By Jon Osborn
Photography By Johnny Quirin
It’s early September off the rugged coast of Isle Royale. Lake Superior, often fierce and hard to predict as a rabid dog, is more kitten-like today. As dawn breaks, gentle waves lap the rocky shoreline with a rhythmic fizz. Wispy clouds give chase across the brightening, blushing sky. In the palm of this tranquility, a lone canoe undulates with the Great Lake’s ancient pulse.
Seated surely at the helm is Holland-based boat builder David Van’t Hof. Near his weather-worn hands, a braided steel line dangles over the port-side gunwale. One end disappears beneath the corrugated water, terminating far below at a flashing metal lure. The remainder is coiled around an oblong wooden hoop called a këpy (pronounced “gebuu”) — a traditional Finnish tool used for hand-lining lake trout.
Fishing for lakers or “leans” in this manner is a local custom hereabouts, although rarely from a canoe.
“When you hook one of these fish on a hand-line from a canoe,” Van’t Hof enlightens, “it either comes to you, or you get pulled to it.”
When this present-day pioneer isn’t fly fishing for grayling in Alaska or tracking deer in Upper Michigan, he’s usually tinkering in his workshop. Imagine a semblance of a steely-eyed Clint Eastwood as an apron-clad cobbler and you’ll have a picture of this craftsman at work. Duck decoys, long bows and fishing lures rise like phoenix from the sawdust and metal filings that blanket Van’t Hof’s basement floor. He might be busy refinishing the stock on a Civil War-era muzzleloader, or tying bucktail streamers for pike.
But there’s also often a boat in the works.
These aren’t run-of-the-mill, produced en-masse watercraft. They’re specialty canoes — one-of-a-kind, vintage wood/canvas vessels born of human hands, meticulously assembled with great reverence for what’s genuine.
Artisans skilled at building these unique boats believe using natural materials makes all the difference.
“Paddle one in water,” says Van’t Hof, “and you understand.”
Channels of Discovery
Van’t Hof’s passion for canoes was born in the 1960s, the era his extended family vacationed at Big Star Lake near Baldwin. A favorite uncle who car-topped a pair of refurbished canvas Old Towns to the cottage granted Van’t Hof the freedom to use them whenever he got the urge, which was often.
“I fell in love with canoes that summer,” he shares, “and realized there’s a lot more to paddling than going out with a church group only to crash into something at every bend.”
One morning before the rest of his family awoke, the precocious teenager slipped outside to float the nearby Pere Marquette River in one of the borrowed boats.
“We’d had a lot of rain and the P.M. was running fast,” he recalls. “Not far from the launch, I flipped the canoe and it cascaded downstream, impaling itself on a log jam.” Sickened by the accident, Van’t Hof had to wait three days for the heavy water to recede so he could pry the tattered wreckage off the sweeper. Once free, he floated the perforated craft downstream to a nearby access point, bailing all the way.
“I remember jamming a rag-wool sock in the planking,” Van’t Hof says, “to keep the water from pouring in so fast.”
When he finally mustered enough courage to confess about the wreckage, the budding canoe enthusiast was expecting a thorough tongue-lashing. But after appraising the damage, his uncle, surprisingly, wasn’t especially upset. Instead, he proclaimed, “Well the gunwales look OK… I think we can fix this.”
The catastrophe proved to be a defining moment.
“It just amazed me,” Van’t Hof reflects. “I’d figured it was a total loss.”
In the coming months during holiday gatherings, he’d slip off to the garage and survey the sawhorse-bound canoe in progressive stages of repair. “That was something to see,” he says, “and it had a profound effect on me.”
As years flowed by, Van’t Hof’s fascination only grew. He took work as a conservation officer based in the Upper Peninsula, where he was surrounded by a vast network of lakes and streams, and a canoe — as it turned out — was the perfect way to covertly patrol these waterways for violators.
After years at the paddle, both on and off-duty, Van’t Hof concluded that a standard 16-foot canoe wasn’t very handy for solo ventures. He borrowed some books, got his hands on some tools and set to work building a compact cedar strip canoe.
Paddling the languorous Kalamazoo River one autumn morning during duck season, a veteran wildfowler complimented Van’t Hof on his honey-hued vessel. As the two began swapping stories, the hunter mentioned an Old Town “Guide” canoe that was collecting dust behind his garage. It was in rough shape, he cautioned, but said Van’t Hof could take it for free.
That winter, blades whirred and wood chips flew in the visionary craftsman’s workshop. The next fall, when the benevolent duck hunter saw the finished product, his eyes welled up at the transformation.
“That project,” says Van’t Hof, “ultimately got me hooked on wood/canvas canoes.”
A few years later, he attended a boat building seminar at the Maritime Museum in South Haven, during which his class built two canoes from scratch. “It was so enlightening to me, just absolutely amazing,” Van’t Hof reflects. “We milled the lumber, put it on forms, went through the process from start to finish. Even though we worked eight to 10 hours per day, none of the steps were beyond anyone’s ability.
“When you look at a finished canoe, it seems like it would be impossible to build one. But when you break it down, it becomes so simple.”
While Van’t Hof often heard horror stories about wooden boats being maintenance nightmares — people lamenting that vessels absorbed water and were too heavy, he says, or complaining the boats were fragile and outdated and not worth all the trouble — he learned much the opposite.
“I find wood/canvas canoes to be quiet, enjoyable and exceptionally tough as well,” Van’t Hof promotes, “given a reasonable amount of care.”
And, he adds, no benefit of aluminum or plastic can outweigh the satisfaction of “paddling something with soul.” ≈
Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland. Photographer Johnny Quirin is based in Grand Haven.