Fans of wooden canoes say the boats are timeless
Mark Zalonis' passion is bigger than his garage.
A 17 1⁄2-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 1⁄2-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.”