Caught In the Current
Randy Pew builds canoes the old-fashioned way: by hand, with passion, the way his ancestors did. Now he says he can't go on. And claims to be happy about it.
By Phil McCombs
"To me, there's something about getting out on a lake early in the morning and just paddling," he's saying, only a slight tremor in his voice to betray the emotion. "It's just something that gets to me. There's a lot of people believe these big fancy boats is the way to go fishing, but they never been in a canoe where you can get up to these headwaters where a boat can't go."
Suddenly, he's crying.
His stepson Randy Pew, walking into the shop, pauses in surprise. Then he sits quietly and listens.
Lem removes his glasses, wipes his eyes.
"My dad and I were trout fishing at a beaver dam," he continues. "The ground was so marshy that we couldn't portage. Well, my dad says, 'Let's go!' So we started paddling, both of us fast as we could, and we made the canoe bash over the beaver dam and down into the water below."
He shakes his head in wonderment. A fleeting moment long ago, it will never come again.
Lem and Randy are canoemakers, like Lem's father before them. For half a century, the family's Merrimack Canoe Co. has produced Ospreys and Souhegans, Prospectors and Baboosics, Travelers and Tennesseans--brightly hued boats acclaimed as classics, among the most beautiful ever to touch water.
Now Randy, 45--he's been running Merrimack since Lem semi-retired a decade ago--is going out of business, or selling out, or something. He and Lem, 69, are not sure themselves what will happen next, but in any case it's clear that something glorious took place in this wood shop, and that now it's ending.
Randy, with long brown hair and a beard that doesn't quite conceal scars left by a surgeon who temporarily removed his jaw to reach a tumor when he was 17, gazes out a sun-splashed window.
"My first canoe trip," he says of a time when he was 11 or 12 years old, "we came to a little beaver dam. It was the first time I ever went trout fishing, and we got out and stood on the beaver dam. We were in one of our little Ospreys."
"Probably one of the first ones I ever built," Lem says.
On the wall behind them, a faded poem--"DAUGHTER TO FATHER"--is stapled amid dozens of canoeing snapshots. It's by Randy's daughter, Rachel Pew, 20, who's in college over in Nashville, studying business.
Randy indicates her picture by the poem.
"That's Rachel canoeing down at the Okefenokee Swamp, where the Suwannee River starts," he says. "When she first got into a canoe, she was 8 months old, she sat in the bottom. I put her poem in our catalogue. I still can't read it without getting teary."
Well, Dad, I'll tell you, Rachel wrote.
My life hasn't been no flowing river.
It's been winding,
Fast and slow . . .
But the whole time,
I keep paddling on,
Coming to still waters . . .
And when there's a fork in the river,
We may go our separate ways,
But I know you'll always be around
The next bend,
Waiting for me there.
The River Forks
Canoes are dreamers' boats, humble craft bearing precious memories slowly down deep streams of time--"beautiful anachronisms," in the phrase of outdoor writer Gordon Grant.
While the American paddle sports boom of recent years has been propelled by a craze for white-water and recreational kayaks--cheap, lightweight, rock-tough--it's still a canoe that touches the soul, a primordial American archetype, harking to days of voyageurs, Lewis and Clark, Native American birchbarks.
"It's a mythology, an allegory, perhaps, for some kind of freedom," muses William Spitzer, president of the Alexandria-based American Canoe Association. A workaholic who began canoeing--and kayaking, too--after a heart attack, Spitzer found a "sense of spirituality in river landscapes. The Potomac was my therapist."
Indeed, ACA lobbyist David Jenkins thinks the "explosive" interest in paddling--ACA membership is up eightfold in five years--comes from "people looking to escape. You've got cell phones, the Internet, traffic jams. Your life is such a mass of hustle and bustle and technology and frustration that getting out on a river--just you and nature--has a tremendous appeal."
Many larger, more commercially viable manufacturers, Jenkins notes, "giddy" with new possibilities, are rushing into mergers: Mad River and Wilderness Systems; Dagger and Perception, under the new Watermark rubric; even Old Town Canoe, granddaddy of them all, has been acquired along with Ocean Kayak by Johnson Worldwide.
Eugene Buchanan, editor of Paddler magazine, suggests in a recent issue that the commercial frenzy "might take away some of the freedom and innovation enjoyed by smaller operations."
As Lem puts it, "I guess us old people who work with their hands, those days are almost over."
The ACA's Jenkins agrees. "These big companies are making sure they produce all kinds of paddle boats, whereas small mom-and-pops, like Merrimack, are selling to a specialized market at a higher price point, competing with big guys that have bigger advertising budgets."
Merrimack isn't in a position to benefit from the current white-water craze in any case, since its fiberglass (and now Kevlar) hulls can crack on sharp impact with rocks, unlike the new breeds of foam and polyethylene. Merrimacks are for lakes and calm rivers.
"If Randy Pew could do what he wanted and still make a go of it," Jenkins speculates, "he'd be okay. But probably he's getting forced more and more toward where the mass market is going."
It seems a shame. The Merrimacks--with their exquisite cherry ribs, sturdy ash thwarts and gunwales, hulls gleaming in rich autumnal hues--are so attractive that people have been known to hang them in their living rooms as art.
"The love-at-first-sight canoe," Paddler swooned in a 1998 review of the Baboosic. "Could rightly become a museum piece." "Striking beauty," agreed Canoe & Kayak magazine.
Yet Merrimack's market remains tiny. Randy sold 400 boats his best recent year. They go for from $1,085 to $1,715, more expensive than most recreational canoes, but not exorbitant, considering the craftsmanship involved. Brad Reardon of Springriver Corp. in Rockville has sold Merrimacks ever since he spotted one by chance and felt moved to stock them. "They don't sell too quickly, though," he laments. Most customers head for the kayak sheds.
Surely, you'd think, there's some way to keep Merrimack afloat. Trenton, N.J., business consultant David Forrest, a fan, drew up a financial plan earlier this year and presented it to Randy. Forrest would take control of Merrimack for $65,000, implement an aggressive "marketing and branding" campaign plus sharp production increases, and everyone would get rich.
No deal, Randy said. For one thing, it wasn't enough cash.
For another, Randy is not interested in increased production. He's a perfectionist, an artisan, a master craftsman. He's interested in beauty, not business.
In fact, personally and existentially speaking, Randy Pew is interested in decreased production. Not to put too fine a point on it, he's sick of grinding out one damn canoe after another.
"I'm kinda burned out," Randy admits.
Rise and Fall
Lem's father, L.H. Beach, was a hunting and fishing guide who grew up in Maine where his family built traditional wood-and-canvas canoes. When synthetic materials began to be used in boat building, old L.H. didn't like the thick all-fiberglass hulls for canoes, and began tinkering.
In the mid-1950s, he came up with a thin fiberglass hull reinforced with wooden ribs. This gave the hull necessary stiffness, and resulted in a lightweight canoe with a great classical wooden look.
"THE FIBERGLASS CANOE THAT LOOKS LIKE A CANOE" was his slogan.
L.H.'s innovation was timely. Wood-and-canvas canoes were heading toward extinction, as John McPhee noted in his 1975 book, "The Survival of the Bark Canoe." "They were seen about as frequently on canoe trails as bark canoes apparently were 50 years ago. What had replaced the wood and canvas were new generations of aluminum, Fiberglas and plastic--canoe simulacra that lacked resonance, moved without elegance, fairly lurched through the forest."
Not L.H.'s boats.
Their grace, light weight and good looks found a ready, though small, market. Building one a week at his new home in Merrimack, N.H., L.H. never greatly expanded production. Today's Merrimacks are faithful to L.H.'s original precepts.
It was Lem who began producing Merrimacks in quantity. After leaving the Navy in 1967 (L.H. died the previous year), Lem began building canoes full time after trying factory jobs and realizing he wasn't a clock-puncher. As a canoemaker--though the workdays were often grueling--he could still take unscheduled breaks. Have a life.
Lem married Randy's mother about this time. A transplanted Tennessean, Doris also had two older boys, Vernon and Lloyd, and soon the whole family was making canoes, first in Merrimack and then in Lem's carport here after the family moved south in 1972 to escape the Northern winters and be near Doris's family.
"I was right there with him," Doris recalls, her rocking chair gyrating in energetic syncopation with Lem's in the living room of their modest, immaculate home--located next door to the shop where the canoes have been made for some years now. "I molded and ribbed and oiled, and I always cut the fiberglass."
"We'd put [our son] Sean right in the canoe we were working on," Lem recalls--Sean and Cora they'd had together--"we'd give him a little cube of wood to cut his teeth on."
Today, family members fondly recall the intimate long-ago times they'd shared working together to nurture a proud family heritage. "LET OUR FAMILY TRADITION BE YOUR FAMILY HEIRLOOM," Merrimack's recent ads say--the slogan overlaid on photos of Randy and Rachel plying still waters.
In 1979--most of the family was home working on canoes--the fourth Merrimack generation began arriving: Rachel; Cora's daughter, Jessica; and Lloyd's son, Lemuel. Vernon's and Sean's children came later.
"They're all interested in computers," Doris says with a mixture of pride and regret. "They're not going to make no canoes."
Merrimack's decline was long and tumultuous.
It was hit hard by the '73 oil embargo ("We couldn't get the resin to wet the fiberglass," Doris says); the '79 oil crisis, and the '89 recession in New England, which was their major market.
Randy moved energetically after he bought Lem out, designing new models and spinoffs (including an elegant half-canoe writing desk), hiring additional workers, improving quality and production, expanding the dealer network.
"I just built canoes," Lem marvels. "He's made it an art."
To this day, the old man hasn't let go entirely. His delicately curved yokes and hand-strung seats--Lem still stretches nylon cord around an ash frame to astonishing tautness with his bare hands--remain key design components.
But Randy soon hit rough water. He'd expanded sales in the Midwest only to see them recede in the Mississippi floods of '93. A few years after that sales picked up and he was expanding into the Japanese market when the Asian financial crisis hit.
"The Japanese had ordered 80 boats," he recalls wearily, "and they canceled the order."
If this weren't enough, Lem's heart problems had drained family finances, and Randy had begun informally selling off "shares" of Merrimack to meet expenses.
He no longer owns the company outright.
One investor, local businessman Hubert Bennett, summarizes succinctly: "It would take $260,000 to retire the stock with no loss to current stockholders, plus pay the indebtedness. . . . The time has come where this business needs to be acquired by a larger company."
Randy almost seems glad.
"This Monday was the first time in 20 years I didn't have employees," he says, tinkering alone in the shop. While fall and winter have traditionally been a slow period, he always kept a few people on board to build inventory for the spring rush. Now, planning to sell or just drop the business entirely, he's let everyone go.
"What a relief!" he breathes. "I was always worrying about who'd make it in to work, how to schedule the work. It was to the point where nothing ran unless I was here. I was production, sales, office manager, maintainence."
He wants to build custom furniture, on a more relaxed schedule. Maybe turn out a few special-order canoes.
And spend more time canoeing. He loves to white-water.
He bends over lengths of cherry, trying to join them seamlessly into a beautiful custom-made gunwale for his personal white-water hull.
Made by a big, expanding company.
Of foam and polyethylene.
Downtown Crossville is drab and booming, a sleepy county seat transformed in recent years by an influx of retirees and vacationers drawn to Cumberland County's primal woodland beauty.
Stroll into Hill's Department Store, and there--high on a wall--is a Merrimack, positioned to reveal its gleaming interior woodwork.
The store is owned by Cumberland County Executive Brock Hill, whose office is in the old brick courthouse down the street. Mr. Hill isn't in this morning, but his secretary, Susan L. Hunter, would be glad to discuss Merrimacks.
She and her husband, Bill, own four. They are best pals with Randy and his wife, Susie. The couples go canoeing together--picnics, overnights.
"I mean, you can't beat a weekend on the Caney Fork with Randy and Susie," Hunter muses. "It's unfortunate when you don't take time to do the things that are important in life, and canoeing is so important."
Hunter introduced Randy and Susie a quarter-century ago at a rocking-chair contest Susie won by rocking continuously for 25 hours. The girls took to hanging around Lem's canoe shop, and one day Susie flirtatiously asked Randy to give her--for the heck of it--a little clamp used in gluing gunwales.
He did, and she knew she had him.
Hunter is sad about Merrimack. "I don't want it to end," she says. "I don't want him to stop, but"--a pause--"this may be a steppingstone to something else. He's just gifted."
A few blocks away, Susie Pew bends over her work in the busy picture framing shop she's owned for 17 years. She's a slim woman with long soft hair, bib overalls and a big cloth shoulder bag--now resting on a chair--that has "REJOICE AND DANCE" sewn on it. Susie teaches modern dance. Canoeing, she likes to say, "is like dancing on water."
She looks up from her work, resting a moment to consider a few questions about the family and its canoe business.
Why did Lem weep? What was he struggling to say?
What's really going on with Randy?
What's the story here, anyway--small-business economics, family emotional patterns, typical American midlife crisis?
She doesn't have to think long.
"Deep down," she says softly, "they are--we are all--sad to see what is happening. Randy will never say it, it would probably hurt worse. It's something they've been doing a long time, and it's hard to let go of that."
Ten minutes later--all it takes to drive back over to the canoe shop on the edge of town--Randy, alone, still tinkering with the cherry gunwales, contemplates his wife's words.
"To me it's not sad," he insists. "It's just another move on my part. It may be sad to them because they're not here every day doing this crap. In fact, I look forward to being able to go out and paddle and not be tied to production."
He sights along a cherry strip.
"It's not a magical thing. It's just a product we produce and put out. If I wanted to keep on struggling with it, I'd be building boats right now."
His eyes remain on the wood.
"There is no sentimental value, it's just a job. Sure, I'd like to see the business keep going, because it's all my hard work, but it's a weight off my shoulders. I just want to find someone to take it over, rather than shut it down. I'd still do part-time work, maybe even design a boat or two."
He concentrates on the gunwale. A song on the radio fills the shop:
"Teach your children well."
Susie and Randy, married nearly a quarter of a century now, renewed their wedding vows a few years back with a champagne bash for 50 friends at nearby Camp Nakanawa.
"Everybody just canoed and played on the lake," Susie smiles. "Just about everything we do is usually based around canoes--pleasure, work. Whenever we take a vacation, it's to go canoeing."
They've delivered canoes to dealers together over the years, attended canoe shows, trekked to New Jersey for specially thin-cut wood.
"I can't say Rachel was conceived in a canoe--" Randy ventures.
"She sure was raised in one!" Susie interjects quickly.
Then she adds: "Rachel always wanted to take over the canoe company. She admires her dad. She's proud of the canoes."
They're in a restaurant. Since Rachel left for college, Susie and Randy eat out almost every night--he's in the habit of rising at 4:30 a.m., and her days are long, too.
As married couples will, they spar.
"Well, it's sad," Susie says.
"What's sad?" Randy retorts. "Mom said last week she asked Lem if he had any emotions about getting out [10 years ago] and he said, 'Hell no, I've had my share of it. It's on Randy's back now.' "
"I think you all have some emotions," she persists. "You got to."
"No, I don't got to!"
"I just hope we'll have some canoes."
"Oh, we will. I'll build 'em."
When they were first married and living in California, where Randy was posted in the Army, they rented a canoe once.
"It was aluminum," Randy recalls. "There were ducks on the lake. It was the only time I ever rented a canoe, or paddled an aluminum canoe." Now, late at night sometimes, they'll go out on a nearby lake, just to look at the moon.
"Your artistic talent attracted me more than the canoes," Susie reminisces. "You were working with clay, carving a mermaid. You made me a plaque with a poem on it."
Randy thinks back.
"Something," he says, "about 'When you meet a special person, you need to hold on to that person for a lifetime.' "
" 'Be friends for life,' " she says, " 'and let that person give you love and friendship.' "
" 'Lifetime love and friendship,' " he says, "or something."
If Rachel had childhood dreams of running Merrimack, she's changed her mind--maybe. It's not clear. After all, she's 20.
"I really don't know how I feel about it," she says. "We've not really talked about it much."
She's on the sofa in her grandparents' living room, a bright young woman in a blue sweatshirt.
"Your grandfather was aggravated by the business," Doris tells her. "Your father was aggravated. You want to be your own person."
"There's a lot to be said for bringing home a paycheck," Lem adds.
He and his wife are rocking vigorously.
"I liked growing up with my parents owning their own business," Rachel says, exploratively. "They were here, they got off at 5. . . . I guess I know in theory how to build canoes, but I couldn't actually do it."
"Well, that's the way I learned," Lem asserts, "just watching someone do it." He seems to have switched sides, exploratively.
"She don't need to be in that fumes and fiberglass!" Doris counters. "You never have any fingernails left! She's going to get an education and not have to do that."
"I remember the first day my boyfriend and I walked into the shop," Rachel smiles. "He almost passed out."
"When Al Gore was campaigning for the Senate he walked in the door and walked right back out," Doris recalls, calmer, chuckling. "One of his aides apologized, said he was tired."
Rachel says she understands her father's decision. "For him to be happy is important," she says. "He's not good at management. . . . The artistic thing, that's what he enjoys."
"If he wasn't colorblind he'd be an artist," Doris says.
Rachel, still exploring, allows as how she might be able to run Merrimack, but wouldn't want to live in Crossville.
"I'm ready for something new and challenging, but if Dad kept the business, I'd have to run it from someplace else."
Doris and Lem rock. Nobody says anything for a moment.
"I don't think it will completely die out," Rachel says finally, her voice a soft question mark.
"If someone asks for a canoe, Dad will build one--don't you think?"
Someone in this big family, you'd think, must want Merrimack.
But Lloyd, Randy's oldest brother, isn't interested. He has a civil engineering firm in Minneapolis. His sons aren't interested, even Lemuel (named after old Lem), who loves canoeing. "Oh, goodness, no," Lemuel says. "I have too many other interests. I'm heavily into computers."
Cora, Randy's half sister, isn't interested. She's an electronics technician in New Hampshire, near their old home. "It smells really bad," she says of canoemaking. Her daughter Jessica isn't interested, either.
Sean, Randy's half brother, isn't interested because he's making too much money producing SUV bodies for Nissan near Nashville.
Vernon, Randy's other brother, isn't interested because he can't afford Randy's asking price.
Besides, he already owns a canoe company.
He started Navarro in his California garage 20 years ago with a couple of Lem's molds and has since moved to expanded, modern quarters in Oregon.
Navarro is prospering, Vernon says. He's hired more workers, increased production. He loves the artistic side of it, he loves the business side of it, he loves canoeing with his wife and daughters.
"EXCEPTIONAL HAND-CRAFTED CANOES FOR THREE GENERATIONS" is the slogan in his catalogue, which goes on to describe "our grandfather" L.H. Beach's "original wood-ribbed fiberglass canoe."
The Navarros look familiar. In fact, they look like Merrimacks. The brothers exchange verbal pleasantries, naturally, over whose is best.
Unlike Merrimack's catalogue, however, Navarro's doesn't mention Lem.
"I've always been the black sheep of the family, the one that moved far away," Vernon says, "So [Lem and Doris] are more attached to his company than mine."
Randy's version is that his brother worked with the family "as little as possible, then we set him up."
Vernon says he's concerned about their parents.
"If Merrimack closes down," he says, "that would really get to my dad."
Randy straps a Tennessean atop his station wagon and sets off for a paddle on Bee Creek Lake in the woods near his house.
"It ain't the 18-hour days I mind," he says of his former life at the helm of Merrimack. "It was just the repetition--over and over. When I'm working just by myself, in wood, it's like therapy."
It's a splendid autumn afternoon. Randy parks, effortlessly shoulders the green Tennessean, makes his way down to the water.
Soon he's paddling. The canoe glides through the forest. Reflections of trees play on sparkling brown water.
A heron, standing on a rock.
"Rachel and I got real close to a great gray heron. He let us get right up to him, then he took a fish and left."
His voice, almost a whisper.
"See this big hole in the bank? Usually you can't see these because the water is higher. That's either a beaver or otter lodge."
A wild turkey, taking flight.
"Susie and me and Bill and Susan Hunter, we were paddling on Daddy's Creek and we heard a snort. I said, 'I bet that's a buck,' and they said, 'Naw.' We paddled around a corner and there was this big buck."
Randy's eyes, scanning the tree line. His face, a mask of peace.
Maybe it isn't sad. Maybe it's what he said the other day, he's just moving on to do something else with his life. An artist, entering a new period.
The Picasso of canoes?
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company