By Greg Amos
Special to The Pioneer
Editors note: Although the following story is not specifically about Mothers Day, we felt it was the perfect match for this years special section because its a heartwarming tale that beautifully exemplifies the great love kids can have for their parents, which is what, in essence, Mothers Day is all about.
Losing his parents old canoe as a 19-year-old never sat well with Simon Helmer, even years after the fact. So he decided to make it up to them several years later by building a custom 15-foot cedar strip canoe from scratch, despite a complete lack of woodworking experience.
I just needed a reason to build it; this is kind of payment, explained Simon Helmer, now 25, who has been working on the vessel since last fall. Originally intended as a Christmas present, its now about 90 per cent complete almost ready in time for Mothers Day.
The two-seater canoe built out of more than 60 half-inch wide, quarter-inch thick cedar strips with routered bead-and-cove edges painstakingly glued together has truly been a labour of love, built by Simon in his free time and on weekends in two different locations.
Starting in his garage, with the guidance of a book from the Invermere Public Library, he created moulds using a jigsaw, then bent the cedar strips around the mould. That work began in September, but as the weather started to get too cold for wood glue, Simon sought a new, warmer location.
Thats when I ended up in my sisters laundry room, he explained. This thing fit diagonally in her laundry room, which is probably 12 feet by 12 feet long.
In that cramped space, drawing from instructions in Canoe Craft: A Harrowsmith Illustrated Guide to Fine Wood Strip Construction, Simon began to build the poor mans yacht as the book refers to the canoe.
I literally have zero woodworking experience; the book kind of skims over some of the maybe more obvious stuff, he said. And its about eight months overdue.
Each strip in the canoe is connected by bead and cove edges created by a router using a combination bit.
With this, theres more surface area for the glue; if you imagine two of them together, you can bend them and theres still lots of surface area where theyre contacting, whereas with a straight edge, youd get an opening as you start bending, he explained. The bending required means the strips need to be free of knots, which sent him on a quest for nearly flawless cedar. He finally found it in Carstairs, Alberta, where a wood dealer had hewed quarter inch planks out of big timbers.
From there, Simon brought the wood down to the exact thickness needed by using a planer which also brought his fingertip down by a few fractions of an inch.
Its another example of how inexperienced I am; anyone whos used a planer would be like, How can you possibly cut your finger in a planer? he said. But I jammed my finger right in there when that thing was running. It spins so fast; I thought it was stationary, and I was just trying to figure out why it was locked up. I didnt even think about it, I just jammed my finger in there like an idiot.
He took two weeks off from the work to allow his fingertip to (mostly) grow back, then resumed the project.
With the arrival of warmer spring temperatures, Simon moved the project back to his garage, where hes started the process of applying fibreglass and epoxy, and is in the midst of adding four layers of varnish to the inner and outer parts of the hull. Hes carving oars out of ash using hand tools. But for every day of solid progress, challenges have arisen.
Making the stems at each end of the canoe during the coldest days of the winter proved difficult because he had to steam bend pieces of hardwood.
I snapped those the first three times I did it, he recalls.
In trying to smooth out epoxy drips created while laying down a layer of fibreglass, hes sanded right through the layer and had to re-do patches of it after having spent up to 12 hours at a time waiting for the fibreglass to cure initially.
Asked why he would take on such a large project, Simon said its something Ive always thought of in the back of my head; shelves and things like that arent as functional. This is something that will last, hopefully, and something you can use.
Which is more than can be said of the canoe its being built to replace.
It was a junk canoe, said Simon, recalling how the vessel was lost during an Invermere to Radium paddle attempt one spring. We took it out before high water; I was portaging my friends across the mud. It was way too early, and by the time we got past the bridge, it was too dangerous, so we pulled it up on shore. We came back 45 minutes later and it was gone.
I probably did them (my parents) a favour, he added. One of the friends I was with at the time sat down on one of the seats and it broke.
The canoe, initially thought of as a project that could be done by Christmas, will be in the water by some point this summer, and Simons mother Seona and father Tony will be the first to use it.
Its for them, to get them on the water; and its for me too, because I dont have a canoe, he said. I needed a project to prove to myself I could do something like this.