How to Know a Canoe When You See One

What’s in a Name?

How to Know a Canoe When You See One

You know what a canoe is, right? But are you sure? You can’t talk canoeing without first agreeing what a canoe is. Luckily, Farwell addressed this question in one of his first In the Same Boat columns. And here it is.

by Farwell Forrest | December 15, 2017
Originally published in very different form on March 8, 1999

For the better part of two decades, Tamia Nelson and I have written about canoes and canoeing — and kayaking, too, of course.* It’s a subject close to our hearts, and for good reason: We fell in love in a canoe. But before we write still more on the same subject, perhaps we ought to review exactly what we mean by “canoe.” This may not be as simple as it seems, however. Suppose you had to explain what a canoe is to someone who’d never seen one — to a recent visitor from ‘Oumuamua, for instance. He — or she, if you prefer (‘Oumuamuans, like the banana slugs they resemble, are simultaneous hermaphrodites) — has no idea what you’re talking about. What do you tell him/her?

Well, you want to cover all the bases, so you fall back on a definition articulated by Dixon Kemp in the 1884 edition of his classic Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing:

A canoe is a vessel propelled with a paddle or with sail by a person or persons facing forward; she is a vessel capable of navigating shallow water as well as open rough water; and she is a vessel not too large or heavy for land portage by two men when her ballast and stores have been removed.

I think you’ll agree that, despite Kemp’s own reservations (“To construct a concise definition to comprehend a ‘canoe’ is not easy”), this is a creditable effort. But it isn’t perfect. For one thing, Kemp excludes vessels “which, either by bulk of hull or weight of fixed ballast cannot be lifted by two men.” And that exception is indeed problematic. The canots de maître of the North American fur trade were 36 feet long and weighed around 600 pounds, much more than two voyageurs could heft on their own. Make no mistake: The voyageurs were hard men. Seventeen‑hour days were the norm, and they were expected to trot over portages at a fast walking pace while carrying two 90‑pound pièces. But when the time came to get the big canoe across the portage, four men shouldered the load.

There are other lacunae in Kemp’s definition, as well. While he reluctantly acknowledged the existence of open (i.e., undecked) canoes, he insisted that, “with the exception of a few river craft,” all proper British canoes had permanent and substantial decks. In other words, the canoes that Kemp had in mind — John MacGregor’s Rob Roy is an example — would be called kayaks by an outfitter today. This preference for decked canoes undoubtedly reflects Kemp’s predilection for sail over paddle, and it need not trouble us. That said, the use of the tag “canoe” to identify both open canoes and recreational “kayaks,” a usage that was a commonplace in Britain until recently, has a lot to be said in its favor. (See note, below.)

Kemp’s decision to withhold the title “canoe” from any vessel “propelled by oars or machinery” is yet another sticking point. Many canoeists have fitted rowing rigs to their boats without feeling the need to call them “rowboats,” and anyone who’s watched a Cree boatman work a Rupert House canoe upriver with the help of a 40‑horse kicker will realize that having “machinery” clamped to the transom doesn’t strip the boat of its rightful name. At least Kemp recognized that canoes can be sailed as well as paddled, however. This is something that comes as a surprise to most of today’s canoeists, though it wouldn’t have surprised the voyageurs, who took advantage of favorable winds on the big northern lakes whenever they could. Canoes have been sailboats for a long, long time. Micmac boatmen were outfitting their big seagoing canoes with sails several centuries before MacGregor first hoisted a handkerchief lug in his little Rob Roy.

OK. What have we learned? A canoe can be small or large. It can be open or decked. It can have a pointed stern or a square one. You can paddle it, sail it, or row it — or you can put a motor on it. You can even lie back in it and let it drift with the current. I’m afraid this won’t be much help to our ‘Oumuamuan friend. S/he is no closer to understanding what we mean by “canoe” than before. But I hope you are, and I think we can agree that a great many boats that don’t look anything at all like the canoes in our backyards are nonetheless canoes.

In other words, the definition of “canoe” is as fluid as the waters that are the canoe’s natural home. Does that trouble you? It needn’t. When the learned Justice Potter Stewart was sitting on the bench of the United States Supreme Court, he was asked to define “obscenity.” He did his best. He — or more likely, his clerks — sifted whole libraries of law books. In the end, however, all he could say about obscenity was that he knew it when he saw it. Fair enough. I know a canoe when I see one. So do you. And each canoe has something to teach us. For close on 20 years, Tamia and I have been exploring the many uses of these versatile craft and passing whatever we learn along to you. We don’t see any reason to stop now.

Tandem Canoe Icon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions

What is a canoe? Well, canoes come in all manner of shapes and sizes. But all of them are canoes. Canoeists come in all manner of shapes and sizes, too. What do we have in common? We spend as much time on the water as we can, in whatever type of canoe we fancy. Yet when everything is said and done, we’re all in the same boat.

That’s what’s really important, isn’t it?

*A reminder: I’ve a deep‑seated aversion to using “paddlers” and “paddling” to describe, respectively, (1) the people who spend time in canoes and (2) what they get up to while they’re on the water. I prefer “canoeists” and “canoeing,” even if the canoe in question has a deck and the paddle has two blades. For one thing, this eliminates ambiguity. (Is the occupant of a canoe under sail still a “paddler”? And is he “paddling”? I think not.) I also prefer to reserve the “kayak” tag for the aboriginal skin boat. To my mind, today’s recreational glass and plastic “kayaks” are the direct descendants of MacGregor’s Rob Roy, not aboriginal hunting craft. This eccentricity puts me at odds with rest of the … er … canoeing world, I know, and I don’t expect others to adopt my idiosyncratic usage. I haven’t even persuaded Tamia. But I’m a stubborn cuss, so I’m not likely to change my ways anytime soon. I hope you’ll make allowances.

Read more: Boats and Gear | Canoe, Kayak, or SOT? | Two Million Words and Counting

Canoe Broachng To - 1821 - George Back - Engraving on

Spread the Word About This Article - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions
Spread the Word! Do you want to tell someone about this article? Just copy this HTML code …
… and paste it in your e‑mail composition window. That’s all it takes.

Questions? Comments? Then click here to send Farwell an e‑mail!

Verloren Hoop Colophon - (c) and TM Tamia Nelson/Verloren Hoop Productions