How to craft a canoe

A visit to Miramichi Canoes in Doaktown, N.B. is a master class in the craft of canoe building and an introduction to life and lore in “The Miramichi”

  • May 11, 2022
  • 1,631 words
  • 7 minutes
Left to right: Sandra Phinney, Norm Betts, Laura Gilks and Jim Lyons pose with Bella, Phinney’s canoe, handcrafted at Betts’ Miramichi Canoe Co. in Doaktown, N.B. (Photo: Sue Hutchins)
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At 9:20 a.m. on a balmy summer’s day, I’m standing inside Norm Betts’ boat shop on the Miramichi River in Doaktown, New Brunswick. Sweat is rolling off my brow, but it’s not due to the weather. I’m about to bend a piece of wood over a “form” (also called a mold) of a 16-foot Chestnut Prospector canoe. This is just one of 40 cedar ribs that will create the basic framework of a canoe. I’m nervous as can be. The rib’s been steamed, but what if it cracks?

As if by magic, the rib complies, bends easily over the form, and is secured to gunnels on each side. By the end of my first day with Norm, not only are the ribs in place, but more than half are covered in cedar strips. I stand gazing in awe at what’s going to be my new canoe. Inwardly I christen her Bella and know she will be beautiful.

I’ve come to Doaktown — population 856 — at the invitation of a colleague to check out Miramichi Canoes. Aside from building Chestnut canoes to order, Norm offers a hands-on learning experience whereby visitors can learn how to build their own. Bonus: for the same price as a custom-made canoe, Norm and his wife, Laura Gilks, provide several days accommodation and meals in the century-old family homestead.

I’ve paddled for over 60 years and have owned a variety of canoes. Yet I’ve always had “canoe envy” when I’ve been close to a Chestnut. In the late 1880s, wealthy “sports” from the eastern U.S. discovered the rivers of New Brunswick and their excellent salmon fishing. Some brought their Maine-built canoes with them on fishing excursions, and entrepreneurial brothers William and Henry Chestnut saw an opportunity. They started the Chestnut Canoe Factory in Fredericton and in 1905 were granted a patent to build canvas-covered canoes. Within a decade, the company was producing 1,200 boats a year, and was the biggest canoe manufacturer in the British Empire.

Although the Chestnut Canoe Co. closed in 1979, boats bearing the name are still regarded as the crème de la crème of watercraft.

Sandra Phinney helps attach ribs with Barry Bowes. (Photo: Sandra Phinney)
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Norm has loved the smell and feel of wood since he was little boy. His great-grandfather owned a mill that sawed logs into one-inch lengths destined to be spools for thread. “My father also loved wood and was a beautiful worker,” Norm says. “He made things like wooden clocks, so I guess I have a little sawdust in my bones.”

The master canoe maker has worn many hats: business professor at the University of New Brunswick; owner of a company in Doaktown that smoked salmon; provincial cabinet minister. He built his first canoe, a cedar strip, over 40 years ago at the same place where he makes canoes today, although back then the boat shop was just a shed behind the homestead. In his youth, he entered canoe racing competitions in the Maritimes. In the mid-1980s, Norm and his best friend, Jim Lyons, took a canoe building course from Rollin Thurlow, owner of the Northwoods Canoe Company in Atkinson, Maine, and in 1992, Norm started Miramichi Canoes. In addition to building Chestnut canoes, he and his team restore old wooden canoes of all makes, shapes, and sizes. Norm also sings and plays the guitar and can sometimes be found on stage at the Legion, jamming with other local musicians.

Norm’s wife, Laura, has a passion for cooking, and the evening I arrive at the Murray Homestead — a two-story, five-bedroom heritage home on the banks of the Miramichi River that belonged to Norm’s maternal grandparents — she prepares gourmet appetizers followed by a traditional meal of poached salmon, fiddleheads, new potatoes, and her mother’s famous egg sauce.

The conversation over our meal is lively, and I come to appreciate not only the history and traditions of this region so lovingly referred to as “The Miramichi,” but also Maritime hospitality at its warmest.

Jim Lyons and Norm Betts secure the ends after canoe is moved off the frame. (Photo: Sandra Phinney)
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The American poet Jim Harrison said, “You can’t be unhappy in the middle of a big, beautiful river.” I concur, and it’s equally true that you can’t be unhappy in Norm Betts’ workshop on the Miramichi. I don’t remember a time when I smiled so often or laughed so hard. The work crew includes Jim Lyons and Barry Bowes, both wizards with wood. In between quips from Norm — “Jim’s gotta go before I do, so I can do the eulogy” — we sing along to a playlist running the gamut from Willie Nelson’s “You Are My Sunshine” to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

It takes five days to build a canoe; then you need to leave it for a few weeks to “cure” before returning to paint the outside and tend to a few other details.

Steps involved in phase one include: steam then bend cedar ribs over a form, creating the foundation for the canoe; tack on cedar strips with approximately 2,500 brass tacks; sand, sand, and sand some more; add thwart, seats, and deck plates; wrap her tight in canvas and staple; apply three coats of a special formula consisting of outdoor paint, varsol, boiled linseed oil, Japan dryer, and silica flour. In between coats, wipe the canoe down with a big mitt until she’s as smooth as a baby’s bum. Then things come to a halt for a few weeks, to give the canvas time to cure.

Making a canoe is not all work. “Some days we work hard and some days we hardly work,” says Norm.

You’ll likely find yourself, as I did, in one of Norm’s traditional 26-foot fishing canoes, cruising up and down the river, seeing the sights and learning some local history. Should you be there on a Friday, everything comes to a halt around 4 p.m. and a variety of characters drop by the shop for happy hour. This is where I meet Dave Kotowsky, a retired salesman, musician and fly-fishing aficionado who moved here from Florida five years ago with his wife, Cindy.

When Dave was young, he read fishing magazines and saw photos of Canadian fishing camps, with guys holding enormous fish. He thought, I’m going live there some day and all I’m going to do is fish. “And here we are,” says Dave. Although he’s in salmon country, his primary passion is casting for trout. If you’re interested in tying flies, you’ll want to see his extraordinary collection—flies that he makes himself, including wee things as small as ladybugs. He gets as excited about catching a 15-centimetre trout as he would a 13-kilogram salmon. “I love wading and the scenery. And trout are great-hearted little fighters. It’s so addictive.”

Norm also introduces me to Dickie Storey, legendary fly tier and renowned guide. The 69-year-old also grew up on the Miramichi River, where casting for salmon was as instinctive as getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. Watching Dickey work in his small shop is pure pleasure. “Some people tie flies for the fishermen, but I tie flies for the fish,” he says with a grin.

Dickie often drops in for happy hour at Norm’s shop to check the progress on the latest canoe and exchange fishing tales. In this part of New Brunswick, fishing and canoes intertwine in lore and in life.

Dickie Storey, fly tier, making ties in his workshop. (Photo: Sandra Phinney)
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Sandra Phinney and Bella at home on the Tusket River in Nova Scotia. (Photo: Sandra Phinney)
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I return to Doaktown in the fall when it’s time to paint Bella. I choose “Smoked Salmon,” a colour I love and also think appropriate knowing she was created on the Miramichi River, the longest free-flowing river in North America east of the Mississippi, and world-renowned for salmon fishing. Final touches include putting the outside gunnels on, trimming the canvas, varnishing the inside, and adding brass stem bends to the bow and stern.

Bill Mason—legendary paddler, author, and filmmaker—loved his red Chestnut canoe. He often said, “First God created a canoe; then he created a country to go with it.” And Mason never forgave his friend and paddle buddy Pierre Elliot Trudeau for choosing the maple leaf as the symbol on our Canadian flag instead of a canoe. I agree with Mr. Mason. I’m also certain that if he were alive today, he’d be signing up with Norm and the boys at Miramichi Canoes to make his own Chestnut canoe.

Exploring Doaktown

Although Doaktown is small, it has a big heart and plenty to see and options.  

The Atlantic Salmon Museum has an outstanding collection of Atlantic salmon memorabilia tastefully arranged in their galleries, along with some stunning (and famous) fly plates. You’ll also find a “Hall of Fame” and interesting exhibits.

Doak Provincial Heritage Site is where Robert “Squire” Doak lived in the 1820s when the region was known as Betts Settlement. “The Squire” was noted for his generous spirit. Stories abound; well-informed staff provide free tours.

Nelson Hollow Bridge, on the outskirts of town, is the oldest covered bridge in New Brunswick. Ask the locals for directions.

Old Mill Pond Golf Club is a sweet course over hill and dale bordered by a pond and forest. Imagine playing 18 holes of golf for $75 (two people!) including a motorized cart.  

The Ledges Inn has been a fixture in Doaktown for 25 years; its reputation is tops for its fishing and hunting guides, accommodation, and gourmet food. Last year, the family opened the Lower Ledge Gastropub next door, which became an overnight sensation.

W. W. Doak’s tag line is “A Miramichi Tradition,” and it’s well worth stepping into this business where you’ll find everything from rods, reels and thousands of flies (which they make themselves), to clothing, waders, and books about fishing, tying flies, and the Miramichi.


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