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To the fans of the E.M. White Canoe Company, Gilman Falls, ME; I send greetings.

So I don’t know how it happened, but I mixed up my stories. I am trying to figure out how the canoe ended up in a burn pile, because it didn’t. That story is too weird to be made up, so somewhere in the world, a wooden canoe was saved from a conflagration. No idea when or where, but it wasn’t an E.M. White, and it wasn’t Jerry who saved it.

I received a nice email from Mr. Stelmok himself today with some of the back story.

Hi Darren,

That is a nice tribute to E.M. White and our work at Island Falls Canoe that you posted and nicely illustrated with your selection of photos.

I’ve obviously been a big White fan for a long time and have been fortunate to be able to build my life around the E.M. White tradition.  I feel however that I should provide the real story behind the development of the Willow and WilloWisp.

Uh oh.

I went back to my archives and found Volume 2, Number 4 of Canoesport Journal, a now defunct magazine that died back in the early 90s. I still read mine for the good articles and the anachronisms.

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Turns out that the Willow came back to life because of Jack McGrevey, who sadly died just a short time ago. He bumped his head and forgot more about wood canvas canoes than I would ever know, and he had a canoe in the shop for repair that was not marked necessarily as an E.M. White, but was probably a Featherweight 15, not built past 1923.

Jack had this boat in his shop and recognized it for what it was, and it was he who painstakingly pulled the lines off the boat. They were so accurate that when they were lofted to a larger size boat they were almost exactly the same as the larger E.M. White boats.

To quote the article:

The result, which Jerry calls the Willow, is a superb small canoe rescued from oblivion…it tracked with little effort, held course well in a breeze quartering the bow, turned right now, and did it all with what could only be called panache.

So in one way, I stand corrected. I was wrong about the origins of the boat. What I was right about was how the canoe behaves. It behaves outstandingly well.

Jerry continued:

I like your story much better, but this is the more mundane and accurate version of Willow’s development.

Thank you again for the fine tribute, and I know you will continue to get the most out of your Willow, and Jim’s 18’6” Guide.

Thanks for the update, Jerry, I appreciate it.

Respectfully submitted,


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things of beauty

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Mr. Edward M. White started the E.M. White Canoe Company in the mid 1880s. He was one of the first people to build canvas over wood frame canoes, probably after seeing Evan Gerrish paddle one of his canoes on the Penobscot River where it flows through Old Town, Maine.

Canoes are things of beauty.1  I like the idea that water sculpted the canoe over hundreds of years of use. Native builders made modifications as they used canoes daily, and the evolution of canoe shapes was inevitable. No one knew this better than Edwin Tappan Adney. A Smithsonian scholar, Adney collected measurements and created line drawings and schematics of  a hundred different variations on the canoe theme. Published in 1964 by the Smithsonian, Skin and Bark Boats of North America is the definitive scholarly work on birchbark canoes.

It was no surprise when some early Canadian builders in the 1850s replicated birchbark building techniques, replacing bark with canvas, which didn’t leak as much. These boats were built like a birchbark boat, outside-in, starting with laying canvas on the ground and adding structure to the inside. The boats were not consistent but were an improvement. Yankees improved the process by inverting the building process, creating first the framework and stretching canvas over the ribs and planks.


This is why my own birchbark canoe looks so, well, modern. Since water hasn’t changed its physical characteristics, why would a canoe shape be better because it’s modern?

Case in point: a few years ago a designer for a fairly well-known canoe company tried to make something “totally new.” It was a canoe-shaped object, and from the moment I saw the prototype I said “This dog won’t hunt.”  We didn’t order any the next Spring, and the people who did (mostly big box stores with buyers who are more concerned with GMROI2  than paddlers) were soon disappointed that canoeists didn’t like them. They were ugly, and they paddled poorly. A double-threat to no one. The fact that I had to search far and wide for this image and finally found one on Sierra Trading Post is a good indication it didn’t meet sales expectations.


I have removed all names and logos. That way the designer and I can remain friends.

But let us purge our minds of such images (scroll down, quickly!) and focus on what is beautiful.  Like anything E.M. White ever designed and built.


This is a photography of an E.M. White Wilderness Guide 18. The Guide was built in three sizes; 16, 18, and 20. The twenty footer was designed specifically for guides taking their clients into the bush in New England, so cargo room was paramount, and the ability to pole or paddle standing was of benefit for spotting a rising trout.

But the 18: goodness…I’ll just shut up and put up a picture.


Can you not see how this might be the object of desire of a canoelover? Or canoeluster? Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Suffice it to say I have been bending the 10th commandment to the breaking point for over a quarter of a century. I wanted a Wilderness Guide 18. Not just to have, mind you, but to actually use as intended. Not to put in a glass case, but to paddle on glassy water.

Last year a friend of mine asked me to help him sell off his canoe collection. He was in a nursing home and not long for this earth, and he knew it. He wanted to make sure his canoes went to people who would appreciate them. There were few people in the position to help him out, and I know a few people who love canoes too. His sister sent me a list and I scrolled through them. And there it was.

An E.M. White 18 Wilderness Guide, built by Island Falls Canoe.


This picture was taken from Jerry Stelmok’s Island Falls Canoe website. To my knowledge, Jerry is only full-time canoe builder in the world who builds E.M. Whites. And that lovely grey-green canoe in the background is my canoe, when it was new.

Yes, I said my canoe. I called dibs on it, checked to see if it was okay if I paid them in installments. My friend said he wanted me to have the canoe.

It needed a lot of work. Sadly, the canoe had sat in his garage for years, with one side against a window, so the sun had oxidized the paint until it was white, and cracked the underlying filler. It would be possible to sand down to the canvas and reapply filler and paint, but I hate sanding so I decided to recover it and start over. This would also allow a few easy repairs.

I’ll be taking a trip with the 18 this fall. I can’t wait.

A lucky guy has the opportunity to find an E.M. White canoe once in a decade. A really lucky guy has the opportunity to find two in a year.

I am said double lucky guy.

I have wanted an Island Falls Willow since 1990, when I first read an article about them in Canoesport Journal, a now-defunct publication that was a great little rag about people who loved canoes, especially solo canoes.  I am sure Jerry will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the story goes like this.


Jerry was at a dump and saw what he recognized as the stem of an E.M. White boat sticking out of burn pile. He pulled it out and kicked some dirt on it to put out the smoldering end. He took it back to his shop, pulled the lines off it and they matched up almost perfectly with other E.M. White designs he had. It certainly was an E.M. White; it’s just that there was no record of it being built.

There are conjectures, of course. Perhaps it was a prototype that was built but was too tippy for the average paddler3 . No one will ever know for sure, but its DNA screams E.M. White.

Since these boats are all symmetrical, it wasn’t hard to turn to recreate the canoe from the part he had. So the Willow was born. Because of her initial “tenderness,” Jerry also build the Willowisp, six inches shorter and a little flatter on the bottom to make the new canoe more friendly to the beginner.

I sold a Willow to a customer twenty years ago or so. He wanted to get a lighter canoe, as he was getting older, and wanted a Kevlar boat to get the weight down to 30 pounds or so. I was delighted to trade him for a slightly used ultralight canoe for the not-so-ultralight-but-not-really-heavy Willow. It has seen some action, but the hull is sound and ready for Spring travel. My first solo trip when the ice is out will definitely be in this boat.

I own a dozen canoes, more or less. I paddle all of them, or else I sell them so they can be paddled. While these wood and canvas canoes are jewels, they’re not meant to be kept in a box on the dresser or on a rack in the garage. They are to be paddled. They are to be loaded down with a hundred pounds of canvas tent and packs, sleeping roll, wool blankets and a cast iron Dutch Oven. As much as I like 22 pound canoes and 35 pound packs, I also like fresh biscuits and a nice flank steak three days into a river trip. While I might dehydrate carrots, that’s so they’ll travel well, not to save weight. Weight? Who cares! I’m on a river, and the river is gladly carrying my gear for me.

I have owned a few wood canvas canoes, but I sold them, as none of them really had the feel of an E.M. White. The good news is that I have two of them; almost an embarrassment of riches. But I also have two children, and each will inherit one of these canoes. Yes, I am a good dad.

Respectfully submitted,



1. One could argue that the Coleman Ram-X canoe is not beautiful, but I can just as easily argue that it’s a canoe-shaped object, not really a canoe. I would win that argument. Statement validity remains intact.

2. Gross Margin Return on Investment. Businesspeak for “Does the item pay its own rent?” Because box stores sell items, not canoes.

3. This is a likely scenario, as the Willow is, as some say, a paddler’s boat. Without a load, she rolls over to the gunwale easily and if you’re not paying attention, will spit you out into the water without a thought. Loaded down, she settles down and is as efficient as a Prius with a tailwind. 

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In most of the aspects of my life, I have become competent.  Competent is an interesting word, from Latin, of course, as are most interesting words. Competere is the infinitive verb, meaning to compete, to vie, to be owed. No small coincidence that the word competition comes from competitio, a meeting of rivals. But enough etymology.

I look at competence as a internal competition, to always try to excel at something. The problem I have found is that good is the enemy of great. I don’t need to be great at things to enjoy them, but to settle for mediocre is not in my nature. I want to improve myself.

Add to that the Impostor Phenomenon (the idea that maybe you’re just lucky and you’re not all that) and you find a complex psychological stew between my ears. I am told on a regular basis that my business is a model for the industry, that we’ve achieved something amazing that no one else has done. etc. I am called out as a leader in the paddling community. It makes me uncomfortable, since I really don’t know if I am or not. It’s not false modesty; I have no frame of reference.


A brilliant illustration from Indexed.

On the other hand is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In short, thinking you’re a genius when you’re really just a dolt. A few presidential candidates, anti-vaxxers, and talk show hosts come to mind. To quote Shakespeare,* “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

2015-11-04 09.12.09

Foot casting and pattern.

Background laid out, I want to tell you about how much I sucked last week.  A trip to the North House Folk School was in order. I needed to do something with my hands after a lot of brain work, and North House is the cure for that. Take a class there. Any class.

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Almost done.


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Tools. Tools! TOOLS!

My choice was the Scandinavian Turn Shoe class taught by Jason from Laughing Crowe. He’s a gifted shoemaker and an excellent teacher.  Even with his expert tutelage, nothing about this came easy to me. It was frustrating, it was aggravating, it was irritating. I sucked at this. I figured out why on the third day.

Metal behaves predictably for the most part. Heat up the steel to a certain temperature, hit it with the same force, and it will do the same thing most of the time.  Same with wood (at least clear-grain wood), where it behaves mostly properly and predictably. With leather, it can vary in texture on the same hide; heck, in the same square foot of the hide. That’s because cattle are not consistently one thickness. Go figure, neither are we. If you don’t believe me, pinch the skin on the back of your hand, then on your shoulder. Big difference.

I was doing my best, but the truth is that I was incompetent. I was really and truly stymied by the changes in texture and techniques and the inability to really be precise with the leather.

And, it was the best class I have ever taken. I experienced a lot of joy once I got over myself and embraced incompetence.  I got to feel like my students feel sometimes. When you are highly competent at something you forget that some people are just as incompetent at what you’re teaching as you are at something else.

Without comparing myself to Wolfgang in any way talent-wise, Mozart was a genius composer, but an atrocious teacher. He had a disdain for many of his students, criticizing them in private letters to his parents. He just could not see why they couldn’t hear what he hears in his head. I can’t imagine taking lessons from someone who just couldn’t see why this isn’t innate.

Maybe Mozart would have benefited from making a pair of shoes.

Respectfully submitted,


P.S. In the end, I have a wearable pair of shoes. They have flaws but they’re super comfortable and the flaws are only something I would notice. The next pair I make will be much better. And, I can make shoes, which is a pretty rare thing. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I will be shod. That black stuff on the bottom is barge cement mixed with dust from reground tires. Should be awesome.

2015-11-08 10.03.53
*Full disclosure: I had to look up that quote. I am not a Shakespeare scholar.

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This has nothing to do with paddling. But nothing says that I have to only write about paddling. My house, my rules.

I remember when I was a kid over at some friend’s house. His parents were expressing outrage over those gay people ruining the word for them. “You used to be able to say you were gay,” they complained.  I remember thinking “What, now you have to go with happy instead?”  What’s the big deal?

I admit that I am starting to feel that way about the word Christian. It used to mean a person who believes what Jesus says is true Gospel.  Now, I fear, it means narrow-minded bigots with martyr complexes who thinks anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a Godless atheist.

Screenshot 2015-10-07 00.13.35

This is why the south is flooding. God didn’t do it.

This is especially relevant right now as a few weeks ago one of the garbage-spewing televangelists was telling everyone the south is flooding because gay people are getting married.  Or whatever it is that will get them ratings this week.  It makes me sick to my stomach. The south is flooding because a) there’s a hurricane and b) the south is in its path.  Now while I did not consult God on this, I’m pretty sure the hurricane wasn’t on the agenda for the day.  “Oh, let’s see…yeah…let’s whip up a hurricane, those people have been pretty evil lately…”

Except the good ones who are being flooded out too.  Maybe the best way to be a sinner is to lie quietly among the saints and hope God doesn’t notice you.

People ask me, “Are you a Christian?” as if they’re asking me if I’m a Freemason. I want to respond to the question with another question; What’s the real question here? Are they trying to determine if I think like they do (assuredly not), or if I really believe that Jesus was who He said He was.

So what’s a person who loves Jesus to do?  Say, “yes, I’m a Christian,” and be lumped in with people who won’t bake a cake for someone who’s gay? Or someone who thinks it’s okay to beat your kids into submission (spare the rod, etc.), or not give them medicine because the Bible “says so”?  Or someone who’s wife is a shadow of her former self because of his bullying assertion that he’s the man of the house (again, the Bible “says so”).

Sorry, I can’t do that. I won’t do that. These people may call themselves Christians, but their behavior is more telling than any self-appellation. They may be Christians, but they don’t seem to be following Christ’s example.  As Gandhi famously said, he liked our Christ, but he wasn’t so sure about Christians.  I have to agree with Mahatma on this one.  Even as I am one, I’m not so sure about us.

In fact, I’m very much not-so-sure of it. I agree with Mahatma, as would Jesus. I don’t know everything, but I’m pretty sure of a few things. I’m sure that Christian who hold a God Hates Fags sign at a funeral isn’t loving his neighbor.  I’m pretty sure parents who thinks that they have to home-school their fifteen kids so the Devil won’t teach them about the earth being more than 6,000 years old are not open to loving their neighbors either.  People who claim to love the sinner and hate the sin usually get it half-right.  They pick and choose from the scriptural smorgasbord and take the stuff they like (women, submit yourselves to your husbands…) and ignore the stuff they don’t (neither do I condemn thee).

Now the irony here is that some of these Christians will read what I write and will say one of several things, and maybe all of them:

1)  “You need to repent.”
2)  “You are persecuting us.”

In response:

1)  Absolutely. But not for this.
2)  No, I’m not.  Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t make you a martyr.  If you show up at a funeral telling a family that their son was killed in Afghanistan because Americans allow homosexuality, you’re going to get beat up by a former Navy SEAL because you’re being a dick, not because you’re suffering like Paul before Agrippa.   It’s the height of arrogance and narcissism to think you’re anything at all resembling an early church follower being martyred for their beliefs.

Because Jesus didn’t go around telling people they were going to hell. He told them what they could become if they wanted to.

He loved everybody. All of them. No exceptions.

So, agnostic or atheist friends (I have a fair number of them), I hope you remember that for every Christian who holds a God Hates Fags sign at a funeral or who thinks that they have to home-school their fifteen kids so the Devil won’t teach them about the earth being more than 6,000 years old, there are thousands of people just trying to be more like Jesus.  Followers of Christ. Not Christians.

I am not perfect. I make no claim to anything of the sort. I am a mess, and thankfully, I have a good example of how to behave in how I treat other people and how I treat myself.


You think Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts invented the genre? Nope. This guy.


Back in 1915, Carl Sandburg must have felt a lot like me when he heard the tent-show preacher Billy Sunday use his particular style of preaching to “win souls for Jesus,” and to earn a little on the side, I’m sure. He saw through the theater and saw the lack of substance and emotional manipulation and saw what was really there. He wrote a poem about it, and I love that poem. While we are all hypocrites to some extent, we don’t all make a living at it.

Billy Sunday
You come along… tearing your shirt… yelling about Jesus.
I want to know… what the hell… you know about Jesus.Jesus had a way of talking softly and everybody
except a few bankers and higher-ups among the
con men of Jerusalem liked to have this Jesus
around because he never made any fake passes
and everything he said went and he helped the
sick and gave the people hope.You come along squirting words at us, shaking
your fist and calling us damn fools so fierce the
froth of your own spit slobbers over your lips –
always blabbing we’re all going to hell straight
off and you know all about it.I’ve read Jesus’ words. I know what he said. You
don’t throw any scare into me. I’ve got your
number. I know how much you know about

He never came near clean people or dirty people
but they felt cleaner because he came along. It
was your crowd of bankers and business men
and lawyers that hired the sluggers and murderers
who put Jesus out of the running.

I say it was the same bunch that’s backing you that
nailed the nails into the hands of this Jesus of
Nazareth. He had lined up against him the
same crooks and strong-arm men now lined up
with you paying your way.

This Jesus guy was good to look at, smelled good,
listened good. He threw out something fresh
and beautiful from the skin of his body and the
touch of his hands wherever he passed along.

You, Billy Sunday, put a smut on every human
blossom that comes within reach of your rotten
breath belching about hell-fire and hiccuping
about this man who lived a clean life in Galilee.

When are you going to quit making the carpenters
build emergency hospitals for women and girls
driven crazy with wrecked nerves from your
goddam gibberish about Jesus — I put it to you
again: What the hell do you know about Jesus?

Go ahead and bust all the chairs you want to.
Smash a whole wagon load of furniture at every
performance. Turn sixty somersaults and stand
on your nutty head. If it wasn’t for the way
you scare women and kids, I’d feel sorry for
you and pass the hat.

I like to watch a good four-flusher work but not
when he starts people to puking and calling for
the doctors.

I like a man that’s got guts and can pull off a great
original performance, but you — hell, you’re only
a bughouse peddler of second-hand gospel –
you’re only shoving out a phony imitation of
the goods this Jesus guy told us ought to be free
as air and sunlight.

Sometimes I wonder what sort of pups born from
mongrel bitches there are in the world less
heroic than you.

You tell people living in shanties Jesus is going to
fix it up all right with them by giving them
mansions in the skies after they’re dead and the
worms have eaten ‘em.

You tell $6 a week department store girls all they
need is Jesus; you take a steel trust wop, dead
without having lived, gray and shrunken at
forty years of age, and you tell him to look at
Jesus on the cross and he’ll be all right.

You tell poor people they don’t need any more
money on pay day and even if it’s fierce to be
out of a job, Jesus’ll fix that all right, all right –
all they gotta do is take Jesus the way you say.

I’m telling you this Jesus guy wouldn’t stand for
the stuff you’re handing out. Jesus played it
different. The bankers and corporation lawyers
of Jerusalem got their sluggers and murderers
to go after Jesus just because Jesus wouldn’t
play their game. He didn’t sit in with the big

I don’t want a lot of gab from the bunkshooter in
my religion.

I won’t take my religion from a man who never
works except with his mouth and never cherishes
a memory except the face of the woman on the
American silver dollar.

I ask you to come through and show me where
you’re pouring out the blood of your life.

I’ve been in this suburb of Jerusalem they call
Golgotha, where they nailed Him, and I know if the
story is straight it was real blood ran from his
hand and the nail-holes, and it was real blood
spurted out where the spear of the Roman
soldier rammed in between the ribs of this Jesus
of Nazareth.

Thanks, Carl.

Respectfully submitted,


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Another Silent Sports column not on their website. With permission from the publisher.  – DB



“I have a little BFF that showed up by my heart. His name is Mr. Hodgkins.”

That’s how Sarah told us she has cancer.

The good news is that she is young, healthy and fully recovered, and her BFF responded very well to the chemotherapy, a process of poisoning a person just enough that their hair falls out and the BFF gets the brunt of it.


Two bald heads; one genetic, one chemically induced.


Sarah is one of the Bush family nonbiological daughters. A friend of our biological daughter, she is as much a part of the family as anyone, and I was a little shocked and saddened by the BFF. I promptly renamed Mr. Hodgkins TLF, not BFF. TLF stands for The Little Fiend, or some other F-word, depending on my mood.

Chemo affects different people different ways, and Sarah, descended from stoic, German stock and the eternal optimist, smiles through the whole process of chemo juicing. She usually feels fine for a few days after.

I have a theory that paddling has anti-TLF properties. Since living in Madison, her grad school schedule had kept us from dragging her to the Wisconsin River, one of the most healing places on earth. It was there I went after my father passed away to spend some time grieving. I knew it would have a salutorious effect, so we grabbed a canoe suitable for three and planned a post-juice therapy session.


First Mate Sarah, duffer Kirsten, and Captain Stephanie


Sunscreen is critical for Sarah, as well as hydration and a few other cautions, but she’s no hot house flower. She was the paddler as well as the duffer, and being an introspective person, quietly absorbed the beauty.

Flowing water is therapeutic. The sound of it running through a pile of logs sings a song of comfort, the soft murmur punctuated by the humorous plops of turtles, too shy to stick around even when we were quiet. The water pushing us up on occluded sandbars with a soft kiss is even therapeutic, as we splash around tugging the canoes off the spots we high-centered.


Before you read any further, I don’t like reading river-as-metaphor-for-life stories and I certainly don’t want to write them. But sometimes even I go there. So here I go.

The river is unpredictable. Sandbars and currents change dramatically with every flood, and the slough that was so inviting last season is now a field of quicksand. The little sand spit where I used to enjoy a summer nap is gone, the tree that created a little shady spot is now a strainer, and an inhospitable one at that.


Sand is always in flux.


This constant change used to bug me. I would grumble that a favorite spot was gone, and not realizing that a new favorite spot was forming somewhere else. Unlike some of my more predictable regulars, the Wisconsin is a dynamic river. You can’t step in the same river twice, right? That’s doubly-true here.

My river has taught me many lessons, and one of them is that no matter how vigilant you are, you will run into hidden and unexpected obstacles. It’s part of being on a river; it’s what makes them interesting. Lakes are nice, but give me a river any day.

The day on my river was wonderful. It was a healing day, full of happiness and smiles and silliness, and, as the water was low, we ended up stuck in places where we didn’t want to land. We just scrambled out of the canoe, let it float free, then jumped back in when the obstacle was passed.


That’s right, here it is; the clumsy, ham-fisted, overworked metaphor. Life gives us sandbars. We can break our paddles trying to pry ourselves off a sandbar, or we can step out, get our feet wet, possibly splash and fall and look stupid, but ultimately float free of the obstacle with little effort.

Sarah is the step-out-and-float sort. She doesn’t have the energy to waste being inefficient, so she just works with what she has, which is why she’ll be okay. She is evicting the TLF, not with anger or frustration, but with quiet optimism. Funny thing; the best paddlers I know are the same way. If you get angry, it’s not that many steps from anger to a nice, long swim. You just take what the river sends you and deal with it.

I have now become one of those writers. You know what? It’s not so bad. Maybe resistance to being a cliche has robbed me of a more meaningful experience both on the river and while going through a rough patch in our family.


The day seemed to become more and more beautiful as it passed. Midwesterners know that perfect days are precious: it’s always beautiful here, but some days can take your breath away. 73 degrees, a light breeze, bright fluffy clouds that give you a little patch of shade just when you want it. The river opened up and still, no strong breezes, just a shimmering expanse of diamonds on the water. A dragonfly hatch of Midland Clubtails reduced the mosquito population, and white-throated sparrows provided a lovely soundtrack for the afternoon.


Midland Clubtail


Thank you, Wisconsin River, for your Anti-TLF properties and for slipping past my defenses and teaching me that sometimes rivers are perfectly sound metaphors for life. They’re both beautiful, I know that much.

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While my re-enactor friends are at a rendezvous this weekend, dressed in period dress, eating period food and enjoying camaraderie, I am at a different sort of rendezvous.  I am at the Outdoor Industry Association Rendezvous.  It’s not in Bloody Lake, Wisconsin; it’s in Seattle.

This is a group of about 500 biggy-wiggies of the outdoor industry, and I mean biggy-wiggies in the most respectful way. These are some of the smartest people I know. They have built businesses from a few bucks and an unheated garage to multi-million dollar brands that have changed lives. Many of them changed mine…Kelty, North Face, Wilderness Experience (R.I.P.), Jansport (thank you, Skip), etc. etc.  I am surrounded by people I love, truly.

We listen to presentations, yes, but mostly we talk to each other. Furthermore, we shun people who call talking to each other networking. These people also use the words engagement, touchpoints (sic), disruption, pivot, align, connect, and of course, the worst buzzword ever, synergy. Shun these people, they are paid to move their lips. They’re televangelists without the Jesus part, viz., May you all maximize your GMROI via customer engagement touchpoints.  In nomine Abercrombie et Fitch, Amen.

This doesn’t mean this is not a worthwhile event, as I said before, we talk to each other. The best conversations happen by accident.

My shop has been selling Farm to Feet socks for a few seasons now. Just read the website. They’re cool. They’re 100% American made. Family-owned company.  But I digress.  That’s just about stuff.

The cool thing is that I sat at a table during a supply chain modeling exercise1 for three hours with Kelly Nestor, the dude behind Nestor Hosiery. The only reason I know about Nestor being the same thing as Farm to Feet is that I open the bills and write checks to Nestor Hosiery rather than F2F.

Nice guy, for sure. I asked him lots of technical questions about sock-making, yarn-spinning, wool-processing and all the stuff in between.  I also learned he’s a classical guitarist and pianist.2 After a nice ten minute chat, I invited myself to see his factory in November when I’ll be traveling in the area, and he gracious accepted.3

2015-10-06 10.12.19Kelly looked at his watch, said he had something important to do and held up his phone. He showed me two pictures of his young children and he needed to go call them before they went to bed.  I like this guy. These are the kind of people I like to be around.

Earlier in the day I had a shorter but nonetheless gratifying interaction. It was on the escalator going down to the lobby from experience, which really isn’t that random when you consider the milieu. The sales manager from Vasque footwear has a fabulous haircut (it matches my own shiny pate). I commented on his coiffure, he complimented mine. I noticed he was wearing a pair of the new Vasque Sundowners and admired them as well, and told him that I actually had my Sundowners with me, that I had used them at the service project. I told them they had been resoled twice but still had a lot of life in them.

That seemed to please him. I said I would send him a picture of them, and I did.

“I’d love to see it. And I’ll get you a new pair if you want.”
“No, I like these. They’re all broken in and perfect.”
“No, I mean you can keep those. I’ll just send you a new pair.”


He was serious. Chris could tell I was excited about the fact that they brought back the Sundowner after 1) a bad attempt to improve the original and 2) getting rid of it altogether since no one really wanted all-leather boots anymore. I received this email from him earlier today.


Thanks for the entries on your website, very cool! It is incredible to work for a brand that has such passionate people wearing our product. I love it!

Where shall I send the new boots for you? I hope you like them and definitely do not put them out of rotation. Broken in boots with war stories like I am sure yours have are always the best.

Great to meet you.



So I made a few friends, got a factory tour and a pair of boots to augment my 20 year-old pair.

I like Rendezvous for a lot of reasons. Granted, a nice pair of boots from the sales manager of a brand you’ve been using since you were 14 are nice, but the best part is our own kind of camaraderie; shared experiences and stories, ups and downs, and all the white-hot crazy passion that keeps the industry leaders moving forward and the guys in Dockers and blue blazers wondering what the hell happened.

Respectfully submitted,



1. There should have been a warning sign: “Attention, please. If you or someone you love suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, you might consider doing something less painful for the next three hours, like throwing a tire around like a cross-fitting orangutan.

2. This has become a non-surprise in my world, since our industry is so full of weirdos and regimental rejects who couldn’t color inside the lines. I mean, seriously…the talent hidden behind the plaid shirts and Chacos is immense. Singers, musicians, artists, poets, writers…this is a supremely talented population.

3. This is how geeky I am: I can’t wait to see the factory. Sheep goes in one end; socks come out the other. I mean, how cool is that?

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I wrote this a few months ago. It was published in Silent Sports Magazine but I’m allowed to put it here too, and I can add more pictures than I can in their publication.  DB

I’m sitting in an airport in Shanghai, about to fly home from a week of work. By “work,” I mean attending an international outdoor trade show where I was invited to speak. I added a few days on before the show for my wife and I to become tourists.


Giving a keynote is fun. With an interpreter; strange.

We spent most of our time off the beaten path, trying to stay away from areas where people spoke English. Shanghai is an international city, but when you get away from the business district and main drags, we stuck out. In particular, I stood out as a tall, bald thumb.


The backstreets of Shanghai are my favorite. Real people, real food.

One of the highlights of my week was paddling a canoe, Canadian style, in a 30×50 foot swimming pool. This was the first time many Chinese people had ever seen a canoe actually in the water. China is kayak-centric, and a canoe is an object from a book, paddled by Indians (wearing Sioux headdresses to the sound of tom-toms).


小笼包 / 小籠包. My favorite street food.

After the demonstration, wherein my paddling partner Peter dumped me unceremoniously in the water playing what he called a “game,” I paddled over to the side and invited, in my worst Chinese (all of it), some kids to jump in too. PFDs were procured and two tentative volunteers came forward, parents taking gigabytes of pictures and movies.


Just a few laps around the tank, that’s all. Soon there was a line of kids, all wanting to try, and most speaking excellent English. They had their turns, laughing and waving to their parents.  One jumped out, paused, turned around and reached down into the canoe to give me a hug.

I noticed a young boy, eight at most, watching from poolside. He was clearly enchanted, and every time I paddled past him he watched with fascination. I walked over to him while Peter took some kids for a spin. I asked him if he wanted to paddle too. I reached my hand out to him, and he took it. I hoisted him up to the walkway around the pool and we walked, hand in hand back to the loading area.

He said nothing as we spun around the pool, sitting as still as a statue.  I wondered what he was thinking, this little guy, sitting in the bow of a canoe as I knelt in the center.

I unloaded him and he climbed out, and took off his PFD, and that was the last I saw of him. My wife was watching him, though, and she told me later his skipped and jumped back to his parents as if he just won the lottery, which he had, in a sense.  In a nation of over 1.3 billion, he was one of a dozen kids, maybe, who had ever paddled in a canoe.


Autumn is coming soon, and for me that means day trips. Day trips don’t require packing food or cooking, so there’s a certain liberation in terms of gustatory delights available to you based on your destination.  For me, it’s always the search of pie.

Most chain restaurants have pie, of course, but its crust has the texture of Play-Doh and the flavor of nothing. The filling is purchased by the 55-gallon drum and is more cornstarch than fruit. If it’s a cream pie, the topic is a barely edible cream-like substance. As a cause of my wife’s baking, I have become a serious pie snob.

When paddling a new river I always look for pie for my late afternoon snack. No chains, of course. I seem to have the most luck in medium-sized towns. The very small hamlets, often unincorporated, don’t have much to choose from, and the bigger towns are usually devoid of interesting Mom and Pop restaurants.

A few years ago, after paddling the Lower Sugar River, I pulled out and headed west into Green County. Dominated by dairy farms and cheese makers, it’s a prosperous little county in a very Midwestern sort of way. Nothing flashy, of course, but you can tell things are good because the barns aren’t ten years past the point where they needed a coat of paint. A well-painted barn is a source of pride for its owner.


I found myself in Monticello, where I had been before but never in search of pie. I saw a place called the M&M Café and pulled over immediately. It was 1:50 p.m.

The M&M is a tiny place that opens early and closes after lunch, in this case at 2:00 p.m. My guess is that a lot of dairy farmers come in after first milking to have coffee and hang out with the other farmers after their first milking. It was late and the place was empty. I asked if they had pie.  Yes, they did have pie. I asked if it was made there on site. They replied that they made it fresh daily. “She makes the crust,” one woman said, indicating the other.


Best. pie. ever.

I said I would try the banana crème. If the crust pasts muster, the filling has to as well, and I find banana crème an easy one to screw up. Too much custard, not enough bananas; the bananas can be too green, the filling too runny and saturating the crust. The topping has to be whipped cream.

She cut me a slice the size of a brick, if a brick were a triangle. The strata of bananas were visible, with enough custard to hold the bananas in place. Check. The cream was real. Not surprising, since we were in the dairy capitol of Wisconsin. The crust was flaky. It was a masterpiece of pie.

They had coffee cups with M&M Café printed on the side, and I asked to buy one. They were confused. Why would I want a cup?  “So I can remember the pie when I am drinking something hot.”  They sold me a cup for five bucks, still confused.


My cup. Still have it.

I sat at the counter, chatting with these two no-nonsense Midwestern ladies, wearing sensible print dresses, and aprons and looking the part of farmers’ wives. They were chatty, but they were sneaking glances at the clock, and it was twenty after. They would never kick me out, so I decided to do it for them.

As I paid up and got up to leave, I saw the words “Restaurant for Sale. Inquire here” written in chalk on a small chalkboard above the menu.  I asked how long it had been for sale. They said it had for a while. They were hopeful someone who wanted to get up at 3:30 every morning to bake pie and prep the food for the day. You have afternoons off to fish (or paddle), but the restaurant business is a lot like work. Hard work.


The next time I headed south I hit the Pecatonica down by Darlington. I was with my son but we didn’t have a shuttle vehicle, trusting fate and my thumb, as hitchhiking while holding a canoe paddle is an instant symbol of riparian brotherhood. I always get a lift.

As I was walking off to the road, I heard a voice from a guy angling for catfish as an excuse to drink a beer.

“Where you goin’?”
“You’re walking to Calamine?”
“Hopefully I’m getting a ride.”
“No you won’t.”
“I usually do.”
“No traffic on that road.”

He was right, the traffic counts were low, hence the popularity of that road with cyclists.

“Do you have any suggestions?”

He scratched his grizzled face, covered with a little drywall mud and three days of beard.

“I’ll take you.”
“For ten bucks.”
“Deal. What’s your name?”

I looked at his lawn chair. Only one beer can next to it. It was early in the day, about ten.

We climbed into his old white work van, which was full of plastering materials and ladders. We cleared a place for me and strapped my son into the front seat.


Dog really is his co-pilot.

Maynard chatted about nothing in general, how he was getting close to retirement but still did odd jobs here and there for local contractors. He had a case of Budweiser in the back of the truck, and I think he had intentions to put a serious dent in it.  His Golden Retriever tried to crawl into the front seat and was giving my son a serious face wash. It was, fortunately, a short trip. Maynard was not particularly attentive to the rules of the road.

The paddle was nice, and I remember it being enjoyable, but nothing particular sticks out other than the beginning (Maynard) and the ending (Maynard again).


The Proem, somewhere on the Pecatonica.


As we paddled up to the take-out we heard an exclamation of joy.

“Darryl!* You made it! Here, let me help you…”

No…nononononono….Maynard grabbed my bow thwart and gave it a good vigorous tug up onto the rocks. I said, “No, no, I got this…” but Maynard was undeterred. The scratches are still there. No harm, no foul. I was fouled.

Near the lawn chair was a fishing pole and half a dozen more beer cans. These Buds were for Maynard, and he had enjoyed all of them to the fullest. He yammered amiably as we carried our boats to the car, and waved and shouted a hearty farewell. But not without taking a picture.  Classic t-shirt.


L. to R.: Ian, Maynard, me. Yes, his shirt really says that. Nice sweat vest, Darren…


When I think about the experiences in my life that really stand out, the most memorable events were interactions with other people, whether on thewater or off.  Paddling has a lot to do with the places I find myself meeting people, whether in a swimming pool in Shanghai New International Exposition Center (SNIEC), in a small café in southwestern Wisconsin, or riding in a rickety old work van with a local connoisseur of malted beverage.

Paddling has made my life unbearably rich. Most of my best friends I made because of paddling, whether it be a customer at my shop, a student in a class I teach, or a local character I run into at the put-in or take-out, or a couple of salt-of-the-earth sensible farm women who sell me a piece of really good pie.

*A common mistake.

Categories : autumn, canoeing, kayaking, people
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Well…I’m back.

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So said Samwise at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And my absence from Canoelover’s blog has very good explanations if not excuses.

2015-07-29 10.15.49There are only so many words in a guy’s head, I think, and I have been selling them rather than giving them away. I guess this makes me a verbal capitalist. But the truth is, I don’t mind getting paid for what I would do anyway for nothin’. So Canoe and Kayak Magazine has hired me as a staff writer, or as editor J.M. says, “You’re in the stable.” Like a horse: or a jackass. Either way, they hired me. It’s fun. I’m working on two boat reviews for next Spring and Summer issues.

I also started writing a column for Midwest Silent Sports, as their former paddlesports columnist retired and decided it was too much work to come up with something every month. I’ve written about 15 columns for them since a year ago in the Spring, but only a handful are on their website…not sure why. I like a deadline and the discipline that comes with it. You must produce.

Besides, the filthy lucre that comes in the envelope with the generic corporate check goes to a good cause. It is used to pay down the old credit card. Now that Wife 1.5 ain’t working outside the home, cash is a little more scarce, and we still like to travel, so we have to be frugal about putting aside resources for traveling.

On top of that, I’ve been lacing a lot of snowshoes over the past year or so…I’m up to pair 47, I believe, so that means I laced about 18 pair last fall and winter.  Now three sets are in progress; two medium pair, one varnished and one waiting, one small about 3/4 varnished, plus a frame waiting in the wings. Once I sell those I can buy some more materials and get busy with more lacing.  Snowshoes, all 18 pair, mostly paid for a trip last Spring to Istanbul. P.S. It’s really cheap to go to Turkey and the people are lovely.

2015-04-04 17.50.03

A lot has transpired since I last wrote on here. As alluded to, Wife 1.5 quit her teaching job after 20 years. The kids are lovely, but the administration leaves a lot to be desired. I’m naming names. Jen Cheatham, Superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, is an embarrassment and a pathological liar. I was planning on running for School Board just for the joy of holding her accountable for her many screw-ups and a profound lack of empathy. But Wife 1.5 is still healing, and she needed to be away from that drama for a while. If Dr. Cheatham (don’t worry, she doesn’t do house calls) is still here next year, and one can only hope not, I’m running, and I’ll win. Because as my little friend Kahlil says, “That’s what I do.”

2015-07-07 14.48.55One of the benefits of Wife 1.5 not working is that I have my wife back. The one I married disappeared into a painful fog last year, and only now do I see just how much the succubus of a superintendent sucked life out of her.*  Wife 1.5 is gardening like crazy. As if it’s possible, she over-planted tomatoes. Oh, the joy of home-grown ‘maters. She over-planted summer squash and zucchini, meaning she planted any at all. She planted the zucchini variety that should be called Calabasa Escondida, since we’d check every day for squ ash that are ready to pick and suddenly, after lifting a leaf, we find a zucchino the size of a baseball bat, and just as woody.

I sold a few canoes and bought a few canoes. Replaced a Wenonah Minnesota II (43 pounds) with an Island Falls 18 Wilderness (closer to 75). I traded lightweight for aesthetics. Probably stupid, but I’m not always rational about canoes.  Daughter 1.X asked me which canoe I loved the most. I said all of them.  She said I couldn’t love all of them. I told her “They’re canoes, not women, so I can love all of them I want to.” I’m a polycanoeist but that’s where the poly- ends.

Anyway, I’m going to try to be more diligent writing here. So long as I don’t run out of

Respectfully submitted,


*Okay, I need to curtail the ad feminam attacks. But she is incompetent.

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five lessons on one hand

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I wrote this ten years ago, the year I injured myself playing Norm Abram and almost cut a few fingers off my right hand. I wanted to revisit this after ten years because my hand has been aching lately, and I think I’m starting to get the carpal tunnel syndrome a physician friend told me was pretty much inevitable.  So I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  Here ya go.


The icy wind bullied its way through the leafless trees and hit my chest like a clenched fist, sucking heat from my hands, twisting my paddle in my hand and sending a nice, misty spray of cold river water over the bow.

“Better to be on shore wishing you were out there in the storm, than out there in the storm wishing you were on shore.”  The words of my friend Max Finkelstein, a veteran of thousands of miles of canoe trips (most of them solo), were echoing in that empty space between my ears.  That’s where my brain would have been if I hadn’t left it on the sand bar next to the campfire earlier than morning.  Cold does strange things to a man’s senses and makes one forget one’s brain.


I was on the Wisconsin River in late October as part of a pact I had made with myself last year.  “One solo canoe trip each quarter.  Two days at least, three is better.”  I had managed to do three out of four, and batting .750 isn’t too bad, all things considered.  Especially with one thing considered.

On March 5, 2004, I was working late into the evening in my garage workshop a week before Canoecopia.  I would have a full house in a few days, and one shower and eleven people wouldn’t cut it; I had to finish the shower enclosure in our bathroom.  I was tired.

At 9:30, I was ripping a piece of cedar on the table saw, with the guard off.  No lectures please, I’ve endured enough of them, believe me.  The blade was set high and close to the fence, but the supposed “clear” cedar had a knot in it, and the piece I was cutting was not cooperating, binding between the fence and the blade.  I can’t say how it happened, but I was out of position and out of balance, and as I pivoted on my foot to turn off the saw, I found myself staring at my own right hand, a deep cut across all four fingers and my palm.  It was surreal, but the pain soon brought me back to the reality of the situation; I let out a wild yell of agony and ran through the kitchen door into the house.

“Honey, please call 911.  This is a bad one.”  As Stephanie grabbed the phone, I snatched up a clean dishcloth and did the best I could to slow the bleeding while sirens approached the house.  Fortunately the arteries were intact, but I would soon find that the veins, nerves, and tendons were cut on all four fingers.  The paramedics asked where I wanted to go.  “I’d like to see the best hand surgeon in Wisconsin, please.”  Seconds later I was on my way to University Hospital.

After two surgeries, 59  appointments at the hand clinic and countless hours of rehab, the miracle is that I am able to type.  Once again I can use my own seven-finger method, the same method I used long before my accident.  It’s not 100%, and it never will be, but I have four pink, wiggly fingers where I could have had nothing.  Many of my fellow clinic visitors have not been as fortunate.  While my hand has some wicked scars, (a friend once called it Frankenfist), it mostly works.

The table saw accident changed my life in a profound way, which was reflected in the trips I did (and didn’t make).  It has been a long, painful, yet insightful year.  So now with that background, I’m here to report on my solo trip resolution.

First Quarter
Date reserved for paddling: March 26-28
River visited: yeah, right
Miles paddled: 0

Eighteen days after surgery, I was in no condition to go anywhere.  I was under strict orders to keep my hand immobilized or risk rupturing a tendon, and then I’d really be in for it.  One time I tried putting an Ace bandage around my hand, the splint, and the paddle shaft, and I paddled a few hundred feet behind Rutabaga, but it was just too painful.  And in retrospect, incredibly stupid.  Some would ask why I would try in the first place, and the only answer is, well, it’s a canoeing thing.  At any rate, I did it, and it hurt like hell, and I didn’t try it again.

I have no idea how people become addicted to painkillers.  I hated how they made me feel – totally disconnected from my body.  True, you can’t feel much pain, but you can’t feel much of anything else either.  That’s just not my cup of Vicodin.

I admit that I fell into a severe funk as the dates I had set aside approached and passed, and I remember thinking, “This is going to be a hard season.”  I had no idea.

What I learned: I lacked patience and the ability to accept limitations, until pain and physical impossibility gave me the smack-down.  Wanting what you can’t have just hurts.  Letting go of an impossibility is not pleasant, but necessary now and then.  The River will still be there, waiting for me, when I am healed.

Second Quarter
Dates reserved for paddling: May 20-22
River visited: Lower Wisconsin
Miles paddled: Over 40

The water was up, and we were moving four miles per hour without paddling a stroke.  I say “we” because my solo trip turned tandem.

It was a little over two months after surgery and I was still tender, but at least not bandaged or even worse, splinted.  I still had Frankenfist, but it moved like a hand in some ways, though I lacked significant grip strength.

I could have taken a solo trip, but I could tell Stephanie was worried, because she said “Darren, I’m worried about you going on a solo trip so soon.”  Call it Male Intuition.  Now the choices were to go on the trip, while Stephanie worries– not a desirable outcome.  Or stay home, and another opportunity slips by; equally undesirable.


First solo picture of me that year. Larry took it.

It was my friend Kaitlyn who nudged me out of my either/or mindset.

“Hey, dummy, who says you have to go solo?”
“I do. It’s a solo trip.  From the Latin solus.  It means ‘alone’, get it?”
“Yeah, I know.  But you don’t have to go solo.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Okay, fine.  Who would want to drag a one-handed guy down the River?”
“Let me think about it….oh, I can think of about a hundred people.”
“But I don’t want to go tandem,” I whined.

She considered this statement for a moment, then responded calmly.

“Fine.  Stay home then.”

I love it when she’s right.

I considered my options, and I decided to call my friend Larry.  He could use a good paddle, so I called and asked him if he “would be willing to drag my sorry, one-handed carcass down the Wisconsin River for a few days.”


Waiting to put in. Taken by Jim who ran our shuttle.


His answer was a gift.  “Darren, not only would I be willing, I would be honored.”  Honored?  Wow.

Once I started thinking tandem trip, the disappointment of losing solitude was quickly replaced by the thought of Larry’s company.  Larry has the Alabamian gift of gab, which is to say that almost everything he says is funny due to content, delivery, or both.  For instance, Larry’s personal lexicon states that one does not simply die, one “achieves room temperature.”

Because the water was over the banks and moving fast, we ran out of river before we ran out of time.  We went home a day early, but not before enjoying some glorious adventures, exploring places normally not accessible at low water. Along the way we ate great food; lox, homemade granola, gingersnaps (of course), good lamb, lots of fruit, excellent hot tea, the works. We found Wilson the football, a raccoon skull, a turtle shell, and exactly one campsite big enough for our tent. I also found a deeper friendship.

What I learned: It’s okay to change your plans, even at the last minute.  Good friends will always come through for you.  Patience again.  Letting people do things for you is hard if you’re independent.  I’m too independent.

Third Quarter
Dates reserved for paddling: September 17-18
River visited: Pecatonica
Miles paddled: I didn’t measure.  About 12, maybe.

It was my first solo trip “for real” since my accident.  Now Stephanie wasn’t worried, but I was.  I was driving to the Wisconsin River and noticed all the trees were bending steadily away from the direction I wanted to go.  I detoured and headed south and west.  I had no idea where I would end up.

The Pecatonica is a muddy little stream that runs through a beautiful stretch of Iowa and Grant counties.  It is not beautiful with a capital B (we reserve that for places like the Namekagon or the Bois Brule), but it is a most pleasant place to paddle.  Moreover, it’s down in a bit of a depression so the wind might blow, but by the time it negotiates the stream bank it’s pretty calm down there.  The downside is that the high banks sometimes limit the access to scenery.  In this case, it was worth the tradeoff.  It was go small or go home.

pecatonica2 003

Since I was alone, I brought my bike, which I would use to shuttle between my car and my canoe.  Thankfully, a bike path ran along the river between the put-in and Darlington.  The shuttle was as enjoyable as the paddle.  The washboard-like Cheese Country bike trail challenged my hand a little, but if I slowed down the bumps and jars were acceptably minimized.  The trail ran along the river in spots, giving me a quick taste of what was to come.  Rather than barreling down the trail at “get it over with” speed, I had to ride slowly, like a mogul skier, picking my way through the bumps.

I wanted to make this river last a while.  I chained my bike up under the bridge, launched down a muddy slide that had previously seen canoe action and deliberately took a pace that would be just a bit slower than usual.

The sunlight filtered through the trees, creating a green cathedral.  A few trees were starting to turn, but the majority of the silver maples and cottonwoods were still bright green.  I had brought only black-and-white film, so instead of shooting off pictures I would later toss into the trash, I just took the time and observed and absorbed.  I could have spent some time shooting but I was enjoying being there instead of recording there.  I don’t need a picture of that day, I can feel it, smell it, and see it whenever I want to.  I did this for several hours.


As the city came into view I realized I had taken much longer than I had planned to paddle that stretch.  I felt lazy, and it felt good to feel lazy.  It was as I loaded up my canoe on the car that I realized I was hungry, and hungry in that vicinity meant Cornish food.

Mineral Point is an enclave of Cornwall, no question about that.  The Red Rooster serves a great pasty, a sort of meat pie that miners would take down into the mines for their supper.  Lard, meat, onions, flour, and rutabagas or turnips are pretty much all you need, but getting it in the right proportions is an exact science.  I gained back all the weight I had lost on the paddle and ride.  It was a fair exchange.

What I learned: Slow down.  Don’t stubbornly stick to a plan when it no longer makes sense.  Slow down even more.  Observe and absorb more; take fewer pictures.  The Red Rooster in Mineral Point is a fine institution.

Fourth Quarter
Dates reserved for paddling: October 23-24
River visited: Lower Wisconsin
Miles paddled: 24

One of the advantages of late fall paddling is that you will almost never see another person out on the water.  The wave runners have been rusting quietly for months now, and many casual anglers are put off by cold weather.  Solitude!

I had packed my winter bag, good to twenty below, which was a bit much.  But better to overkill than to be overkilled.  No bugs meant no tent was necessary, just a Whelen lean-to, a modified canvas tarp that is perfect for fall canoe camping.

With just a small (theoretically) smokeless fire in front of it, the Whelen becomes a giant reflector oven, baking the occupant with a luxurious heat, allowing indifference to the frigid gusts that play just inches beyond the edge of the creamy white canvas.


I had paddled most of a glorious fall day.  The clouds were out in force but the sun peeked through at times, illuminating the bluffs in all their splendid fall color.

The circulation in my hand is still a bit woofy, and keeping it warm was a major accomplishment, but it was also a blessing.  I had to stop fairly often to strip off my gloves and reheat my hand against bare skin, so I had a built-in excuse to poke around.

Poking around sandbars and walking the shoreline produced a personal record of four turtle shells, one of them in perfect condition.  I usually have good turtle shell karma, but four in one trip?  I was dumbfounded.  I also walked a great deal along the edge of the islands where the sand was perfect for capturing tracks of animals, and saw evidence of abundant bird life.  Heron tracks are my favorite, big three-toed claws that look like a peace sign without the circle drawn around it.  I took a stick and transformed some of the better tracks into heron peace signs and moved on.

Eventually I knew I would have to stop, and the wind was starting to pick up a bit, so I picked a campsite on the downstream side of an island.  It wasn’t optimal for weather protection but it had a great view, so I decided I’d make camp, pitching the Whelen first.  Once I had it staked down, the wind started blowing in earnest, and it was clear a long, cold blustery night was in store.  I buttoned things down, ate a good supper of lamb steak and apples and cheese, polished off the hot chocolate and went to bed at 7:30.  It was already black as pitch, and steady drizzle saturated the canvas so it swelled up good and tight.  I would sleep dry that night.

The next morning I was up before light to eat and take advantage of the lull in the wind.  I dug out the lean-to, the edges partially buried by blowing sand, broke camp in record time, despite the three primes necessary to start my stove.  The canvas was crunchy and stiff, and I worried about keeping my hand warm. There was a lot of frost everywhere.


As I paddled down toward Boscobel, the wind intensified, and whitecaps appeared on the surface of the river.  I checked my maps and it was still over twenty miles down to the car.  Muscoda was about four miles away, but the car was at Boscobel.

The GPS I carry mostly for fun actually came in useful. I learned that I was paddling hard with a full load and making a good 1.3 miles per hour, stopping if I stopped paddling.  With delays every half-hour for hand warming, that would make for a very long, cold, potentially dangerous day.

I stopped just upstream of Muscoda in a small, protected cove and lit a small fire while thinking about my options.  Watching the whitecaps move upstream, it was an easy decision.  I called my wife and told her I was cold and getting colder, and I had taken waves over the bow of the canoe.

Stephanie told me she had just been hoping that I would make wise decisions.  She checked the weather report, which showed 35 mile-per-hour winds gusting to 40 from the west, straight up the river.  I said I would meet her at Muscoda in about an hour and a half, said our good-byes and put out the fire.

The wind, if anything, had intensified and cautiously I picked my way along the shore, trying to stay in water that was deep enough to float me but still take advantage of the tree cover.  It took me an hour to get to the take-out, and I was already bone tired…seventeen more miles would have been too much.

I lit the stove in the shelter of my canoe and waited for water to boil.  Looking downstream, I saw whitecaps moving upstream against the current and leaves were being stripped off the oaks in the park next to the take-out.  I involuntarily shuddered.  “You were right, Max.  I’m really glad I’m here.”

What I learned: Sometimes stupidity masquerades as perseverance.  If you ask for help, you’ll usually get it, but it might take a while.  A wife would rather drive four hours than worry for twelve.  Warm wet feet are better than cold wet feet.

And finally, if you almost cut your hand off, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning of different one.

This story is dedicated to Judi Neumann and all the great staff at the Occupational Therapy Hand Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, and also to my fellow patients, many with injuries far more serious than mine. Thanks also to Dr. Karol Gutowski, a skilled hand surgeon (twice!) and a gentleman. 

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Hello, my name is Darren, and I’m a laceaholic.  I guess the first step is to admit you have a problem.

20140706_143519The problem I have is that I don’t have enough frames ready for lacing. Lace in the summer when varnish dries without heating up the shop, and steam bend frames when it’s cold. Problem is that I didn’t have my bending jigs done for the winter season so I am using pre-bent frames I get from a guy who makes snowshoes.  Goal for October: frame jigs completed, then I can make a dozen frames and be set for the summer.

This pair is a new pattern that took some experimentation to get the lacing to come out symmetrical. There is 60 feet of lacing in the tips and tails, 95 feet in the center footbed. 8 feet wraps the toe cords to add durability.  It takes about an hour or so to do a tip or tail, a few hours (or one full-length movie) to do the footbed.  So total time invested in a pair is about a day plus varnishing time, maybe an hour or so. Total lacing is about 500 feet per pair. I have 2400 feet left on the spool.

I now have four or five pair of traditional snowshoes I have built, along with a dozen other pairs I have build for other folks. I taught building and that was fun, but now it’s just a hobby.  Wife 1.4.3a knits, I lace.

I use Pettit Amber Spar Varnish…that’s the good stuff. It’s $40.00 a quart, but consider the garbage in a can (Minwax polyurethane at Home Despot) costs $15.00 a quart, the extra cost for a pair of shoes might be as high as $3.00. The Minwax brand was good stuff maybe a few decades ago, but they were bought (of course) by a larger company, who started squeezing out the expensive20140706_153346 ingredients so they could make an extra 12 cents a quart.

Pettit (and Epiphanes and all the other good brands) glide on the wood and lacing smoothly, and they don’t foam up and leave bubbles that later need to be sanded or steel-wooled off.  They are easier to use, cover better, and all in all, I can’t see why anyone would use a cheaper varnish unless they didn’t know about the good stuff.

Now you know about the good stuff.  I am exculpated.

I am now prepping another set of frames: sanding, scraping, making a few modifications to the cross members (aesthetic but also functional, adding more toe clearance).  I continue to experiment with lacing patterns and materials, and I have scale drawings of the frame jig I’m going to make.  I’m making some modifications so the toe will rise a little differently, a lot more traditional-looking and probably a little lighter too.  Certainly lighter than these beasts, Alaskan 12x60s, the first pair of snowshoes I ever built, 26 years ago. Little did the folks at Mosquito Hill Nature Center know what they set in motion when I signed up for a class in the winter of 1988.


Now to find some long ash logs from which I can split out staves.  Sawn boards don’t work because they are usually kiln-dried and brittle. You can work around that by soaking the boards for a while, but the big problem is grain run-out. If you try to bend a piece of wood where the grain runs out, it’ll split and you’ll have a nice piece of firewood. The same is true for longbows, by the way.  So you need to follow the grain, listening to the wood with a certain feng shui and taking it slow with the drawknives.

Anyway, first coat is tacky and by tomorrow will be ready for another coat.  They’ll turn more amber-colored as I add coats, probably a total of three.  Leather bindings are already ready to go on.  Then we test them…


This was a few years and a few pairs ago.  I floated. Modern shoes sank.

Respectfully submitted,


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