Pearson International College students Emil Toft of Denmark and Astrid Berge of Norway got the forward positions for this particular journey in the school’s new 26-foot voyageur canoe

Paddling at Pearson: the crafting of a canoe

Contingent of international students combines to create a typically Canadian icon

In the fall of 2013, Mark Wheen, a physics and mathematics instructor at Pearson College UWC, took a group of students on a four-day canoe trip around Salt Spring Island.

By the end of the second day on the water, he began to see how valuable the experience was for them and how much they were enjoying it, and the gears started turning in his mind. They had rented a 26-foot voyageur canoe for the excursion, and he thought, “What if we had one of these at the school? Better yet, how cool would it be to build one of our own?”

He took some measurements of the vessel they were using, just in case he ever got the chance to do it.

Standing next to it now, glistening in the sunlight beside the water on the shore of Pedder Inlet, he beams at his students who put in the effort to bring the project to fruition, and the pride is evident on his face.

When the team began, they could only get a general idea of what it could become from other sources, because there just simply isn’t a lot of instructional material out there for building a vessel like this. While Wheen had the measurements from the canoe they’d rented the previous year and a few books and YouTube videos as resources, some of what they were going to do had to be calculated carefully and developed on their own.

“In terms of rigging the seats and scaling the boat itself, there were some unique problems to solve while building it, but that’s what made it fun,” Wheen says.

“Normally, when you build a canoe, it’s typically 16 or 17 feet long, and so the strips (of wood) you use are that long, but this is a 26-foot boat, so we’d have to glue two or three strips together first before we actually constructed the hull from those strips. There was a fair bit of preparation that went into the building before the actual building took place, that’s for sure.”

They also constructed it so that it could take a sail, which the instructor is looking forward to trying in the near future.

“It was fun,” says Janice Chen, a second-year Pearson student from Hong Kong. Having never worked with wood in any way before, she says, it was a bit intimidating having her first woodworking project of any kind be a 26-foot voyageur canoe. “It was difficult at first, but I think as we got the ball rolling it got a lot easier as we went along.”

When it came time for fibreglassing the boat, however, Chen took the lead, according to Wheen. Because she had previously done some patchwork on the school’s kayaks using fibreglass, she was the only one who had any experience with that –  including their instructor –  but this project was a whole different animal.

“I’d never done a full sheet of fibreglass that covered a whole boat,” Chen says. “It was very painstaking. It’s a very big boat and it’s a very long process.”

The plan now is for Wheen and the students who built it to spend five days paddling it around the Southern Gulf Islands, leaving from Island View Beach on the Saanich Peninsula, making their way around Sidney Island, Portland Island and D’Arcy Island before returning to Pearson.

“It’ll be interesting to be in a boat for five hours straight and not be overwhelmed by sea songs,” Chen says laughing, as everyone looks toward Dom Arsenault, attending the school from Prince Edward Island, who apparently has a few sea shanties he’s been sharing with the group throughout the process.

So what was it like to have completed a project like this, have a finished product, put it in the water and step inside to find yourself floating in something you’ve created by hand?

“It was just amazing,” says first-year Pearson student Emil Toft from Denmark. “When we started with stripping the wood, it was like, how is this ever going to be a boat? And it’s such a relief, seeing it now, like this,” he says, beaming at the

finished product glimmering beside the water.

“My first thought was just, ‘Wow, it’s floating!’” says Astrid Berge, another first-year student. “But I’ve really enjoyed building it. Even though it was endless hours of sanding and looking like old grandmas covered in sawdust. It’s really something to be able to create something like this from scratch that now you can go out and use.”

Arsenault’s parents came to town about midway through the construction and were concerned about whether it would ever come together enough to be safe for a voyage.

“I think they were a bit skeptical, because it was being built by students,” he says, but when they came back out after its completion and saw it, they had confidence in the vessel, which is good. After all, they know a thing or two about boats out there on the East Coast.

“I’ve kind of gotten nostalgic building this boat,” Wheen says, smiling at the vessel and the students who helped build it. “One thing I’ve been thinking about is the significance of the canoe to Canada. These students are coming from all around the world, and to have the opportunity to build a boat like this, with this kind of historical significance, I think that really means something.”

It’s also a fantastic contribution these students have given to the college that will be a legacy for both themselves to leave behind and for the school to have going forward.

And it’s an accomplishment that they are, for good reason, very proud of.

“Maybe we’re so proud of it,” says Natasha Kuzyk of Winnipeg, “because we do a lot of scholastic work here, and put so much time and effort mentally into school. But this is the first time, I think, for a lot of us, that we’ve done physical work with our hands that we can say, ‘I built this. With my hands. With other people.’ And now we can use it.”

The team departs on their voyage March 9.

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