Birchbark Canoe
Credit: Kevin Callan

When it comes to camp gear, I find myself torn between traditional and new age.

One minute I’m buying some high tech gadget for navigation and the next I’m picking up some worn-out cooking pot at a garage sale. It’s a constant rivalry between having the next best thing and having something that gives you comfort.

It’s like buying sneakers. There’s a point when your old pair is so badly fatigued that your toes are poking through, the tread is worn smooth and the stench coming from them even offends the dog. That’s when you’re forced to buy a brand-new pair. They’re always lighter, fancier and much more fashionable then your old sneakers; and there’s some excitement behind that. The only thing missing, however, is the nostalgia. There’s no reminiscence; something that an old charred cooking pot could give you.

I have a camping hat I bought long ago. It was a well weathered Fedora I purchased right off the owner’s head at the local farmer’s market. It became even more well-seasoned after a number of canoe trips and looked more like something an old Klondiker would wear. It was hot and itchy, however, and I eventually switched to something more high tech — a quick dry, breathable cap. I still wear the hat occasionally, however. It helps to bring back all the good memories of past trips. 

Canoe packs give me the same sense of debate. I like using those waterproof and bombproof SealLine bags. Nothing gets wet and the good harness system reduces the pain considerably while portaging. I also have a love affair with Frost River canvas packs. I’ll admit they definitely have disadvantages over the SealLine at times. Everything in them has to be stored in separate waterproof bags, and if you’re not used to wearing a tumpline, then they can be a bit uncomfortable. I still love using them. I simply like the smell of the canvas and the traditional look and design of them. I also know they won’t break down while on trip — because they never have before. There’s something to be said about that.

A better example of tradition vs. new age is Northern-Sound replica canoes. I was first drawn to Robert Corradi’s canoes while he was trying to sell at the Toronto Outdoor Show a couple of years back. He had used traditional spruce roots and cedar, but replaced the birch bark with birch plywood. The reasons for the plywood made sense to me. Robert lives in the UK and they don’t have big birch tress to harvest. Using the plywood offended others, however. Some paddlers mocked him, saying it was neither a traditional canoe or a modern boat. It was simply something that looked somewhat pretty and may look nice hanging up at their cottage.

Problem was, the paddlers who mocked Robert didn’t try them on the water. I did. I put one in the pool at the show for a test paddle. It was magical. The design was flawless. One of Robert’s bircbark replica canoes is now at my home, stored beside my Kevlar and ABS canoes. It’s also seen its fair share of wilderness lakes and portages, not stored inside someone’s cottage being displayed like a trophy mount. No canoe — traditional or new age — deserves to be treated like that.