While our Stewart River Pal has appeared in quite a few magazine articles, and already features in its own blog, it’s not the only canoe we own. In fact, although this little cedar and canvas beauty might be something of a favourite, it’s not even the canoe we use most. So to address this imbalance, and to give our hardest working and most well-travelled canoe its moment, here is a blog about our Prospector.
Which leaves me with some dodging to do.
Because while I might have started my Pal blog with a historical introduction, running through the development of this versatile craft, and the temptation, perhaps even the expectation, is to do the same again, it’s not required here. The last thing anyone with an interest in canoes needs is yet another potted biography of this ubiquitous model. Anything I’d write would be mere repetition, a familiar and unnecessary chronicle of well-known origins and illustrious association. I’ll make do then by stating the obvious, and pointing out that our Prospector isn’t a Chestnut original. It’s not even built of wood.
Which is just grand. Because while I might harbour a bit of a thing for wooden canoes, and probably spend rather too much time each day thinking about cedar ribs and curved ash gunwales , I don’t want to use one all the time.
Now this might seem a rather odd confession, and no doubt if I lived in Canada or Minnesota, in the 1950s or early 60s, I wouldn’t go near such strange and deviant thoughts. But while you could pick up something respectable for next to nothing back then, and over there, before setting out with cheerful abandon down the nearest rapid, it’s certainly not the case now. Besides, there wasn’t really the choice then anyway, it was wood, perhaps aluminium, or nothing. Things are very different today.
And then there is salt.
Which might seem an odd substance to raise as a reason to avoid using a wooden canoe, but concerns about sodium chloride are very relevant where we live. For while there is a lot of fresh water to canoe on in many parts of the world, that isn’t the case here in England. Sure we have plenty of rivers and lakes. We’re just not allowed to use most of them.
Now while this strikes me as grossly unfair, almost certainly contrary to the law, and a situation that needs to change fast, this isn’t the place to go into all this. Suffice it to say that Susannah and I often end up canoeing on the sea instead.
This is just fine by me. I love paddling on the briny stuff, at least in sheltered spots, but I don’t think all that corrosive stuff is particularly good for a cedar and canvas canoe, at least not the fittings of our Pal, many of which have a small but significant iron content. But it’s not a problem for something built from Royalex.
In fact very little is much of a problem for Royalex. Shallow stony streams are fine, as are rocky foreshores, shingle beaches, steel pontoons, and a life that includes rather too much time sat on the roof of a van. In brief, a Royalex Prospector like ours is tough as nails. It needs to be.
Like most canoes sharing this venerable name our Propsector can carry ridiculously large loads, and does regularly, from South-west England to Norway, Spain to Finland. Cargoes have included numerous piles of part-sawn firewood, fencing posts, foraged shellfish, discarded rubbish, heaps of archaeological excavation tools (with barrows perched precariously on top), and the inevitable camping gear collection. For a bit of fun, it once carried eleven children and two adults, leaving about two inches of freeboard (don’t worry, the stream was about six foot wide and fourteen inches deep). A tide-stranded family and their worried spaniel was a slightly more serious human load.
To date, our Prospector has taken to the water in eleven countries, floating from below sea level in northern Holland to over 1,700m in the French Pyrenees. At sea level she’s worked her way along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the North, Baltic and Bothnian Seas, the Mediterranean and the English Channel, providing a fine fishing platform from the Ebro Delta in Spain to the mouth of the Norwegian Alta. She was even once mistaken for a stranded whale.
And if our green Roylaex canoe shines when carrying a load, she’s great fun to paddle empty too. There’s just a lovely amount of rocker.
Which leads to my first reference to the people that built our Prospector – Wenonah. Now without mentioning any other names, there are a lot of companies out there offering a canoe for sale with Prospector written somewhere near one end. The thing is, not that many of them look much like a Prospector, at least not to me.
In a way, this isn’t too much of a surprise. The Chestnut original may have had it’s many fans,one in particular, and the deep cargo hauling capacity of this model did a brilliant job if you wanted to work it hard in moving water. It still does a brilliant job. The thing is, not too many people today want that quality. Yes there are plenty who do still need a heavy load hauler for wilder rivers, but not nearly as many as think they do, that believe they want a Prospector. My guess then is, that while many astute canoe manufacturers recognise the popularity of something carrying this fabled name, they have also spotted the fact that few actually want a canoe with nearly three inches of rocker at each end. I do though, and fortunately, perhaps surprisingly, Wenonah do as well.
It’s quite ironic really. While Wenonah have made their name, and a well-deserved one, on the basis of fast, slim, tight tracking canoes, often with little or no rocker, and boat shaped ends, they still offer a deep fat model with a recurved bow and stern and oodles of space below them. What’s more, at least in my opinion, the Wenonah Prospector must be one of the closest canoes to the Chestnut original to be offered in a modern man-made material. Other manufacturers come close, but not many have kept the faith. Not many continue to offer something that looks faintly banana like in profile.
So there you have it, a bit of an anachronism, and certainly a canoe that stands out like something of an elk amongst thoroughbred horses in the Wenonah stable, but an elk with a surprise. It was Alex Comb, the master craftsman who built our Pal, that pointed out the similarities between an elk, or as he put it of course, a moose, and a Prospector. What an apt analogy. As Alex went on to explain, both can often look so heavy, solid and fixed in the water, and yet will then surprise with the agility and speed with which all that bulk can suddenly shift and set off. That generous supply of rocker turns something of a John Deere of a canoe into a prancing stag. I love it.
Particularly on the salty sea, where that hull profile, all curved, uplifted, and unhindered, allows our Prospector to almost shimmy across, even against, the wave trends and shifting currents. Paddle almost any other canoe type along the edge of the Severn estuary or Irish Sea and you are likely to find yourself involved in something of a minor but constant battle, as deep fin-like ends catch the flow. Our Wenonah’s raised ends allow us to alter direction, or often much more importantly, not alter direction, with a mere dip of a sturdy paddle. Our Prospector has seen a lot of different sections of coast, a lot of surf. Asked to do things most canoes are never called upon to try, it’s tipped in a fair bit of it too. This isn’t a canoe that leads a cossetted life.
At the other extreme, what could be more fun, in the still of an autumn day, the leaves golden and red overhead, than to slide that hard-used Prospector into a quiet lake, and turn that elk into a canoe ballerina. Tough, versatile and surprisingly graceful.
What a paradox. What a canoe.
I’ll leave you with a few more photos –