Canoe craftsmanship ties together generations and friends
WALLAGRASS, Maine — When you grow up living in the woods of northern Maine and paddling its rivers, lakes and ponds, it is natural to end up with some knowledge of how to repair canoes. For Melford Pelletier, 72, much of that knowledge came courtesy of his father, Leonard.
“Essentially, I apprenticed with my dad. I learned from his expertise,” said Pelletier, whose father was not just any outdoorsman.
The late Leonard Pelletier was the Maine Game Warden to whom the state sent new wardens to learn how to handle a canoe. A photo of him poling a canoe down the Allagash graced the cover of the 2006 documentary film, “Northrunner,” which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
It was on that waterway, and the waters of the St. John River, located ever further into the Maine woods, that the elder Pelletier raised his family, which included Melford, his brothers, Leonard Jr., Roland and Gary and a sister Jane.
Pelletier’s father repaired many canoes over the years, some of which were in worse conditions than others, he said.
“Barry Ouellette (of Fort Kent) was a weekly customer of dad’s,” said Pelletier, with a laugh.
“One time a fella brought dad a 20-foot canoe in three pieces in the trunk of his car,” he recalled.
This summer, Pelletier is working on a fiberglass canoe for his cousin Vernon Pelletier, a logging contractor in Allagash. This particular boat had a few surprises in store for Pelletier, who said he was not sure when it was made.
“I suspect it was built when fiberglass came out,” he said. “I don’t know how they made it. It’s a novelty for me.”
The retired school teacher repairs a variety of wooden and wood and fiberglass canoes, but has yet to reverse engineer how this one, which has no wooden frame, was constructed.
Pelletier said his cousin bought the boat a while back from someone in Sinclair. He thinks it may have originally been built by his uncle Peter Daigle, who resided in Sinclair and often painted his handcrafted boats red, which is the original color Pelletier found after stripping away years of newer paint.
His cousin’s old canoe had been repaired several times over the decades, although Pelletier said some of those fixes were less than adequate.
He discovered several large air pockets underneath layers of resin and places where floor leveler compound had been used to fill in holes and gaps. All of this has to be chipped away and sanded down before Pelletier can begin to repair the boat.
In some places, Pelletier will need to use four or five layers of new resin just to get the surface level and even.
“It’s a slow, time consuming process,” he said. “It takes a lot of patience.”
Pelletier also will have to replace the wooden gunwales, thwarts and seats, using a combination of locally sourced ash and spruce.
There is one unusual wooden item that Pelleter will not replace, however. The wood bow and stern plates that tie together the sides of the canoe at the front and back, are unique in this boat in that there are notches cut on each side, into which the gunwales fit.
“I’ve never seen that before. So, I figured I’d keep it,” he said.
Pelletier said he prefers to work on canoes in the spring, as summer heat and humidity make it difficult to work with the resin and hardening material he uses to repair the boats. He fixes about one canoe each year, sometimes bartering with friends, rather than charging money. Repair of a fiberglass canoe can take between 75 and 100 hours of labor, according to Pelletier.
Pelletier uses special grooved rollers of various sizes to press the fiberglass into the resin, forcing air out and making sure the resin soaks completely into the fiberglass mats before it hardens. He has crafted a work bench on wheels, so that he can easily roll canoes from his garage work area to the yard.
Pelletier has never built a canoe from scratch, despite having repaired many over the years. He is also particular about what canoes he uses himself.
“You won’t catch me in a canoe shorter than 20 feet,” he said. With the right design and the experience using a motor, paddle or pole, large canoes can easily run rapids or cruise big lakes, he said.
Pelletier, who lives in Wallagrass with his wife Betty, retired 16 years ago following more than three decades of teaching in Fort Kent. The avid outdoorsman still goes paddling a few times a week, although he is reluctant to reveal precisely where he takes his boat and fishing rods. It is obvious from photos hanging in his basement, though, Pelletier is as good at finding and catching trout as he is at repairing canoes.
For scenic places to paddle, Pelletier enjoys going to the St. Francis River, and to Cunliffe Depot and the old Taylor Camps, both on the Allagash.
“That brings back memories,” Pelletier said of the Taylor Camps, which were constructed adjacent to what was once the Moir Farm.
“Me and my brothers stayed there each summer, growing up,” he said. Restoration of the Taylor Camps was also a special project Pelletier worked on with his late brother Gary.
Even as adults, the Pelletier brothers were drawn back to the waterways around Allagash and the men would go fishing together three or four times a week.
“It was like when we were growing up,” he said. “We had some good times.”
Four canoes on a rack in Pelletier’s backyard speak to the long history and personal connections among local paddlers. Canoes, when built to last and cared for, can be handed down from one generation to the next or passed along to friends.
“Blondie,” an unpainted canoe, with its natural honey colored resin, is the last canoe Pelletier’s father worked on. A blue canoe, constructed of wood and fiberglass was originally made for Norm Fournier’s grandfather. Fournier of Eagle Lake is one of Pelletier’s longtime friends. Yet another, this one an old bare wooden canoe, is from Henry Carbone, another of Pelletier’s childhood friends.
Hanging in Pelletier’s garage is a particularly old wooden canoe, which has seen better times. Today, the bottom of the boat is riddled with holes and any sign of paint or varnish has long since vanished.
In 1952, the warden service brought the canoe to Falls Brook Lake, just north of Allagash, where it was kept for use as needed, according to Pelletier.
“Twenty years later it was still there,” Pelletier said. “Dad got it when he retired. Somedays I say I’ll fix it. Then other days I say I might not.”