The canoe builder

The making of a speedy racing canoe: attention to detail, decades of practice, a good cause, and a steady mix of Pow Wow songs and AC/DC.

By Tyler Olsen | February 17, 2022 |5:00 am

Rick Quipp ran his hands down the sides of the bottom of a canoe. As his palm slid along the dry resin, it created a crisp, crackling static that cut the silence in the Cheam First Nation longhouse.

He nodded. It had the feeling he likes. Hard. Fast.

This was a boat that could cut through water. That could win races. That could help train a new generation of paddlers.

The races and the boats

Every spring and summer, men, women, and youth from Coast Salish communities compete across the southeast BC in canoe races—often coinciding with festivals. The first festival of the year is the Seabird Island Festival, taking place on the last full weekend in May.

The festivals are large cultural events built around food, family, and fun. The canoe races are part of that. But the races are also races: competitive events taken incredibly seriously, with individuals and teams practising daily for months before the season ever begins.

Paddlers begin training in March. And those paddlers need canoes, which is where Quipp comes in.

Quipp is one of a handful of canoe builders in the Fraser Valley, and he is in for a busy couple weeks. By the end of February, he (with help from his girlfriend) must complete six boats from scratch. He has been waiting on the weather: if it’s too cold, the resin that protects the boat cannot be applied. When he gets going, the days will be long, propelled by music and the smell of cedar.

But in late January, Quipp was still waiting for the weather as he opened the doors of the Cheam longhouse to show this reporter what makes a fast canoe.

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‘Cedar is cedar,’ but every racing canoe is different.
Rick Quipp began building canoes on his own about four years ago.

‘What I’m looking for’

The Cheam longhouse is a large, wooden building constructed over a central floor area, with several tiers of benches on each side of the structure.

At the top of the benching, sit the canoes. The largest of the boats—an 11-man canoe and another that carries six people—take prime position, extending along opposite walls. The boats were built decades ago by Quipp’s mentors, Mark and Keith Point. Ever since, they have cut through water at races across the province.

Quipp’s task this month isn’t to duplicate those larger boats. Rather, he will be building shorter, two-person canoes fabricated out of cedar strips.

As Quipp walked among the canoes in the longhouse, he judged each one with a critical eye.

He pointed to a pair of canoes resting, upside down, beside one another.

“You look at this one, it’s kind of flat,” he declared. He cast his eyes toward the hull of the boats. “You look at the next one behind. See how it sits in the middle there, in the air? So that has a banana on it.”

As Quipp motioned at canoes, his eyes scanned their hulls. Even out of the water, upside down, and exposed in the light, most of the hulls looked near-identical to this reporter. But when Quipp looked at the hulls, he spoke of the boats cutting through the water, paddles stroking along their sides.

He labelled some canoes “tugboats” that take a long time to change course. Others, he said, are better through choppy water than smooth water. When Quipp found a boat he liked, he stopped.

“See these ones?” He points down the hull. “See how long and narrow they are, and how round? That’s what I’m looking for.”

Before trying for himself, Quipp spent a decade watching and learning how others build canoes.

“I learned to sand, get the feel, and see the shape,” he said. “Then one day, my buddy showed me how to mix the resin.”

Rick Quipp started learning how to build canoes more than two decades ago.
Rick Quipp started learning how to build canoes more than two decades ago.

For a purpose

During race weekends, Quipp will help paddle the 11-person canoe—he leaves the two-person canoes he made to those who he says are more in shape. When others are racing, he’ll stand with other canoe builders. They’ll cheer on the paddlers—and gloat a bit when their boat crosses the line first.

But for Quipp, a former Cheam councillor, there is a more serious goal.

Fifty years ago, Quipp said dozens of the boats would race. But enthusiasm for racing canoes lagged, and Quipp watched his community struggle with addiction challenges. Now, he and others around the region are hoping a resurgence of canoe racing will help connect youth with their culture and encourage active, healthy lifestyles.

Although the pandemic cancelled a summer’s worth of races, they returned on Vancouver Island last year. Cheam was able to field a full crew of 16-and-under paddlers for those races. They had begun training, four hours a day, at the start of March. By the time racing began in May, the crew was ready. And first- and second-place finishes quickly followed.

“They were in tip-top shape, they’d run four miles a day,” Quipp said. “It’s pretty good to watch them win. Then after a while it’s just a routine.”
Quipp hopes the races will fully return to the Fraser Valley this year. (The canoe racing circuit includes events on Vancouver Island, around the Lower Mainland, and in Northern Washington.)

Quipp pointed to a six-person canoe. He’s trying to pull together a team of women to race it. The hope is they’ll bring along kids, who can then be convinced to get in a boat and race for a finish line.

“They don’t train, they just get in a canoe and race. So by the time they’re 13, 14, 15, 16, they’re pulling you to the lake and they’re making you run, because they have that drive to win.”

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The trademark

Quipp built his first canoe on his own about four years ago. He gave it away after the nose twisted at the very end of the process.

“You had to paddle nine on this side, one on this side, nine on this side,” he said, grinning. But finishing that first one was “awesome.”

Straighter and better canoes came, and Quipp left his apprentice label behind. The newer boats are more refined. More balanced. Looking at his canoes, Quipp can trace his progression as a builder. The joints are tighter, the hulls are smoother. The boat, ideally, is faster.

Each builder leaves a personal characteristic, deliberate or not, on their boats.

“If you look at the shapes of all the canoes I built, they’re all similar,” he said. “Each person has a different trademark.”

Quipp’s boats have a deliberate stand-out element: each canoe has a strip of yellow cedar that stands out among the red cedar strips. (Asked whether some cedar makes better canoes than others, Quipp chuckled: “Cedar is cedar.”)

Several canoe moulds are placed next to another to guide the frame of a canoe's hull. 📷 Tyler Olsen
Several canoe moulds are placed next to another to guide the frame of a canoe’s hull. 📷 Tyler Olsen

The moulds

The moulds are the trickiest part.

Quipp’s boats are cedar-strip canoes, as opposed to traditional dugouts. As the name suggests, each is crafted out of a series of cedar strips of wood that are fastened together with glue. Building the boat itself—placing the strips next to one another and fastening them to each other—is relatively quick. Most of his time is spent creating air. Specifically: the moulds around which the cedar strips will be assembled.

For one of Quipp’s two-person canoes, flat, semi-circular pieces of wood are placed upright, one after the other, 16 inches apart along the length of a rectangular frame (called a strongback). The individual pieces are different sizes—larger ones in the middle, smaller ones at the ends. Together, they provide the guide around which the cedar strips will be shaped and glued together to form the hull of the boat.

Getting the moulds for a canoe just right can take Quipp up to a week. He uses lasers to line up his stations. Others use an older method involving a line of string. Once the moulds are in place, it takes just a day or two to piece the canoe together.

The first strip is the key. Get it right, and the rest of the job falls into place. Keeping everything straight—literally—is key. If you don’t, the wood will twist.

When it’s all done, the boat is trimmed, sanded, then coated with resin. Then it’s ready to race.

The task ahead

But it’s not May yet, and the festivals are still far away. So, as the weather warms, the focus is on the boats. The temperature has to reach 11 Celsius before the resin can be applied, and that’s when Quipp will bring his tools to the longhouse. He’ll build a warm fire. He’ll bring the strongbacks down, bring out the lasers, set the moulds in place. He will grab his earbuds. He’ll put on some music: Pow Wow songs, AC/DC.

He’ll circle the canoes. The days will stretch. Four hours. Eight hours. Twelve hours. Sixteen hours.

A lot of music. A lot of walking. A lot of looking for the drill. A lot of boats.

“Once I start, you don’t want to stop until all the canoes are done.”


More:

Global TV profiled Quipp last year. See that video here.

This video montage shows how another builder created a standard cedar strip canoe. 

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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