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.
During the eighteenth century, salmon fisheries established at the mouth of the river were tended to with rodneys and punt, but these boats were not suitable for the rapids and shallow waters upriver.
By the twentieth century, Gander Bay boat builders were building “double-enders” modeled on birch bark and cedar canoes used by Mi’kmaw on the Gander River. “The resulting hybrid was stronger than a cedar canoe, yet nimbler than a rodney,” says Gary L. Saunders in his book Rattles and Steadies: Memoir of a Gander River man, “Approximately five metres long and just under a metre wide, it was planked with thin fir strakes nailed edge to edge on sawn spruce timbers” (Saunders 2003).
Too heavy to be paddled like a canoe, these early river boats included thole pins and oars, and were sometimes fitted with a makeshift sail on the centre beam. Like canoes used on the river, they were primarily propelled with a black spruce pole. “It took two days from Gander Bay to Glenwood without a motor,” says retired Gander River Guide Ern Hodder, “you’d have to pole all the way. It was hard work.”
The two-day trip from Gander Bay to Glenwood could be done in six to seven hours with a motor, but they were not common on the river until the 1940s. While the first outboard motors became available in Newfoundland in the mid-1920s, they were not immediately compatible with the double-ended boats. Willy John Torraville, Nat Gillingham and other local builders began to experiment with design. First, the double-ender needed a stern to attach the motor. To remain efficient in shallow water, the canoe shape was kept below the waterline and tapered into an inverted triangle transom.
Through trial and error, builders learned how to balance length with the load. As more powerful engines were introduced the hull length was adjusted to accommodate them. By the 1970s, fifteen to twenty horsepower was deemed to be the ideal size for a motor on the river. Gander Bay builder and retired river guide Basil Gillingham outfitted his 2012 Gander Bay Boat with a fifteen horsepower Yamaha. “When I was guiding I had a thirty-five horsepower Johnson on her,” Basil says, “but you wouldn’t want to go any bigger than that because the motors get too heavy for boat and shallow waters.”
Local builders now agree that the ideal length for a Gander River Boat is 24-25 feet, “any longer than that the boat gets hard to handle and smaller boats can’t carry as much,” says retired river guide and boat builder Lester Vivian. “I think everyone agrees that’s about the right length,” Ern Hodder confirms. At midship, these boats range in width from 45-53 inches on average – a matter of preference in the negotiation of stability and manoeuvrability. The spruce timbers used in the first double-enders have been replaced by juniper ribs and planks are now made of spruce since invasive insects have damaged local fir trees.
Today, wooden Gander River Boats are increasingly being replaced by fiberglass. Only a handful of builders in the area, including Basil Gillingham, Lester Vivian, and Eugene Saunders, can still be found building with wood.