story by Cai Sepulis & photos by Chris Tiessen

‘When you look at the face of Canada and study the geography carefully, you come away with the feeling that God could have designed the canoe first and then set about to conceive a land in which it could flourish.’ – Bill Mason

The simple pleasure of gliding across a quiet lake with nothing but one small vessel and self-power to get you from campsite to portage, from campsite to campsite, is a ritual so dear to me. Ever since I was a kid, my summers have always been full of backcountry canoe trips. I’d take these outings with my family – my mom, dad, two brothers, and me. More recently, annual out-trips have been enjoyed with my wife, Sonia, our pup, Finn, and maybe some friends too. I’ve even managed to get TOQUE Partner, Chris, out on the water. (In fact, TOQUE itself was conceived during a multi-day paddle Chris and I enjoyed at Massassauga a few years back.)

It was a special pleasure for me, then, that in late August Chris and I spent a morning chatting with Danny Arnott, head canoe builder at Holy Cow Canoe Company, at the business’ shop. Located along the seven on the outskirts of Guelph between the city limits and the town of Rockwood, Holy Cow is a sort of ‘blink or you’ll miss it’ destination that’s only recognizable as a canoe workshop by the fleet of boats racked behind the small cinderblock outpost. Oh, and by the bovine-painted boat standing at attention outside the front door.

‘You’ve basically got the most Canadian job in the world,’ Chris jokes to Danny as he leads us through the shop’s cluttered office and into the back workshop. It’s a sight to behold. Canoes – in one state of completion or another – are everywhere. Completed boats hang from walls. Others, seemingly still far from being done, are in molds. A couple of fifteen-foot Prospectors to our right are balanced on wheeling saw horses. The space itself is fairly open concept, with different work stations around the place – for painting, mold work, and finishing. There’s no heavy machinery here, but rather piles of hand tools laid around for the different stages of production. 

As Danny goes to work on a just-finished bright red fifteen-footer with a hand-held buffer, I admire the smooth bold colours of the canoes freshly pulled from their molds – bewildered by the fact that this little shop produces up to four canoes per week year-round, and curious about how a canoe is built in the first place. ‘They’re actually relatively easy to make,’ Danny tells us, modestly. ‘They’re essentially built from the outside in.’ Paint first in the mold. Then the Kevlar or fiberglass layers that are left to cure before the shell is pried out of the mold. Then gunnels and seating are added. Finish with a final polish and it’s done. 

Simple, right? 

Indeed, there’s nothing simple about the years of skill that inform this work. Founded as Trent Canoes in 1978 and purchased by Holy Cow owners Gulam Baloch and Naomi McQuade over two decades ago, this mighty little enterprise is supported by decades of experience. With an eight-week waiting list, Holy Cow sells to customers all across Canada. ‘Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing,’ Henry David Thoreau once declared. When I think back on years past, there’s no greater feeling of calm and pride than during time spent on lakes and rivers. Surviving high winds, mosquito-filled portages, and stormy water, too. And celebrating the little extra bursts required to pull out of yourself to get through it.

Finally, though, canoeing is an experience, a condition, that evokes expressions of bliss. ‘What sets a canoeing expedition apart,’ Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said, ‘is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other.’ 

From the outside in. 

The truly Canadian adventure. 

And it’s built right here.