Wooden Wonders

The allure of vintage canoes creates an emotional bond among their owners
Photo courtesy of Julie Bonner Williams

Sometimes a canoe isn’t just a canoe. It’s a depository of memories; a hulled chest filled with voices of those we’ve loved across decades of our lives. It’s irreplaceable moments: parting gentle waters with a single oar in the breaking day; passing cattails and waterlilies, enveloped in the sounds of birds; and the sight of curious fish beneath the glassy water.

Michiganders share the bond of freshwater living, and that bond led Eaton Rapids resident Russ Hicks to start the Michigan chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association in 1995. The WCHA, established in 1979, was sparked when a Wisconsin couple noticed a birch canoe atop a car. Today, the association boasts 22 chapters as far away as Alaska, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

How does one wooden canoe launch an international group for enthusiasts that’s still going strong 45 years later? The answer lies in the allure of vintage canoes — and it seems wooden canoes hold a place of particular esteem.

The connection to old canoes is so powerful that Hicks, a 73-year-old retired English teacher, often pauses to collect himself as he discusses their impact. “Family ties to these old canoes is very strong. It’s very emotional. It’s a tie that binds families together. At boat shows, people will come up almost reverently. They look at a wooden canoe differently, and they’ll start their story, ‘Oh, my uncle …’ or ‘Oh, my granddad…’ ”

Attachment runs so deep that when families decide to sell their canoes, usually due to selling lake homes or preferring that the canoes have a chance to be on water instead of in storage, detailed conversations with prospective buyers often follow.

“In the world of wooden canoes, there’s such a strong family connection. I’ve been interviewed to see if I’m worthy of ‘grandpa’s canoe,’ ” says Hicks, who admits he owns “a mere 12” vintage canoes and rowboats today.

One such conversation led Hicks to acquire a 1911 Rushton American Beauty. It was one of only 60 made, and one of only two known to survive. The acquisition was the result of a random phone call from a Portage couple whose great-great grandfather had purchased the vessel in 1915.

“People who haven’t had a canoe in the family can’t understand. These canoes transcend time and space,” Hicks says. “They take you back to a special time, a special place, special people.” 

Russ Hicks
Russ Hicks started the Michigan chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association to share his love of vintage vessels, such as these classic beauties.
Photo courtesy of Russ Hicks

Plan it!

Wooden Canoe Heritage Association
Search for the Michigan chapter at woodencanoe.org

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