World's Largest Wood-Canvas Canoe Fleets

A Celebration

Compiled by Brian Back


Full List






The genesis of this list came in a letter from Hugh Stewart, the wood-canoe builder and former wilderness-trip program operator. He wrote that he believed Keewaydin had "one of the last wooden canoe fleets of any size."  He went on to say that Keewaydin's "commitment to wood-canvas canoes is very, very important." 

Until that moment I had not thought about the significance of Keewaydin's fleet beyond its own program. Upon reflection, I began to realize that fleet size reflected institutional cultures that could preserve and grow skills, attitudes and experiences that no museum could do. Of course, large fleets do not have a monopoly on these aspects of canoe culture, but they represent a vital commitment to them. But surely, Keewaydin wasn't alone. So I set out to find all the wood-canvas paddling-canoe fleets of size that were still active - that is, go into the water. This would cover any institution - camp, outfitter, school, club, organization, etc. — anywhere in the world. (Boy, was I ambitious.)

It was not as easy a task as I had expected. The closest I could come to an organized wood-canvas association was the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. Here I started with some knowledgeable members, then going after every wood-canoe builder I could find, expanding outward, asking everyone for tips or suggestions. 

In the end, all the institutions are camps. The closest non-camp was a canoe renter, Jack's Boat House, in Washington, D.C. that has a fleet of 17 wood-canvas canoes, but they are mostly retired…and rotting. A few North American camps had 8 to 12 canoes, but most canvas fleets were considerably smaller. A few more had 15 plus wood-canvas canoes that had been fiberglassed, like Camp Arowhon, which has one of the largest wood-fiberglass fleets, and a few camps in New England. Not surprisingly, I found nothing in Europe or anywhere else of size.

This is a cultural list, not a legal one. It is an attempt to capture the culture of wood-canvas canoes for the 1999 and 2015 seasons at institutions that have a critical mass, more or less, that preserve an esprit de corp, an attitude and a skill-set that focuses on the travel and usage of the successor to the birchbark canoe, on the special focus and relationship that a wood-canvas canoe instills in its paddler. And it is a celebration of the wood-canvas canoe. It is more than just cedar, tacks and canvas.

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