A few years ago, Trevor Paetkau was spinning his wheels. The Canadian was working contracts in communications management, frustrated with how jobs were taking over his life. Case in point: Paetkau and his spouse took a vacation to Canada's Maritimes in the summer of 2014. Paetkau brought his work with him, complaints and all. While in the seafaring community of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, he met a retired man who loved talking boats—design, construction, and performance. Something about the encounter rekindled Paetkau's passion for canoes. "My wife said to me, 'All you do is bitch about work and talk about boats,'" recalls Paetkau. "'When the fuck are going to do something about that?'"
Within a year, Paetkau had set up an Ontario-based workshop and taken enough orders for custom wood-strip and epoxy canoes and kayaks to commit to boatbuilding full-time. Since then, Ashes Still Water Boats has rolled out a series of canoe and kayak designs, to be sold as plans for do-it-yourselfers.
Ashes Still Water Boats is by no means unique in this field, with another Ontario operation—Bear Mountain Boats—having been in business for over 40 years. Minnesota's Northwest Canoe is similarly well-established. However, Paetkau sought to carve a niche by focusing on the bespoke element of his boats and paddles, with a guiding principle "that fragments from one's past could be crafted into something unique, not at all like the original but evoking it in its complete essence."
"The idea was that we'd build stuff from precious objects in peoples' lives," explains Paetkau. For example, cedar flooring from an old stage was repurposed into a canoe; hardwood trees from the customer's property were milled into gunwales; a well-loved rocking chair could be repurposed into a paddle.
"I would capture and transform things on their way to being lost; memory and artifact would be forged into a new form of narrative," Paetkau said in a recent TedX presentation at Indiana University.
Paetkau admits that by 2016, he once again had more work than he could handle—this time building boats. As he struggled with due dates, money and an obsession with perfection, Paetkau realized, "what I was doing was telling a beautifully curated marketing myth … I was telling a pretty story to sell boats."
So the self-proclaimed "artisan with the beard to prove it" ratcheted back on production goals and put his effort into the art of boat design—specifically the connection between canoes and kayaks and human and animal anatomy. Canoes are "objects integrated into who we are as humans, both historically and physically," says Paetkau. "A canoe has ribs and skin. Like a seedpod, boats carry life. And in Canada canoes brought life to the heart of our country."
Today, Paetkau acknowledges that the future of Ashes Still Water Boats is licensing designs and selling plans aspiring builders. "I don't want to spend 160 to 200 hours per month in the shop," says Paetkau, 56, whose website lists eight canoe designs (solo and tandem)—all refined through computer-aided design. Additionally, Ashes provides a clever calculator that allows builders to generate approximate finished weights based on various construction options, and a tool to estimate construction material requirements. Plans for Ashes' first kayak design—a 13-foot day tourer—were made available in mid-October, and downloaded 250 by amateur builders in 20 countries in the first five days alone.
"What's really animating me right now is an exploration of the history of boats and what that looks like today," he says. "I'm using drawings—fish skeletons, bird beaks and human forms—as sources of inspiration when I think about new boats. People may not realize it, but they are programmed to see these connections and to find it attractive. It's in our DNA."
Get more boat-building inspiration at CanoeKayak.com:
— Go inside a birchbark canoe-builder's barn
— Turning aluminum canoes into sculpture art
— Rides: Real people and the boats they love