She was a log canoe, and I found her lying on the shore of the marsh after a hurricane. It’d been a really bad storm, and she was washed far in from the water. When I parted the marsh weeds around me and stepped out onto the riverbank, I stared at her in amazement. I knew they hadn’t built log canoes for a long time.
Some were built of one huge log from one huge, ancient tree, but those hadn’t been seen in ages, at least not by anyone in the small country town where I grew up. Others had been built by adding logs together after shaping them to fit. They were beautiful creations. This log canoe was one of those. It was as if God had come up with a special poetry to honor special trees.
Some of the log canoes, usually the ones built in more recent times, were joined with metal bolts that were sometimes galvanized, sometimes not, but always rusted away to nothing. This boat hadn’t been put together like that. There was no rust running down her sides. And there wasn’t the mess of orange granules of metal that you see down in the bilge when a boat has rotten spikes and bolts. Although I could see the separate logs, the boat seemed to be one solid structure. And I knew why: She was built with pegs. They would have expanded with the moisture and become almost one with the logs.
There was only a little problem: This boat was old. She had worked more than any boat should, gathering and transporting seafood, carrying cargo and people up and down Chesapeake Bay, and as she did all of this work, she also worked her timbers. I could smell her oldness before I saw her — that scent of old wood and mud and salt water that had soaked into the logs over many generations. To me it was a good smell. To others it just meant another rotten boat.
I could also whiff the smell of an old engine. I’d smelled plenty of these, even though I was a young boy. When I first looked in, I saw an old one-lunger diesel, low in the bilge, rusting badly. The black oil that had been seeping from her over the decades now permeated the wood. This also smells good if you love old boats. It was the perfume of a working boat. And yes, it meant that maybe there was some pretty good wood still left where the oil had sunk in — which was most places. I dreamed that maybe I could get that engine running again, but there was no crank to see if she would turn over, which was probably a good thing because the compression relief valve was frozen. If I’d had a crank, and if I’d been able to move the piston, I probably would’ve broken my arm. So I sat in the boat, surrounded by the smells of rotting wood and oily wood, and I dreamed.
I realized that she was my boat because I had found her abandoned, and no one came to claim her. I told people in town what I had found, and some of them said, “You know what you got there, boy?” Even back then, in the ’50s, a real log canoe was a special relic from the past. But no one seemed interested in her. So I began to make some plans.
My first idea was to build a cabin on the bow so I could sleep in the boat. I quickly thought better of sleeping aboard because, after all, the boat smelled — some would say stank — and I didn’t want to come home smelling like that. I don’t think my mother would’ve liked it.
My second thought was to clean up the boat so that perhaps I could then build a cabin. It was a good idea, and I trudged through the marsh with buckets and soap and brushes and thick rags. Of course, I couldn’t carry in fresh water. It would have been heavy, and the walk was long, the mud in the marsh deep. And I knew this project was going to take a lot of water and a lot of soap.
So when I got to the boat, I filled the bucket with brown water from the river’s edge. I got down on my knees in the bilge and scrubbed with a brush. There was a lot of dirt coming out — I could see it on my brush — but the wood I was scrubbing didn’t seem to be getting any cleaner. And, interestingly, it seemed to hollow out. A concave area appeared where I had scrubbed. I looked again at my brush and found more than dirt on it; there was also rotten wood well on its way to becoming dirt. This wasn’t good. I was scrubbing a hole in my new old boat.
But there was something even more alarming. As I sat there watching this hollowed-out area, I noticed that water was seeping into it. Oh no, I thought. I’ve scrubbed a hole in the bottom of my boat, and she’s going to sink. Then I remembered that the tide was low and that even if the tide had been high, the boat was stuck in the mud up beyond the tide line. I looked over the side, thinking maybe we had a spring tide. We didn’t. Where was the water coming from? As I watched, the answer to this question dawned on me. It was an answer that I didn’t want to dawn: My log canoe was thoroughly waterlogged. There was so much water in the timber that it was seeping out.
Of course, in addition to all of my other plans, I had planned to float her. I was going to wait for the next extra-high tide. This could come from a nor’easter, new moon, full moon or tropical storm. I had hoped that any of these could have made my boat float again. In the meantime, I’d be able to work on her, make her something of what she had been. Now I had my doubts. A lot of them.
I sought advice from the men in the town above the marsh. Mostly they just shook their heads. One, sitting on a bollard on a barge, told me as he spit from his wad into the water, “Boy, don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
But she had floated in there on the last storm, hadn’t she? She hadn’t been there for long. I would’ve seen her because I frequented the marsh. And I would have smelled her, even if I hadn’t seen her. Could she be a phantom boat? I couldn’t understand this riddle, but I decided not to worry about it. I decided to wait for the next high tide and hope for the best. I figured that even if the wood was waterlogged, I could keep her afloat with plenty of bailing. I was good at that.
We heard the news on the old AM radio in our house: A tropical storm was blowing in from the southeast. This storm was expected to move across Cape Hatteras and right up the Bay, bringing a lot of northeasterly wind and water. This was my chance.
I trudged through the marsh in the growing storm with lines and anchors that I had borrowed. I waded far out into the river and anchored her carefully. I stretched the lines tight and rigged the anchors, hoping they would hold her off the shore this time and keep her from blowing away. My lines were strong and the anchors good.
I knew I had to get out of the marsh before the storm came. I sloshed back through the rising waters, my boots filling with every step. I had considered staying on the boat to ride out the storm. But then I thought, Suppose she really doesn’t float. Suppose she is too waterlogged. What would my parents think?
When the storm cleared the next day I walked back down to my boat. I hadn’t needed the anchors at all. The boat still sat there; it hadn’t moved an inch. The anchor lines reaching out into deep water were still tight. I could tell that water had come completely over the boat. It dawned on me hard and heavy: My log canoe was nothing more than rotting wood and dirt. She still had her original lines, but she was growing into the marsh, melding into that from whence she had come.
All too soon, summer ended, and I had to go back to school. Early in the fall another tropical storm blew through. The tides rose high as the northeasterly gale blew down the Bay. I wondered about the boat I had left behind, both dying and living at the same time. Finally, I got to go back out and take a look one late-fall weekend.
She wasn’t there. I couldn’t understand how the storm had taken her. The wise grownups on shore — the ones who never walked in the marsh, who never sat in old boats, who never dreamed of making old boats new — all told me she had simply washed away in the storm. Maybe so, but as I walked away I tripped over something hard. It was that old one-lunger diesel, half buried in the mud, half covered by grass.
* * *
I’ve worked with many boats since then. At first they were all wood. Then some were plywood and a few were even aluminum. When I first heard of this magic stuff called fiberglass I thought all my dreams had been answered, but not so. I still had to work on my boats to make them do the things I wanted them to do, not to mention float.
In the years since, I’ve seen many people in love with old boats and the joy of working on them. Sometimes they’re working on them just for the pleasure of working on them. With some boats, that’s the way it is. That was the way it would have been with my log canoe until the second storm made even me see that the restoration dream was hopeless.
For those of us who find old boats and love to bring them back and make them live again, it’s a wondrous thing to feel that boat taking to the water upon launching and to steer her to another shore. Near or far, it’s a voyage worth sailing.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue.