While some will travel from around the world or from the nearest city to get away from it all and enjoy beautiful and breathtaking Georgian Bay and its surrounding lakes and rivers outside our doors, others bask year-round in the beauty of it all by making their life’s work revolve around the natural world here in the neighborhood of Parry Sound and Muskoka.
A livelihood that isn’t harmful to the environment is tough to find in today’s modern age with commutes, waste disposal and energy consumption. But in the thick of it all, Pam Wedd, a dreamer, good with a paddle, compassionate and dedicated to her work, has found a quiet, busy and rare opportunity with Bearwood Canoes.
“The river heads east outside my door and is a wonderful paddle, says Pam about her morning trip to work in her Bearwood Canoes shop. “Before the sun comes up, there is always a mist on the water.
There’s something really special about how quiet it is, with the mist rising, the sun rising and the only sound is the drip of the paddle on the water.” “I just heard a story about the commute to work on CBC,” she adds. “I step into the canoe and go for a half an hour paddle before I start my day in the shop, there aren’t too many people as lucky as that, that’s for sure.”
At Bearwood, Pam has been handcrafting and restoring wooden canoes for over 15 years. Free from the stresses of urban life, which she left behind over 19 years ago, Pam found a freedom in the community of Parry Sound with its then emerging White Squall Outfitters family and a growing interest in canoeing and kayaking around Georgian Bay.
“I went to Tapawingo, the girls camp on the south channel, when I was in high school in the mid 60’s, there was archery and arts and crafts…. for some reason canoeing just really called to me. All I wanted to do was be out in the canoes all the time,” says Pam, on her early discovery of her love for canoeing.
“The first summer I went to camp, I came home and all I talked to my mom and dad about was the canoeing,” she added. “So my dad took me and bought me my first canoe, I was 14 at that point. It was really special.”
She later went on to get her Bachelors of Science degree in Human Kinetics at the University of Guelph. Following that, she began working at Camp Tapawingo (Toronto YWCA Outdoor Centre) and stayed there for over 13 years running canoe trips, adult recreation weekends and outdoor education programs.
“At Tapawingo, we gradually turned the camp into a year round outdoor centre. That’s when I started fixing up the canoes, it’s where I got my start in the canoe repair end,” says Pam.
While helping the development of White Squall through leading outtrips and other activities, Pam kept busy with her own passion of repairing canoes, at that time in a cramped basement. Also a finishing carpenter for a log home building company, Pam found many ways to tie all of her interests together.
“I thought why don’t I try fixing or building a canoe or two?” she recalls. “In the spring of 1989, I just kinda didn’t know enough to stop … so my canoe building had a life of its own. One door closes and another one opens. There is no lack of canoes to fix and there is always another new one to build,” . Combining her love of canoeing and working with wood, it wasn’t long before Pam started Bearwood Canoes in 1989 and found the need to expand into a larger space and a new location.
“I was bringing canoes in and out of a basement window at first and had to work around a furnace… it was pretty cramped. That was the first year. Then I found an old barn from the 1920s right on the Seguin River. It was perfect. It took half a year to renovate the barn. I had a FedNor grant and a business plan. It was great how FedNor could see past the poor farm barn, with swallows fl ying in and out and cow manure and could see that I could build canoes out of it. I’m really indebted to that for sure,” Pam says. Currently, Bearwood Canoes operates on Highway 518 near Orrville, out of the fully renovated old post and beam barn, complete with the smell of cedar in the air, shavings on the fl oor, a paint room and a large loft for storage. At her canoe shop, she welcomes drop-ins interested in the canoe-building process or a trial paddle on the Seguin that flows right past her back door.
While building and restoring canoes in a renovated old barn down a country road in Ontario may sound like yesterday to some, Bearwood Canoes continues to thrive while Pam remains dedicated to preserving the traditional craft of wooden canoe building in Canada. She is one of few charter female members of the Wooden Canoe Builder’s Guild.
“I’m quite active with the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association,” says Pam, who sits on the board of that organization. “They have a big summer assembly, and people come up for my advice on fixing canoes. I like to be the one that can help others in getting started. I remember when I was the one looking for that knowledge.” She hasn’t found that being a women working in the canoe building industry, has been a drawback.
“There aren’t very many of us, that’s for sure,” Pam says. “I met a woman once, May Minto, who built all through the 1950s and 60s right until she was in her 70s. To know that there was another woman working in the field, especially in her time, is great although it’s not nearly the same as it was in those days. It hasn’t been hard. I haven’t had to beat down any doors for being a woman boat builder. People have been open to sharing knowledge with me.”
Pam offers hands-on courses in new canoe and kayak construction, repairs and reconstruction, mould building and paddle carving in the friendly and safe atmosphere of her shop. Using only the finest natural materials, each new Bearwood canoe is built using Ontario white cedar ribs, sitka spruce inwales, and full-length western red cedar planking.
“I really enjoy teaching courses because I work in the shop most of the time by myself,” says Pam. “We just start with a pile of cedar ribs, and by the end of the course they leave with a canoe strapped on top of their cars. People can’t even believe that they could begin to make a canoe. My most favourite thing to do right now is help people build their own canoes.
“When people buy a canoe from us, it’s usually for a special occasion, graduations, weddings, etcetera. The canoe is just gleaming when they come to pick it up, and it makes up for the endless hours or sanding and finishing and you can see your refl ection in the finish on the boat. That’s another special time for me.”
While canoe building at Bearwood Canoes can be demanding on the body, guests of Bearwood Canoes have been known to take advantage of the Seguin River for a quick canoe ride or a nice swim or a hike in the bush. Pam enjoys watching the wildlife outside her shop doors while she works.
“I live here in the area because of the outdoors, where we are in the bush, with all the lakes and bays, in Orrville. We love the winter tent outside. We go winter camping, seeing the moose and deer tracks. You can’t beat that.
Why would you go anywhere else?” she explains. “It’s canoe country here. There are endless canoes to build, and to fix for people who have had canoes in their family for generations. There is a need for making new boats for the cottages up here, it’s the perfect place to be.”
A perfect place indeed.