The National Championship and Olympic prep canoeing regatta is being held this weekend on the St. Joseph River off Red Bud Trail in Buchanan, Mich. (pop. 6,100). Buchanan is in the heart of an area that might be described as a veritable coldbed of canoeing. There is, in fact, only one Olympic-type canoeist in Michigan, or for that matter, if you ignore Ohio—which is considered East—the entire Midwest. He is Don Dodge, 19, a bass trombonist studying at the Eastman School of Music, who lives in neighboring Niles, Mich. (pop. 18,470). The other 99 U.S. canoeists live and paddle almost exclusively in the East.
This is an article from the June 20, 1960 issue
The tournament has been brought west to Don Dodge, instead of Don going east to the tournament, as a result of the persistent clamoring of a burly, visionary 42-year-old Niles sales consultant named Raymond A. Dodge, who happens to be Don's father. "It was like moving the mountain to Mohammed," Dodge Sr. crowed when he was awarded the regatta, which was last held in the Midwest in 1933. Dodge is the fund raising chairman for the U.S. Olympic Canoeing Committee, general chairman of this weekend's regatta and the exclusive U.S. dealer for Kobberup, a Danish canoe builder. Although he has been active in canoeing only two years, he is the sport's noisiest missionary.
Dodge is so immersed in canoes that he feels compelled to punctuate his conversation with apologetic asides. "I'm crazy, I guess," he will mutter, or "Maybe I'm nuts," or "People will think I'm weird." His excuse for bringing the tournament to Michigan is his conviction that the East has allowed canoeing to decline—indeed, to fall. In his view the mid western resurgence, represented by Don, outweighs the eastern collapse.
Even if one concedes that Dodge has personal reasons for his view, it is a regrettable fact that U.S. canoeists are, like the dinosaurs, mysteriously dwindling, unsung and unnoticed except by their immediate families.
In Europe, on the other hand, there are thousands of canoeists, thousands cheer them, and the sport is flourishing. As a melancholy consequence, since 1936, when canoeing first was included on the Olympic program, no American has placed higher than third in a kayak race, and that solitary bronze medal was won in 1936. We once fared creditably in the canoes called Canadians (see box). In 1948 the U.S. won the 10,000-meter two-man canoe race and was second in the 1,000-meter doubles and 10,000-meter singles. And in the 1952 games Frank Havens won a gold medal for the U.S. in the 10,000-meter singles. At Melbourne, however, he finished eighth in the same event. Havens remains our finest Canadian-type paddler, alas. He is now 36 and not improving, but he probably will represent the U.S. again this summer in Rome.
This thought afflicts Dodge like a monstrous sore, but unlike Job he bellows and fumes. "What we want," he says, "is to develop the canoe as a competitive tool. We as a nation cannot say we should keep canoeing for after-dinner and weekend paddlers. As long as we're going to send a team to the Olympics we should do everything in our power to develop one equal to the Europeans'."
Some of the Olympic canoeists no longer concern themselves with such erudite questions as whether they are truly qualified, Dodge says, and the Olympics has become a paid vacation for them. "I don't mean," he adds, "that they don't try to win. But because of pressures of business, they can't spend the necessary time."
In his passion and his wrath, Dodge does not consider relevant the fact that, until Don Dodge, the eastern clubs had all the canoeists. There should have been more canoeists, a lot more, Dodge believes, and the Easterners should have used modern sales techniques to create them, especially in the colleges.
The trouble is that the Easterners have tried to interest the colleges but, like Dodge, they have run into a soft pillow of ennui. And the Easterners do work. Nobody else does, however. John Anderson of the Yonkers (N.Y.) Canoe Club, who has been a leading canoeist for 13 years, answers Dodge's charges with the air of the sympathetic but tired reformer. "We work hard at canoeing but we don't get any results," he says. "If I asked you to spend three hours every night on the river, what would you say? That's what it takes. You can't seem to get through to people about canoeing but we work at it."
In his massive assault on the East, Dodge also sought the Olympic Selection Regatta for Niles-Buchanan but lost it because of what he calls, darkly, "politics" (It was awarded to Lake Sebago, N.Y. July 16 and 17). Actually, the Olympic trials are handed out on a rotation basis to the established eastern clubs which, despite our sorry international record, are the only permanent, floating canoe flotilla in the United States.
"There's a lot of politics in canoeing," Anderson concedes. "We do more fighting and arguing than we do racing. But if Ray can bring two new competitors into canoeing, it's a good thing. Ray's a tremendous fellow. He tries to do everything. He talks about it but so far I haven't seen anything. I've heard a lot."
Because Dodge wanted it that way, the nationals are being held earlier in the year than they usually are. This has brought its own problems. As Anderson says, "The lads will just be out of high school and college and won't have a chance to get trained up." Dodge thinks this is nonsense and grumbles in reply: "New York will be here grudgingly. They're going to do their utmost to prove I am horribly wrong. But I think they may get slickered."
One way may be if Don Dodge paddles as furiously as his father speaks. "He can put us on the canoeing map," Dodge says proudly. "He's a longhair with a crew-cut. He's been in canoes just a year but I think he has a fair chance of making the Olympic team." Dodge is not boasting. Of the 100 Olympic-type canoeists, only 20 are genuinely proficient—including men older than Frank Havens—and there are 13 competitors' berths on the team, three of them for women.
One reason for canoeing's aggressive unpopularity may be modern design. The canoe got its start when early man hollowed out a log with fire and thus invented the canoe to fall out of. It was the Eskimo who invented the kayak. Unlike the canoe, it is decked over except for a hole through which the paddler climbs in and swims out. Over the years, canoes and kayaks have been improved, but the direction has not been toward security. The boats which will be paddled in the Olympics this summer have little more freeboard than a water ski and are, as one English builder reverently writes, "long and unheard of narrow and rest uncommonly lightly on the water." Indeed, it is said that the paddlers have to part their hair in the middle to keep their canoes from capsizing. When further improvements—concave or pear-shaped canoes-were proposed last spring a Swedish builder threw down his plane. "We must make our sport popular," he said with emotion. "We cannot frighten our youth."
"I've never had a feeling of instability," Dodge bridles. "The canoe isn't unstable. What is unstable is the guy that's in it. Where would the bicycle and roller-skate industry be if you were expected to master them the first time out?"
A graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology with a B.S. in architectural engineering, Dodge was sales promotion and advertising manager for Kawneer, a Niles firm which makes aluminum store fronts (Main Street is virtually armored with the stuff), before he set up his own business. He wasn't always transported by canoes (he still owns a Thistle and two iceboats and lauds them with equal fervor), nor can he pin down exactly what sparked his enthusiasm. One time he will muse: "When I courted my wife, I courted her in a canoe. Many a pleasant evening was spent in that boat. Maybe that's why I love canoes." Another time he will attribute the fascination to skill and finance. "The average human being," Dodge says, "likes something that takes a little skill, gets him above his fellow man. And canoeing isn't too limiting financially. For a very modest expense [Dodge sells his canoes for an average price of $230] anyone can participate and buy the finest equipment."
But Dodge remembers with a kind of depressing clarity when he began to get involved in canoeing. "In the summer of 1958," he says, recounting a sort of pilgrim's progress, "I wrote letters to various people in the East who should have been interested in canoeing asking for information. My letters were not acknowledged. But maybe those are the kind of people who don't even write their mothers." Dodge persisted and finally made contact with several European builders. Figuring that if boats were immediately available more people would be interested in the sport, he ordered a 19-boat shipment from Kobberup. "I got no one interested locally except my son," Dodge says. "I gave him a canoe as a graduation present. But I automatically became the largest owner of competition canoes in the U.S. They were very hostile in the East after I bought the boats. 'What's his angle?' they asked. I think I could do better selling vacuum cleaners."
Dodge certainly hasn't done a very good soft-sell on his four daughters, aged 7 through 17, whom he is trying desperately to interest in paddling. He gathered them on his porch the other day and put it to them. "You've got to get biceps or boy friends," he said hopefully. The girls considered his proposal. "Boy friends," they replied. Dodge was downcast.
He cheered himself up by going to his garage, where he stores his canoes, and regarding them with veneration. "They're works of art," he murmured as if he were in a cathedral. "They're beautiful out of water or in it. This may sound like heresy but I know a man who bought one just to hang in his office. They're gorgeous. They're pure. They have no frills. I took my canoes to the Chicago Boat Show. They were adjudged the finest-built, designed and finished boats in the show. A man saw two canoes I was carrying on top of my car. 'Do you play those or paddle them?' he asked. I told him I paddled them. 'What do you do,' he said, 'have one for each foot?' "
At the flick of a light switch, Dodge will show you 40 selected color slides he took this spring in Denmark. He shot them all inside the renovated dairy barn at Struer in Jutland, where Sven Kobberup, a butcher's son, and 18 craftsmen build the canoes which are designed by Jorgen Samson.
Olympic canoes are made of a laminated veneer ‚⅛th of an inch thick. Kobberup makes his boats out of Spanish cedar, ahorn, acajou, abachi, bobinga and glue. It takes two weeks for them to finish a canoe, including four coats of varnish and seasoning. While he shows the slides, Dodge provides a rapturous commentary. "There are 150 different pieces of wood in the deck alone!" he will say. Or, "They use almost no sandpaper, only cabinet scrapers!" He even rhapsodizes on how often and thoroughly Kobberup workers sweep out the shop.
Dodge's obsession, if not canoeing, has swept Niles and Buchanan. "The merchants here like R. A. Dodge," Dodge, who often speaks of himself in the third person, says. "I don't know why. But they're willing to back my enthusiasm."
Bewildered but not bothered
"We don't know what it is," says Justin F. McCarty, executive secretary of the Niles Chamber of Commerce, "but we're behind it. 'Mac,' businessmen say to me, 'that's wonderful. We want to help. What can we do? What do you want us to do?' And we're not saying it can't be done. We'll just do it. We'll do it! It makes you feel good to live in a community like this. Maybe the reason this area has been small is because people have thought small. We're simply just not going to sit back any more. That's for the birds, sitting back. Something is moving in this town. We're not small! We're not small! This regatta could be the most important thing to happen in the Midwest this year!"
The last big year for Buchanan was 1958, the time of the Buchanarama, which celebrated the town's centennial, when according to Episode III of the pageant, which was staged by the Brothers of the Brush and the Sisters of the Swish, "plodding ever onward, came the Pioneers to this great land of promise."
"As I told one fellow," Dodge said the other day, beaming, "this is a wonderful place to live. They back you up in your ideas here. Wonderful? It's crazy! We got a junkman, a director of purchasing, an insurance broker, an undertaker, an appliance dealer, a jeweler heading up our regatta committees. Not one of these people paddle! It's crazy! I may be crazy—but this is the thing that will beat the Russians, the Europeans. I really believe it."
THE OLYMPIC CANOE
There are two classes of Olympic canoes: Canadians, called C-type boats, and kayaks, called K-type boats. There are two kinds of Canadians, the C-1 for the single paddler (below, left) and the C-2 for two paddlers. Kayaks also come in the K-1 (below, right) and K-2 sizes.
Canadians have a 30-inch deck forward but are otherwise as open as the traditional canoe. The C-1 canoeist kneels on one knee in the center of the Canadian and is permitted to paddle on one side only. He steers by rocking the boat.
The C-1 is 17 feet long, has a 29-inch beam and a short keel streamlined into the hull. The C-2, in which the paddlers kneel together and paddle on opposite sides in unison, is the same length as the C-1, slightly deeper, has a full keel and weighs the same as the C-1, or 44 pounds. The familiar 17-foot wooden canoe, by contrast, weighs 85 pounds.
Both C's are paddled by men over 500- and 1,000-meter courses. "The C's take a great deal more skill and muscle than the K's," says one expert. "They're gut-busters. C's have no value as a touring craft. They're just about sinking all the time."
Kayaks are propelled by a two-bladed paddle. The canoeist sits on an adjustable seat in the cockpit and steers by means of a rudder and a tiller bar which he operates with his feet. Kayaks are vastly more popular and numerous than Canadians. They are easy to paddle, touring models have plenty of room for camping gear and they can take heavy seas. "But," counsels the same expert, "this is not a canoe for romancing. You have to tend to business or you'll be swimming. No overt acts, as they say at the Summit."
The K-1 is a nifty 17 feet long, has a 20-inch beam and weighs a twinkling 27 pounds. The K-2 is 21 feet long, has a 22-inch beam and weighs 40 pounds. Both boats are paddled in the Olympics by men over a 1,000-meter course, by women over 500 meters. There is, in addition, a four-man K-1 relay of 2,000 meters.