A red canoe

Dr. Nathaniel Whitney, Jr. was a physician in Rapid City who served in a time when doctors were expected to be on call all of the time. Getting a break from his medical practice was a challenge. Still, he managed to pursue his love of nature. He wrote two books on South Dakota birds and was co-author of a book on the birds of the Black Hills. His interest in nature and the natural world provided a good counterbalance to his medical practice, allowing him to renew his spirit and sense of wonder. In 1960, Dr. Whitney ordered a canoe from the Old Town Canoe Company in Maine. Old Town was, at the time, the leading producer of canoes in the United States, having been in business since 1898. The company made their canoes out of cedar on forms and covered them with canvas. The canoe ordered by Dr. Whitney was 16 feel long and painted red.

When the canoe arrived on the railroad, Dr. Whitney had no experience with canoes. He had to stop several times on the way home to adjust the ropes with which he tied the boat to the roof of his car. Over the next decade that canoe became a tool for relaxation and renewal for Dr. Whitney. He would tie the canoe to the roof of the car, load up the family, and head for one of the reservoirs in the Black Hills. The canoe proved to be stable and provided a lot of fun for his children.

At some point in the adventure, the canoe was loaned to the son of a colleague of Dr. Whitney. The young man was interested in adventure and went on to paddle the Missouri River to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans. That trip, however, was in another canoe. The red Whitney canoe suffered broken ribs and planking when it contacted rocks on a trip down the Belle Fourche River. The wounded canoe was taken to the back yard of Dr. Whitney’s friend where it was set up on saw horses and covered with a tarp. Over the years, a few feeble attempts were made at repairs. A bit of canvas was glued over the tears in the canvas. A coat of paint was applied to the outside. The canoe, however, had lost some of its structural integrity with the cracked ribs and broken planks. It returned to the sawhorses in the back yard, where it sat for nearly 20 years.

One day in 2004, I was visiting with a couple of patrons of the Black Hills Chamber Music Society at a concert. Somehow the subject turned to canoes and I mentioned that i built and restored canoes. I told the story of an 1942 Old Town Canoe that I had restored for Eleanor Bray. Through a chance meeting at a gas station when I had two canoes on the roof of my car, I met Eleanore who was looking for someone to re-canvas her canoe. I completed a refinishing and re-canvasing of her boat and it was re-launched in the spring of 2000. A few days after the conversation at the concert, I received a letter asking me to take a look at the canoe on saw horses in the back yard. I arranged to come by and after a brief survey stated that the canoe could be restored. It would take a few new ribs, a bit of new cedar planking and new canvas, new cane for the seats, and quite a bit of time.

To my surprise, I was told that If I could take the canoe that day it would be mine. If not, it was heading to the dump the next day. I loaded it on my car and headed home. The response at home was less than enthusiastic. When I removed the canvas I discovered rot in both stems. One of the deck boards was cracked, and the break in the gunwales would require making entirely new rails for one side of the canoe. My motivation was high because I had long wanted a canoe like the Old Town and had previously simply not had the money required to purchase such a boat, new or used.

Two years of very part time work were invested in the boat. I checked the serial number to get a copy of the original build card from Old Town and obtain the right color of paint. After replacing the damaged and broken ribs, planks and gunwales and fashioning new stems, I was ready too stretch canvas. Weeks of filling the canvas, sanding, and finally painting followed and the canoe was ready to launch in May of 2006.

Not long after re-launching I had the joy of taking the daughter of Dr. Whitney for a paddle at Sheridan Lake. The boat has been stored inside on a canoe rack since it was reconditioned. However, it has not been treated as a display object. It has been paddled and scratched on rocks and used as a vehicle for exploration of lakes and waterways. It has ridden miles and miles on the roof rack of my truck and on our canoe trailer.

Now my life is taking a new direction as I contemplate moving into semi-retirement. I open the door of our storage building and look at the rack of canoes and kayaks and I know that i have collected a few too many. It is no longer the season of acquiring boats. I need to decrease the inventory.

Fortunately, there is more to the story of Dr. Whitney. More than twenty years ago The Nature Conservancy established Whitney Preserve adjacent to Cascade Springs and named the protected site in honor of Nathaniel and Mary Whitney. The nature trail at the site is one of the best places to see birds in the hills. The preserve now has a barn, which is a good place to store a canoe that can be used in nearby waters to view nature.

Today we take the red Whitney canoe down to the Whitney Preserve which is the logical home for the boat. It should be good for another 50 years or so before it needs new canvas. Properly cared for it could last centuries. There is always a bit of sadness when I say goodbye to a boat, but this one is going to the right home for the next phase of its life. May it find many more paddling adventures.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!