“My canoe was ready and I was waitin’ at the dock with my foot on the gunnel when my sport cam down with his wife,” the wool-shirted Maine guide explained. “Where’s your boat?” says the sport. “This is it,” I told him. “We can’t go in that,” he says. “That’s a canoe!” “Well,” I said, “it’s what we use’ round here.”
“The fella didn’t want to go. Said he expected a real bass boat. When he saw there was no choice he finally crawled in kind of gingerly, like he expected it to tip over. He had a tackle box the size of a Wurlitzer and his wife had a big sack of knitting and books and binoculars – they had all sorts of stuff with ’em. But I stowed it all, no trouble. These canoes are built roomy.
“You know, by noontime that fella wanted to buy my canoe. Most comfortable thing he’d over had a ride in,” he said.
On the forest-rimmed smallmouth bass and landlocked salmon lakes of eastern Maine, Grand, Lake canoes,
“Grand Lakers,” are known to be”the best craft for the job.” Every guide has one. They are the most common fishing craft seen on these waters, yet elsewhere they are almost unknown.
A graceful, square-sterned 20-footer, the Grand Laker will troll all day on a small tankful of gas, zip along at maximum hull speed with a little 7 1/2-horse motor, paddle with a minimum of effort, and comfortably carry two fishermen with a guide and all their assorted duffel.
The clean, sweeping lines have a simple grace that is uncommon in functional fishing craft. The lengthy hull is long enough to span three of the close-running waves that occur on lakes so that even on a choppy day there is always one wave supporting the middle of the canoe, keeping it from pitching up and down the way shorter boats would.
And, it weighs only about 160 pounds when dry – it can easily be loaded on a small trailer, or carried to the water’s edge if necessary. With proper support, it can even be car-topped.
From the first day I fished in a Grand Laker I knew I had to own one.
“Where do you buy these canoes?” I asked my guide, Chris Wheaton.
To my astonishment, he replied, “Dad and I built this one.”
Then Chris told me how each winter, like other Grand Lake canoe builders, he and his father, Ken Wheaton, go into the woods and select a few straight-grained, tightbarked cedar trees from the high ground above a cedar swamp, cut them into lengths, and haul them home by snowmobile. They mill the logs into certain thicknesses, then store them to cure in Ken’s little shop on the banks of Grand Lake Stream.
“We cut the trees off our land,” he said with what I mistook for pride of ownership. When I didn’t comment he winked, adding slyly,” … about 6 miles off…”
“There’s always been a few men around here who build two or three Grand Lakers each winter,” Chris explained. “Each one has his own way of doing things, and the shapes of their canoes vary according to what a fella is trying to accomplish. There’s no one design that everyone agrees is best.”
For almost seventy-five years, Grand Lake canoes have been built by a handful of old-fashioned Grand Lake Stream craftsmen who work alone, do not advertise, have never sought publicity, and would probably prefer to avoid it.
Their efforts are essentially non-commercial. Imaginative and clever, they build canoes because they know how to. “My time’s not worth much in the winter,” Ken Wheaton shrugs. “Building canoes gives a fella something to do.”
With their canoes they fish and guide, sell some to other guides, or please a few enamored “sports” with a Grand Laker all their own.
In Grand Lake Stream, where more than fifty of the village’s 250 population are independent, unpretentious registered Maine Guides who know what they want and say what they think, the excellence of the Grand Lake canoe is the single subject on which there is agreement.
Buying a Grand Laker involves an obscure and baffling process quite unlike anything you would experience if you were to show interest in buying a boat elsewhere.
“What do you charge for one?” I asked Chris.
“Couldn’t say,” Chris replied. “Dad doesn’t set his price until he’s finished his canoes. Then the first person to come through the door with the money gets ’em.”
“I’d like to order one, but I’d have to know the price,” I said.
“Dad never builds on order. He doesn’t want anyone telling him to have a canoe ready by a particular date.”
“Could I make a down payment and reserve one?” I asked.
“Nope. Dad wouldn’t want to hold somebody else’s money,” Chris answered.
“What if I leave some money with you and you give it to your Dad when the canoes are finished?” I pressed on.
“He wouldn’t like me to do that,” Chris countered.
“Gee,” I said. “It’s hard to know what to do.”
“Yes, it is,” Chris said, ending the conversation.
All that winter I dreamed about Grand Lake canoes. Then one of the kids got sick and my canoe money went for doctor’s bills. It was late spring before I called the Wheatons. “Did you finish your canoes?” I asked Ken. “Yes,” he said. “They’re done.”
“Are they sold?” I ventured.
“I guess so,” Ken replied. “A fella picked one up last month.”
“What about the other?” I asked.
“Well,” Ken said. “I’ve been saving that one for you.” I was flabbergasted. After all that stonewalling, he had built a canoe and saved it for me without saying a word. I barely remembered to ask about the price.
“I’ll be up tomorrow with the money,” I said, then went whooping in to tell my wife that we had our dreamboat, even if we didn’t have the money.
That canoe has turned out to be the best investment we’ve ever made. Its versatility is incredible. We’ve hauled it from the Florida Keys bonefish flats, where its responsiveness and shallow draft gave us a real advantage in stalking fish, to the most northerly roads in Quebec, where we used it to run upstream on remote rivers to reach otherwise inaccessible trophy brook trout waters. I regularly rely on the Grand Laker’s hefty freight capacity during deer season to haul a winter tenting outfit to wilderness campsites – and later to haul the deer out. As an everyday craft for lake and river fishing near home, the Grand Laker excels. It safely handles conditions that other larger craft must avoid.
Speed is also not a problem. It’s designed to be driven by an outboard motor when you want to go someplace and to be paddled when you get there.
Herb “Beaver” Bacon built the first one back in the 1920s when outboard motors first became popular. “Beaver,” named for his industrious nature, couldn’t read or write more than his name, but he knew how to build canoes that moved through the water like ghosts and handled almost effortlessly. He carved a model of the motor-driven canoe he envisioned with lines that pleased his eye, built a mold from its proportions, and from that began making the first Grand Lake canoes. With few variations, the basic design “Beaver” Bacon conceived has survived because it is so good at what it does.
Like all of the Grand Lakers that have been built since, “Beaver” Bacon’s original had a high bow to plunge through waves and deflect spray and a narrow square stern to accommodate an outboard motor. But the hull also rose slightly at the stern, lifting it high and making the canoe respond delicately to paddle strokes.
The late “Woody” Wheaton, longtime operator of Wheaton’s Lodge on East Grand Lake, recalled when Grand Lake canoes and outboard motors first came out. “Before we had outboards a steamboat towed the canoes up the lake each morning, dropping sports and guides off with their canoes along the way. We’d paddle all the way back while the sports trolled,” he explained.
“The early outboard motors were air-cooled and wouldn’t run at slow trolling speeds. They’d overheat. But we loved to use ’em because it saved us paddling, so we’d crank ’em up to speed and go whangin’ down the lake, then shut off the motor and coast. It was a hell of a way to troll, but it beat paddling all day.”
Over the years the various Grand Lake canoe builders have modified their molds to meet the changes in what is required of the canoes. As tackle boxes got bigger and sports began bringing more duffel for a day on the lakes, the canoes grew wider and longer to accommodate the extra load. When canoe makers noticed that fishermen stand and cast more than they used to, they flattened their hull designs to add stability.
“We change too,” says Lance Wheaton, Woody’s son, who has built about forty Grand Lake canoes in his father’s old shop on East Grand Lake. “When I was younger I wanted a canoe that would bash through waves and make time. Had to be the first to the fish. As I grew older, bashing through waves didn’t seem so important anymore. I found I’d just as soon hug a lee shore and stay dry. I widened my mold and made it deeper, sacrificing speed for comfort and stability. When I gave up smoking I gained some weight – had to build the stem bigger.”
Resourceful men raised when money was scarce, Grand Lake canoe builders learned to do for themselves and never to ask for help.
“They’d sooner die than ever talk to each other about how they build canoes,” says Dale Wheaton, who now operates Wheaton’s Lodge and has chronicled the Grand Lake canoe’s evolution. “Each builder learned by his own mistakes. They look at each other’s canoes all day long when they are guiding out on the lakes but they never discuss design ideas or technical problems or new materials or how much to charge for a new canoe. Each man figures it out for himself.”
Grand Lake Stream canoe builder Sonny Sprague recalled a learning experience from the 1950s when fiberglass cloth first became available. The canoe makers quickly recognized its advantages over the stretched and painted canvas they had always used as the outside skin, but had to figure out how to use it.
“When you’re working with fiberglass you have to mix the resin and the hardener exactly according to directions or you make an awful mess,” Sprague explained. “Once I mixed a batch wrong. It finally hardened anyway, so I thought it was okay. But when I set the canoe out in the sun it softened. Hell, every time I took that canoe outdoors it got sticky.
“I’d a burned the damn thing but a young fella came along looking for a bargain and wanted it. He spent all winter scraping that gunk off before he could put a new finish on it. That taught me to follow the directions.”
Ken Wheaton is choosy. “He throws away as much building material as he uses,” says his son Chris. “If something doesn’t quite suit him it goes right in the stove.” Woody Wheaton, on the other hand, was thrifty. “He’d straighten a nail three times before he’d throw it away,” his son Dale admits.
Pop Moore, whose canoes are treasures, stopped building them in 1992. “I just got too old,” he said. The old mold on which some say Pop built some of the prettiest canoes on the lakes, stands idle.
Tim Bacon, old “Beaver” Bacon’s son, who built classic Grand Lakers all his life, died several years ago and no one is building on his mold today.
Jack Perkins and George Bagley formed a partnership and rigged up a mold off a modified Bacon canoe a few years ago. Some of the biggest Grand Lakers ever made were built by these men, but their partnership dissolved and today they repair more than they build.
New production now is pretty much limited to Sonny Sprague and the Wheatons – Lance, Ken, and Chris. But the saga of the Grand Lake canoe is not concluding. In fact, if Chris Wheaton has his way, production of Wheaton Grand Lakers may increase.
In 1943, Ken Wilcaton ordered a new supply of the brass name tags he puts on his canoes. For more than forty years his tags have read “Built by Ken Wheaton, Grand Lake Stream. Maine.” But the new ones are different. They say “Wheaton Canoe,” and the change reflects Ken’s unstated opinion that Chris, who has built canoes with Ken on and off for more than twenty years, is getting darned good. “Pretty soon, I might be working for him,” Ken says, frowning to hide any hint of pride an outsider might try to read into his statement.
* Tim Bacon (Deceased) – “Beaver” Bacon’s son. Built on his father’s original Grand Laker mold (with modifications) from 1940s until 1980s. Many of these canoes still seen in use. Shallower, flatter design. Thwarts had hourglass shape.
Pop Moore – No longer building canoes. “I got too old,” he says. The canoes he built over seventy-five years were noted for “pretty” lines, excellent craftsmanship, and a distinctive dark-green color. Used double-tapered thwarts.
Sonny Sprague – builds two or three canoes each year on his father Bill’s old mold which he has widened and lengthened. A jig he designed can be added to widen stern and flatten hull for faster speed with outboard motor. Sprague canoes have lower bow lines. Grandson Robert Gagnon sometimes works with him and hopes to carry on the family tradition.
Ken Wheaton – Noted for meticulous workmanship and finest finish. Rounded bow design has classic proportions. Thwarts have distinctive space-spaped tips. Ken has built more than 130 Grand Lake canoes since he began after World War II. His son Chris works with him and hopes to increase production in the future.
Lance Wheaton – His most recent canoes are wider and deeper than others and have the greatest load capacity. High bow shape, wide through center, and broad in stern.