Ode to a friend: My ancient Coleman canoe

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It’s orange. It’s a bit ugly. It’s heavy. It paddles like a tank. But I love it.

I don’t know exactly when my aging, 16-foot Coleman canoe was actually made. Maybe in the late 1970s, but it doesn’t matter.

I do know I am at least the third owner this old girl has had over the years. The notation “K4 Minardi” is still inked in indelible black marker on her hull, from a time even before my dear Uncle Don owned her. Before he sold her to me for, maybe, $50 back around 1988 or ’89. Best money I have ever spent.

I also think I will be her final owner.

Never gonna sell. Well, not until they roll me into a retirement home and my kids complain they don’t have anywhere to store her. I don’t want to be there when we part with her.

We all acquire items over the years that accrue sentimental value. In our family the Coleman 16 is right up there with the much more hideous, but affectionately named “Clown tent” which sheltered us on many a camping trip when the kids were younger. Come to think of it, that tent was almost the same colour as the canoe. Sadly, the gaudy hand-me-down from mom and dad finally fell apart so completely that we had no choice but to dispose of it a few years ago.

That tent could’ve found the way to Ye Olde Cutter Camp in Burks Falls all by itself. It had been there often enough.

My eyes were a bit watery as I lugged that heavy old canvas bag to the curb.

Boatful of memories
Coleman Canoe, on the Rideau River

The Coleman canoe – ready for a spring afternoon Rideau River paddle and fishing trek.

But that Coleman canoe? It’s sitting in the back yard just outside the dining room window, covered by probably two feet of snow and awaiting the spring, when I’ll heave her atop the car once again and renew our acquaintance. Might be a fishing trip with one of the kids, a solo paddle or afternoon with a friend,

It won’t matter. It will be another memory.

Like the beautiful summer day back around 1990 fishing the Severn River near Orillia with my dad (now departed). I had a follow from a pike that looked “as long as the canoe”. Before I could cast to it again, my dad had hooked that ‘gator and was horsing it toward me and the net. Turns out it wasn’t quite as long as the boat, maybe 8 or 9 pounds, but my excited yelp when I first spotted that brute became the butt of many a joke over the ensuing years.

Then there was the trip to Algonquin Park with my wife Cheryl, a novice paddler, and a couple of our close friends . We were planning a 3-day trek through several lakes and rivers but camped that first night on a beautiful little island and just never left. We did what slackers do; day tripped, watched the loons, swam at “our” tiny sand beach, stopped to admire the sunsets, talked by the fire under millions of twinkling midnight stars.

When we moved to Ottawa, the Coleman was the basis for a great friendship with a coworker at the Sun. Gord quickly became a fast fishing buddy. We boated 30-plus largemouth, plus a dozen or more pike, one magical opening day on a particular Ottawa Valley lake (no names, sorry, or I’d have to…). Adding to the magic, those bucketmouths averaged at least three pounds and several were well over five pounds. Honestly!

Find weeds and lily pads. Toss rubber worm. Wait for tug. Reel in hawg. Unless a big panfish got it first. All day. Our arms actually got sore. Unbelievable.

I’ve never experienced a better day of fishing.

“The Colonel”

Gord was also in the front seat that day on the Rideau River in South Ottawa when we found “The Colonel”. He was a military officer who’d suffered a mental breakdown, gone AWOL and been missing for several days. Most folks feared he had jumped into the river and not come out. We spotted him in a well-hidden area along the river bank, munching on bugs, and tried to get him to respond to us. He didn’t, so we called a drug treatment centre maybe 200 metres away because we figured he’d come from there.

We didn’t want to get too close, because we didn’t know how he’d react. But, we stuck around and watched as a staff member went down to collect him from the brush and trees.

An hour later, an Ottawa cop showed up on the shoreline and signalled us over for a chat. That was when we found out who he was. Being a newspaper editor, I was embarrassed not to have figured it out, though in our defence we were miles from where he’d gone missing. But the Ottawa Sun did get a great first-person story.

Gord and I got a nice letter from his family a week or so later. It’s a keepsake, still tucked away in a drawer.

Hope he’s doing okay today.

Ahh, the memories.

That Coleman has been up and down more rivers and on more lakes than I could possibly name. It’s been an incredibly durable, trustworthy and safe companion.

Never, ever, has she tipped on us. Unless we were gunwale-bobbing.

Rideau River Largemouth - Coleman canoe

A nice, fat early-season largemouth caught by the author, while fishing the Rideau River from the Coleman 16.

Not even during an early-spring fish-scouting ride last year, when I was paddling in just a few feet of water along the Rideau shoreline near the Baxter Conservation Area. Still don’t know whether it was a huge pike or muskie sunning on that sandbank, but he suddenly swirled and leaped two feet outta the water just inches in front of the bow. I had snuck up and startled him, but he absolutely scared the bejeezus outta me.

I hooted and jumped almost clear out of the seat. The canoe corkscrewed and wobbled alarmingly before settling again, with me still inside. Funny thing was I never took my eyes off that guy’s enormous, green back as he cruised along the top of the water for 10-to-15 metres and then disappeared into the depths. I guess that’s trust, I just knew that boat was going to stay upright. And it did.

More to come

I’ve often thought of buying a lighter, more modern canoe these past few years. She’s a heavy beast, and none-too-easy to hoist up on the car-top anymore as youth fades into middle age.

I’ve had the pleasure of renting, borrowing and sharing many other boats. Some a lot more sleek and sexy. It’s tempting.

But somehow, despite longing glances and lots of tire-kicking at Trailhead, Jenda, Ottawa Valley Outfitters and other canoe shops, it just hasn’t happened.

We did purchase his-and-hers kayaks last spring, and spent a wonderful summer playing and fishing from those nimble little craft. But there was still time for a few trips in the Coleman. Can’t abandon the old girl entirely, it just doesn’t feel right.

Eventually, there will be a lighter canoe that’ll be easier to haul around. But I think at that point I’ll just need to make some more storage space. I’ll be adding to the herd, not culling it.

Because this old girl isn’t going anywhere. Except paddling with me, once again, when the warm spring sunshine melts away our winter snows…

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4 thoughts on “Ode to a friend: My ancient Coleman canoe

  1. Yep. Insert the word ‘Coleman’ in front of any object and I’m instantly transported to the campsites of my past. The stove that needed pumping to the lantern with that hiss to the presence of metal and plastic coolers that meant it was going to be a good day or evening. Now I can add canoe to the list.

    1. True dat! Still an iconic name around the campsite, though what I have read about their canoes these days is maybe not so great. Seen a lot of folks not so happy with them in recent years, which is sad. My son has one that used to be my dad’s, and it is not nearly as stable as mine. A very temperamental craft, though it is much, much lighter.

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