In summer of 1909 the schooner Little Jap left from Deer Island to fish on the Labrador Coast. She returned home with “six hundred quintals of salt bulk cod” at the end of October, a little later than was usual.
Known for its wild Atlantic salmon, the Gander River hosts thousands of tourists from all over the world each season. Located in central Newfoundland, the Gander River is the third largest river on the island and is internationally recognized as a world-class sports hunting and angling destination. The river flows through Gander Lake and past the towns of Appleton and Glenwood before draining into the Atlantic Ocean at Gander Bay.
Juniper (Tamarack) is a strong softwood that grows mostly in wet swampy areas and is the preferred timber for the ribs of the Gander River Boat. Builders heat thin strips of juniper in steam or boiling water to make it pliable to bend the wood to the desired shape.
“I usually put about half a gallon of Javex in the water with it. That makes the juniper pretty soft.” – Eugene Saunders, Glenwood
Ernest Hodder was born to Archibald and Clara in Davidsville, Gander Bay in 1933. The oldest of seven children, Ern followed in his father’s path working as a guide on the Gander River in the summer and spending the winters working in lumber camps. “I enjoy it out on the river. If you’re getting paid for something you love that’s the way to go.”
“In my father’s early day, there was no outboard motor. They had canoes that were the same on both ends.” Born in 1905, Ern’s father Arch was almost forty-years-old when he got his first 3 horsepower outboard motor.
Eugene was born in 1944 on Indian Islands, Notre Dame Bay to Frank and Netta Saunders. When he was three years old, his family moved to Glenwood where Frank, a blacksmith, worked with Anglo-Newfoundland Development (AND) Company.
Eugene grew up in Glenwood alongside the Gander River and learned how to build boats at a young age. “It always enthused me building boats. I used to go out to my uncle Nat Gillingham’s when I was growing up. They were boat builders,” Eugene says.
Basil Gillingham was born in 1940 in George’s Point, Gander Bay and spent fifty years guiding on the Gander River. He learned how build boats at a young age by watching his father Leslie Gilllingham.
In Leslie’s earlier days, these boats were double-ended and propelled primarily by a black spruce pole. “To get Gander you’d have to pole up the river and then get the train from Glenwood,” says Basil, “and it would take you three days.” Today, the trip from Gander Bay to the town of Gander can be done in less an hour by car.
Basil built his first Gander Bay Boat when he was 16-years-old and has built over 100 of them since. “There were a lot of boats built here in Gander Bay, and a lot of people built them. Older people now, a lot of them are gone, and there don’t be many built anymore.”
Lester Vivian was born in 1932 in Gander Bay, Newfoundland. By the age of sixteen, he had learned how to build Gander Bay boats and began to work on the Gander River. “The river was our highway,” Lester says, and served as the primary route between Gander Bay and Glenwood until the Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1962.
“It would take two days to get to Glenwood before motors,” says Lester about his father’s generation. Without a motor, rivermen used paddles, a pole, and a sail on the centre beam, “if the wind was right.” Lester’s father got his first motor in the 1940s – a 3.3 horsepower Evinrude.
In 2013, the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador travelled to Glenwood, Appleton, and Gander Bay to learn about the unique Gander River Boat. Designed and modified by generations of boat builders, these boats are specially crafted for the rapids and shallow waters of the Gander River.
Once necessary for travel between the coast and inland settlements, Gander River Boats are now used for recreational salmon fishing and travel to cabins and outfitter camps along the river.
The Gander River Boat (also known as a Gander Bay Boat or Gander River Canoe) was designed and modified by generations of Gander Bay builders to suit the specific conditions of the Gander River.
Originally written by Gordon Slade for The Globe and Mail: Lives Lived published Monday, Feb. 18 2013
Boat builder, fisherman, husband, great-grandfather. Born March 26, 1936, in Wild Cove on Fogo Island, Nfld., died Dec. 25, 2012, on Fogo Island, aged 76.
Calvert Meadus was born in Loreburn, Trinity Bay on December 23, 1927. As a boy Calvie recalls watching his father Keid, Uncle Lige [Elijah] Price, and others as they built boats, using a three piece mould to shape every frame before assembling onto the keel.
Learning the Craft
“There was an old fella down there, Uncle Lige Price, he used to be in always building boats. That’s all he done, most all his lifetime. I used to watch him, and then I thought I’d build a boat too. When I started I was fifteen, I wasn’t yet sixteen. I was sixteen before I got her finished.”
Carvel planking on traditional wooden boats relies on the wood and caulking between the planks swelling to seal the hull against leaks. Since the 1950s numerous marine sealing compounds and adhesives have been developed, allowing progressive boat builders to modify this traditional construction method to take advantage of these new products.
Born in Summerville in 1928, Tom built his first boat at the age of 12. “It was what we called a rodney – a small boat about 12 feet long. We used to tow her behind the trap boats.”
Tom spent 15 years fishing with his father for cod, mackerel, herring, squid, salmon and whatever else was in season. He learned how to build boats watching his neighbour Abe Fry as he worked in his shed, “I would spend hours. I helped him to plank a boat. I’d go in there in the nighttime and help him – he lived alongside us. I’d hold onto a plank for him, and he’d show me that, then show me something else…it was right fun for me.”
Earl Feltham was born on Deer Island in 1937. His father Ephraim, was a fisherman and a carpenter. In 1953, when Earl was 16 years old, Ephraim and his wife Suzy moved their family to Glovertown.
Earl went on to St. John’s where he attended the College of Fisheries (now the Marine Institute) and spent six seasons working on vessels along the Labrador coast.
Steam bending wood is a technique used in boat building to shape the ribs of the boat. While most builders in Glovertown learned how to build using sawn timbers, they switched to steaming juniper laths when this method gained popularity in the 1950s. Those who grew up on Deer Island recall James Feltham (1883-?) as the first to use steam on the island in the late 1940s. “He was that kind of person,” remembers Sam Feltham, “He liked to try new things and was always up for a challenge.”
In Salvage, Stewart Sturge switched from timbers to ribs when he started building speed boats in the 1960s. “It’s much quicker,” Stewart says, “you could have a rodney ribbed out in a day, but if you were using timber it would probably take you a week.” Edgar Butt also switched from timbers to ribs, saying that “it’s harder to get all the timber and it’s more work.”
William James Feltham, better known as Bill, was born on Deer Island in 1938 to Noah and Daisy Feltham. His paternal grandfather, Caleb Feltham, was one of thirteen men tragically lost on the schooner Little Jap in 1909, shortly after the birth of Bill’s father Noah. Bill’s grandmother remarried to Avlin Feltham, the man that Bill would know as his grandfather.
Bill fished on Deer Island with his father Noah, his grandfather Av, and his Uncle Ralph from eleven to eighteen years old.
Before building a boat, every builder must first acquire his timber. The types of wood used for building boats varies depending the kind of boat being constructed and what is available in the area.
For planking, builders in Glovertown once preferred fir but have substituted spruce since fir populations have suffered damage from aggressive insects. Bill Feltham switched to spruce when he noticed that fir was becoming more prone to rot, noting that one disadvantage is spruce tends to have more knots.
When looking for timber for their boats, builders prefer to cut near the coast. It is said that wood cut close to the coast is a better quality than wood from further inland. Edgar Butt says that “it was a better fiber. [Wood further inland] was more brittle. You could tell by the shavings when you were planing where the wood came from.”