The weathered, 90-year-old building form of the 18-foot Prospector canoe solicits excitement in the workshop of Headwaters Canoes in Wakefield, Que., near Ottawa. This metal-clad, wooden hulk was built by venerable Chestnut Canoe Company of Fredericton, N.B., in the mid-1920s. It has served as a template for perhaps 1,000 wood-canvas canoes, built for a single purpose: To navigate the wild rivers and sprawling lakes of the Canadian frontier.
As much as the classic 16-foot Prospector canoe was touted by legendary Canadian canoeist Bill Mason and replicated in modern materials by countless manufacturers, Headwaters’ founder Hugh Stewart insists the 18-footer—aptly known as the “Voyageur” in Chestnut’s system of telegraph codes—is the true “workhorse of the North.” This design has the volume for summer-long expeditions, complete with surveying equipment and mineral samples. It was just the canoe for the pioneering work of the Geological Survey of Canada, which ordered dozens of 18-foot Prospectors each year leading up to World War II.
From a paddling standpoint, Stewart says the Voyageur still can’t be beat. “They figured out the combination of rocker and sheer—by that I mean the rise of the gunwale,” he notes. “It’s a maneuverable canoe and exceptionally dry in big water.”
Stewart speaks from experience. He commissioned the construction of his first 18-foot Prospector in 1971 while he was a university student in Fredericton and preparing for a summer journey on the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories. Later, he used the same canoe on extended trips in the Canadian Barrens, Labrador and northern Quebec. Most recently, he paddled a wood-canvas 18-footer in 2013 on a 60-day trip on rugged whitewater rivers in the Yukon.
Stewart started his own career as a canoe-builder in 1980 when he bought the Voyageur form (and two others) from the Chestnut Canoe Company, which went out of business in 1979. Over three decades he’s built 17 Voyageurs for customers across Canada. In 2016, Stewart turned his operations over to the next generation—31-year-old outdoor educator Kate Prince and Jamie Bartle, a 27-year-old canoe guide, both of whom spent several seasons apprenticing in the Headwaters shop before taking over.
This winter, Prince and Bartle used the ancient Voyageur form to construct two new canoes, which are destined for expeditions in the Canadian North. Inevitably, bending cedar ribs over the form elicits dreams of future canoe trips in the young craftspeople and rouses plenty of anecdotes from Stewart in the Headwaters shop. “You don’t buy an 18-foot Prospector to float around at the cottage,” says Prince. “These canoes come off the form with a destination in mind—often remote, northern wilderness. I get to live some of that excitement and that history through building on this old form.”
Stewart is excited about the energy his protégés bring to the tradition. “This is historical continuity,” he says. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel with new designs and modern materials. You cannot improve on a canoe like the 18-foot Prospector. We can only better our skills.”
— Keep tabs on the Headwaters Canoes workshop on Facebook
— Watch how Headwaters Canoes are built
— Watch an interview with Hugh Stewart in the film Canoe: Icon of the North
— Read photojournalist David Jackson’s profile of New Brunswick-based Miller Canoes