By Conor Mihell

According to Hugh Stewart, a “cultural custodian” is someone who is passionate about preserving the traditions and values of the past. Stewart himself is a prime example—the 71-year-old has logged countless canoe trips in northern Canada, retracing historic routes from Yukon to Labrador while paddling wood-and-canvas boats, cooking over open fires and favouring leather tumplines to modern backpacks. Stewart was a canoe guide and serves as emeritus staff at a youth camp in Temagami, Ontario. His “winter work” has been manufacturing wood-canvas canoes in his Wakefield, Quebec, shop since 1988. 

“Today, these canoes are seen as relics,” he says. “But for some of us, they’re still the desired craft.”

Earlier this year, Stewart transferred ownership of Headwaters Canoes to the next generation of cultural custodians. Educator and naturalist Kate Prince and engineering and outdoor recreation grad Jamie Bartle both met Stewart at summer camp on Lake Temagami. Prince, 31, instantly fell in love with the utility and aesthetics of wood-canvas canoes after completing a restoration project of her own; and Bartle, 27, discovered the joy of traditional canoe tripping as a camper and guide. Respectively, they started their apprenticeships at the Headwaters shop in 2011 and 2014.

“Building these canoes is much about learning the history of the designs and where they’ve been,” says Prince. “Hugh is constantly telling stories about people who paddled these same canoes and the places they went. When I get out on the trail, this knowledge has made for richer experiences.”

Headwaters CanoesConor Mihell

Wood-canvas canoes are direct descendants of indigenous birch bark crafts. Cedar ribs are steamed and bent over a building form and sheathed with wafer-thin longitudinal lengths of cedar fastened with brass tacks. Once it’s removed from the form, the canoe is covered with a single piece of canvas, which is then treated with a hard, waterproof filler and paint. After a decade or so of use, the skin can be replaced, ensuring a canoe’s longevity. However, with the advent of plastics and composites, the wood-canvas era almost ended in the mid-20th century.

Most of the Headwaters designs are inspired by the legendary Chestnut Canoe Company, which started building canoes in the 1890s in Fredericton, New Brunswick. After Chestnut folded in 1979, Stewart purchased building forms for the 16-foot Prospector and Cruiser canoes. He also acquired a hulking 18-foot Prospector form dating back to the 1920s. These days, such a high-volume canoe is impractical for most paddlers. However, Stewart believes it is one of the most influential canoe designs of all-time. From the 1920s to ‘40s, the Geological Survey of Canada ordered dozens of these manoeuvrable, supremely seaworthy canoes each year and embarked on lengthy exploratory trips in the far north. “Well over 1,000 canoes have been built on that form,” Stewart notes.

So the tradition continues in Headwaters’ board-and-batten workshop, located on the edge of Gatineau Park. Over the years, Stewart built several more forms based on original Chestnut specs, bringing the total number of models to 11. Bartle and Prince both prefer the 17-foot Prospector, a versatile wilderness canoe that excels on multi-week trips on big water. “A big part of working in the shop is dreaming of the trips you can take with the canoes,” Bartle says. “For me, that’s always getting out on long trips in wild places.”

Today, Headwaters’ production is a mere fraction of Chestnut’s. The shop turns out a dozen or so new canoes each year and completes about the same number of restorations. The shop closes each summer for “research and development” on northern waterways. Bartle and Prince handle canoe orders from summer camps and there’s no shortage of vintage cottage canoes awaiting rebirth. The partners are most excited about a growing contingent of wilderness paddlers who have discovered the beauty and performance of wood-canvas canoes.

Both Bartle and Prince admit they fell into this opportunity by being in the right place at the right time. It’s an arrangement that they—along with their mentor Stewart—couldn’t be happier with. “It’s gratifying to turn my business over to people who share my outlook,” says Stewart. “Around here, making money has always been secondary to enjoyment and satisfaction.”