the canoe so maybe that's what I used.
 This is the first time I have ever told the whole story. There's no one left to give me hell any more. My grandfather's oldest brother drowned in the Paw Paw River on the 4th of July, 1869, at age eighteen..
We used the canoe on short trips on Michigan rivers. Each trip had a good story, like the duck hunting trip down the Paw Paw when I fired at a duck at a 90 degree angle to the long axis of the canoe causing it to tilt and dump my brother and his pet 16 gage shotgun into the river. Then there was the a trip down the Manistee where we froze our butts
in inadequate GI blanket sleeping bags and ended up standing around a fire all night.
Then there was the not-so-funny story of my two brothers coming home from a goose hunting trip trip without adequately tieing down the Otca on their car top. It flew off and followed their Chevrolet upside down down Michigan Highway 140 at about 50 miles per hour. Repairs were made that made the canoe useable again but really ugly.
NEXT: Restoration of the Old Town.

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