Friday, May 20, 2005

Finding My River Phoenix

During my bachelor days, I lived up in central Minnesota for almost five years and the winters there are long and cold. The cold would keep my inside my apartment for long hours of the day and so every winter, I would take up something new to learn and/or do. Late one fall towards the end of my five-year stint in Minnesota, I woke up to a vision of the cedar wood strip canoe my father had built when I was a kid on our back porch. I immediately set upon the idea of building one and was trying to work out the logistics of it all.

I did some internet research and found the very same plans out of a magazine that my father had built his canoe to and started looking into hints and tips for boat building. During that search, I came across a book for wood strip sea kayak building and my world turned upside down. I love to kayak and own a whitewater kayak and owning a sea kayak which one person could easily paddle made more sense than owning a canoe that takes two. So I bought the book and read it cover to cover as soon as it arrived in the mail. My dream was going to become a reality but I had one very huge obstacle to clear first.

Living in an apartment didn't offer much in the way or room but I thought that if I moved my living room into the kitchen (I never ate at the table anyway), I could lay down plastic in the living room and convert it into a shop. I would order precut wood strips so that all the woodworking would be done with a handsaw and a block plane. The final phase of sanding and working with chemicals to epoxy the surface worried me and I figured all the fumes would get me kicked out of the apartment. Also, at seventeen feet long, my expedition single kayak would run the entire length of the living room and kitchen combined.

Just as despair was setting in, I was telling a co-worker of my problems and he came up with a solution. He had just gone through a divorce and his four-car garage currently had only two vehicles and he would be more than happy for me to use his little shop and additional stall to build my boat. He lived in a town about twenty miles away from me but I figured if I really did a lot of work on Saturdays, I wouldn't have to drive there every day during the week and still finish it by spring.

I drew up my boat plans using my engineering computer software based upon suggestions in the book and adding my own tweaks. After hours at work, I worked another job to get my kayak designs and to use their large plotters to print off full-scale prints to create my forms with. I made several trips to Minneapolis to purchase supplies that I would need and soon I had everything except the wood. In an effort to save money, I decided to mill out my own strips instead of purchasing precut strips over the internet in which I had no say on color or quality so I searched high and low for the right cedar lumber but could only find enough for perhaps half of the boat. Once again my co-worker came to the rescue and I was able to buy some of the most beautiful redwood lumber that a neighbor had left over from a deck project. I was set.

The winter days came and went and I quickly adjusted to my new routine. On weekdays, especially during the stripping process which requires a lot of waiting for glue to set up, I would zoom over after work to get a few strips tacked and glued into place before zooming back home and to bed. On the weekends, I would spend bigger blocks of time working away in that shop. Winsted, the small town where I was building my kayak, is exactly like most small towns in which word travels fast. Soon, I was entertaining a constant stream of visitors who would drive by my co-workers garage and see the progress on my boat. I got into the habit of eating supper at a neighboring bar a block of way just so I could keep everyone up to date and for the only time in my life, I felt just like Norm off of Cheers. I would walk in, sit down at the bar and within minutes, my "usual" would appear before me, a mushroom burger basket with fries, a glass of ice and a can of Pepsi and yes, everyone knew my name.

There was much debate among the populace of Winsted on exactly how I was going to build a kayak out of wood. They couldn't understand how I could get the forms that I used to make the boat hull out of the boat when I was done and I had a hard time explaining it to them despite repeated efforts. I could see it in their eyes that they thought this whole project would end up a flop much like Fulton's Ferry and they wanted to be there when it sank. But I humored them and while eating my mushroom burger and fries, I would tell them what I had accomplished that day and how I had done it.

Mushroom burgers and winter days kept flying by and soon the snows were melting and I was behind schedule. Soon spring would be arriving and with it, millions of crazy Minnesotans with severe cabin fever would be racing outside their homes and I would inevitably get swept up with them. I started working late into the nights, even on weekdays and living on a few hours of sleep. But the kayak was taking shape amidst the wood scraps and sawdust all around and it was beautiful. Even the locals were for once in wordless awe when they came for their progress checks.

Finally the last pieces of trim had been added and the redwood and cedar strip kayak was complete and it was beautiful. I cleaned up the shop, loaded the boat on my car, and for the first time, drove the block to the local bar with my co-worker for a celebration of sorts. The townsfolk showed up in droves to look my kayak over and discuss how and if it would actually float when I finally put it on the water. Mushroom burgers were ordered all around and this time my Pepsi on ice was replaced with beer as I ate my "last supper" with the good folks of Winsted.

Two weeks later, the lake water was emitting little tendrils of mist in the early Saturday morning as I pulled up in my car with the kayak strapped to the roof. I had decided to launch it in the early morning in case it really would sink and my only spectators would be the early morning walkers and joggers. I unstrapped the boat, slipped it into the water near shore, gathered my gear and slid into my kayak. Taking a deep breath, I pushed off, the boat gliding out into the water. I picked up my paddle and took a few strokes. The kayak sliced through the water cleanly and easily, jumping forward with each stroke of the paddle. Soon I was lost in the mist of the lake, enveloped in silence as I continued paddling and feeling how my kayak handled. Like a river phoenix, my boat had risen from the depths of my dreams and now had become a reality.

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