ShareThis Page

Fans of wooden canoes say the boats are timeless

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 11:18 p.m.
Mark Zalonis stands among his  collection of wooden canoes Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at his home in Scottdale.
Lindsay Dill | Tribune-Review
Mark Zalonis stands among his collection of wooden canoes Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at his home in Scottdale.
Mark Zalonis paddles his circa-1940 Old Town canoe Wednesday, June 12, 2013, on the Youghiogheny River in Rostraver's Cedar Creek Park. Zalonis owns five wooden canoes that he has restored or built himself.
Lindsay Dill | Tribune-Review
Mark Zalonis paddles his circa-1940 Old Town canoe Wednesday, June 12, 2013, on the Youghiogheny River in Rostraver's Cedar Creek Park. Zalonis owns five wooden canoes that he has restored or built himself.

Mark Zalonis' passion is bigger than his garage.

A 17 12-foot wood and canvas canoe he's in the midst of building with his daughter sits on sawhorses in the middle of the one-car cinderblock building. An 11 12-foot solo canoe is tucked away in the rafters. Two more, a 14-footer crafted from a single piece of birch bark and a 16-foot wilderness guide model, sit one atop the other on a 2-by-4 frame along an outside wall.

With nowhere else to go, a fifth — a restored 15-foot, 1938 Old Town “50 Pounder,” the name given that model for its weight — sits on the front porch of his Westmoreland County home.

“No one boat does it all equally well,” Zalonis said. “So you end up using different boats for different purposes.”

That's the logical answer. A more visceral one, he admits, is that he just loves the look and feel of wooden canoes.

“It's an aesthetic thing. They're just prettier to paddle,” he said.

He's not alone in feeling that way.

Though new wooden canoes cost about $4,000 on average — or 10 times as much as a standard composite plastic sporting goods store boat — there is no shortage of people interested in buying them, or in spending whatever it takes to restore an old one, said Steve Ambrose of Ambrose Canoe in Lake Martin, Ala.

“A lot of guys will say they've got a personality and a soul,” said Ambrose, whose parents live on a farm in Stalhstown. “Most of them stick around long enough to become part of the family.”

That's a testament to the canoe's enduring popularity and evolution.

Experts believe the earliest canoes date back 4,000 years, and perhaps twice that far, said Al Bratton, owner of Woodstrip Watercraft Co. in Gilbertsville, just north of Philadelphia, and a volunteer historian with the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. Many of those early boats were made of hollowed-out logs, he said. Birch bark canoes were a northern adaptation; skin canoes one of the West Coast.

All served the same purpose, to make it easier for people to travel and explore, he said.

“It was the form of travel, other than if you had a big boat with a sail,” Bratton said.

Canoes still were largely prized for their utilitarian value at the dawn of the 20th century, Ambrose added.

“They got used heavily by guys taking hunters and fishermen into the wilderness. They were basically sport utility vehicles or pickup trucks,” he said. “Because most of the places those guys wanted to get to, you couldn't unless you went by river.”

Things changed in the 1920s, when amusement park-like canoe clubs sprang up around the country and in the Northeast especially, Bratton said. Paddling became recreation.

It remains popular. Research done for the U.S. Coast Guard estimated there were 20.7 million canoers in the country in 2000, with that number project to grow to 23.3 million by 2020.

Wooden canoes are a small part of that paddling market. There are about 200 wooden canoe manufacturers in the country, most of them one-man operations like his own, said Bratton, who makes woodstrip canoes, which are wood encased in fiberglass and epoxy.

“There's no one making 7,000 or 8,000 wooden canoes a year at this point,” he said.

But when a paddler gets the wooden canoe bug, he's typically a goner, he added.

“It's like collecting motorcycles. You can only ride one at a time, but people still collect them in bunches,” he said.

People such as Zalonis. He started paddling in the late 1980s. He bought his first canoe, made of Kevlar, a few years later. Once he bought his Old Town 50-pounder and restored it, though, the switch was made.

He now prefers wooden canoes — specifically, wood and canvas canoes, which have wood ribs and planks covered by canvas made sturdy with silica filler — to all others. He believes they paddle easier than plastic canoes, cleaving the water rather than pushing it. They're quieter than aluminum and less likely to stick to rocks mid-river, he added. They are surprisingly durable, too, he said, noting that if one does sustain any kind of damage, it can be repaired.

And they just look so good, he added.

Pushing off from the bank of the Yough River in Cedar Creek Park, the inside of his Old Town looking like the rib cage of a long serpentine dinosaur, he said wooden canoes — and getting people interested in wooden canoes — are his love.

“They just feel so different when you're paddling compared to modern plastic or aluminum canoes,” Zalonis said. “It's hard to explain and harder to understand if you've never paddled one. But it's a whole different sensory experience.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.