Bill Casselman


Two Feisty Boat Names

As a little boy in southern Ontario, I was a landlubber, a hapless geophile, an infant unfamiliar with the sea and with a wish that such unfamiliarity might be sustained into old age. Although geophile usually denominates a low fungus or slime mold that loves soil, it may properly be applied to my child self, for its etyma in ancient Greek are γῆ γεως ge, geos ‘earth’ and philos ‘loving, fond of.’ Hysterically terrestrial would be an adjectival phrase suitable to me whenever as an infant I was placed near water. My infantile allegiance was strictly to Gaia, Greek γαῖα, mother earth, as the nutrient mama of all beings. No worship of Neptune soaked my nursery.

But my innate fear of water vanished utterly during my first July at United Church Summer Camp on breeze-wafted Lake Lackanookie. True, horrors abounded at church camp, among them the torture of obligatory baseball and worse, the degradation of Bible reading in unison before breakfast while kneeling at one’s folding bed cot. As a special treat, the cot usually folded before one lay down to sleep, thus ensuring that pre-nocturnal limbering of limbs that serves all youngsters so well.

Yes, my aquaphobia dissolved because a tender fate placed in the camp one kindly counsellor. He was the canoe instructor. You will not believe me when I tell you his name was Finn Salmon. You would be correct, because I made that name up, having no wish to subject “Mr. Salmon” to further jibes about his real piscine surname. After all, how many Karpe jokes can a man take?

Mr. Salmon introduced campers, mercifully one at a time, to a common birch bark canoe, a sleek and slender craft with no keel and pointed at both ends. Although a canoe is a tippy vessel, when it is tipped frequently in shallow water during early lessons, one’s fear of sinking at full gargle to a watery grave ebbs, dwindles, and is, at training’s end, removed. Mine was. I fell in love with the wet aroma of moist bark, the sanded, palm-smoothed clutch of a single-bladed paddle, the skimming of waves as a canoe sweetly cleft water, its prow like the filamentary tail of a lacewing leaving on the surface scarcely an evidentiary ripple.

Mr. Salmon further dampened hysteria by insisting that I learn how to swim, which I did forthwith, with a slippery expertise that had onshore mopers cooing, “No brook trout’s belly slips more quickly through a stream’s spate.” Or words to that effect. I mean, my fellow campers were for the most part the illiterate spawn of furniture-store owners who piously and covertly stapled two pictures of Jesus under every sofa they sold.

Mr. Salmon, the ghost of the fearful boy I left behind me so many summers ago salutes you and thanks you for your tender patience.

Etymology of Canoe
Canoe paddles into English text first in the middle of the sixteenth century in its French form which we kept. French borrowed canoe from Spanish canoa which Spain encountered in a Central American language called Arawak which took its word from another local language Carib where what was originally a dug-out was called canaoua.

Bastard Canoe!
Bastard canoe was borrowed into English from the voyageurs’ French canot bâtard whose slang meaning came to be ‘one hell of a big canoe’. It referred to one of the largest canoes that could carry ten paddlers and two tons of freight. But the original designation of “bastard” referred to its hybrid origin: part Montreal canoe, part North canoe. The less robust French designation was canot de charge.


The canoes used in the early years of the North American fur trade were larger copies of Algonkian birch bark canoes. Montreal Canoes were the largest of the voyaging canoes. These were usually about 33 to 26 feet in length and were used on the larger waterways of the main trade routes. These canoes could carry a total weight of 7,000 to 9,000 pounds, including the paddlers.

The Bastard Canoe measured 10m long, with a capacity between that of the Montreal Canoe and the North Canoe. The bastard canoe could carry six to eight passengers and/or paddlers. The North Canoe was the most used canoe in interior waters of what became Canada. It carried a total freight of about 3,000 pounds, including the crew.

Canoe Birch & Canoe Construction
Betula papyrifera, literally "paper-bearing birch," is a tree widespread across much of Canada and provided a smooth, waterproof shell for one of the yarest vessels ever invented by humankind. The canoe was light, easy to repair, lasting, and resilient, and was the first transport over the inland waters of North America. Voyageurs first traded for canoes and opened up what would become Canada through trading for furs.

Native peoples of the eastern woodlands traditionally made the boats in early summer when birch bark stripped easily. After long swatches of birch bark had been sized and cut, white pine, spruce, or tamarack roots were dug up and boiled taut to make the tough thread used to stitch seams. Those seams were sealed waterproof with pine resin or spruce pitch applied with a hot stick. Canoe frames and thwarts were made from cedar soaked in water so it could be bent to the required shape.

As I now rest my paddle on cedar thwarts to dry, I leave you with Canadian advice and one cheap Canadian jest.

The Advice? Love many; trust few; always paddle your own canoe.

The joke? What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? Answer: Sometimes a canoe tips.

Bill Casselman,

June 05, 2016

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Boat Word # Four