Published July 08, 2010, 08:00 AM

Row, row, row your Roberts-built canoe

What do you get when past Scoutmasters with extra time on their hands talk over breakfast?

What do you get when past Scoutmasters with extra time on their hands talk over breakfast?


A group of past Boy Scout leaders from the Roberts area have started building handmade cedar strip canoes under the name St. Croix Canoes.

Among the builders are Mark Morgen, Max Hansen, Dave Naumann, Gary Poulin, Randy Retherford and Ray Wallace. Only Wallace hasn’t been a troop leader.

With most of the Scout leaders’ sons graduated from the Scouts (as Eagle Scouts, no less) the group stayed in touch through breakfast every Saturday morning.

“Then one of us got smart and said we should make canoes,” Morgen said, explaining that they all like being outdoors, fishing and camping. “We thought it’d be something different.”

The guys had a history of building things with Scouts, like bird houses, totem poles, moccasins, knife handles and sheaths, and individually, like cribs, high chairs and other furniture.

“Then it got out of control,” Retherford joked of their latest building hobby.

St. Croix Canoes has, for the most part, been run without the help of Boy Scouts.

“This was our escape,” Morgen joked.

Learning to make a canoe was a process. They consulted books and expert canoe builders at Northwest Canoe Co. in St. Paul, Minn.

“They (Northwest Canoe Co.) answered a lot of our questions,” Morgen said. “They were a great resource for us.”

The guys bought some plans and got to work in 2008. They finished three or four canoes that first year, Morgen estimated.

“All of them turned out a little bit different,” he said.

A canoe is built upside down. Forms shaped like different spots of the hull are attached to a thick plank the length of the future canoe.

Then long strips of cedar wood are stapled and glued onto the forms. They either buy the strips from a canoe company or cut their own, Morgen said.

“It’s hard to find long, straight cedar,” he said. Cedar is the traditional wood for canoes, but spruce and pine can work too.

They’ve added detail to canoes by making triangle and diamond patterns when placing the strips. They usually stagger the light and dark versions of cedar strips on the body, but not always. Hansen is making a kayak with a light half and dark half. A wavy line separates the two colors.

When the strips are all in place, the canoe is sanded by hand and with power tools. Next comes a coat of marine varnish. A fiberglass seal with an epoxy finish keeps the canoes solid.

The guys have made woven seats and paddles as added features.

The seats were Naumann’s idea.

“It looks nicer,” Morgen said.

A moose logo – found by Wallace – completes the look of a St. Croix Canoe.

“It’s pretty straightforward. You get better at it the more you do it,” Morgen said. “A lot of times there’s no substitute for practice.”

The guys have finished six canoes and three kayaks since 2008.

“They all float,” Morgen said with a laugh. “They all work really well.”

Everyone except Retherford and Wallace canoe. Morgen said he’s taken a couple of St. Croix Canoes models on long trips up north and at the Boundary Waters, and some of the others have taken longer trips too. The cedar strip canoes are lighter, easier to paddle and quieter than aluminum canoes, Morgen said.

One canoe is displayed at Bearskin Lodge, on East Bearskin Lake on the Gunflint Trail. Morgen and his family take regular trips to the lodge, and other guests asked about St. Croix Canoes. The lodge offered them space to display one, Morgen said.

Recently, St. Croix Canoes donated a 16-footer to the Roberts Congregational United Church of Christ as a raffle prize. It’s drawn a lot of comments, Morgen said.

“We’ve gotten a lot of compliments and questions. No one’s ordered one yet,” he laughed.

While they haven’t made a sale, they expect they’d charge around $3,500 for one, which is comparable to similar canoes. Materials alone cost $1,200-$1,500.

It takes a couple of months to build each canoe, with the group working on them on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Morgen said he puts in more time, just because they work out of his garage. They mostly work on them in the warmer months because the materials don’t set up as well in the winter, Wallace said.

“It’s fun. It takes time. It keeps us out of bars. Our wives know where we are,” Morgen summarized.

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