The Grand Lake Canoe still plys the waters of Grand Lake almost a century after its invention. Is there a better way to travel?
The Grand Lake Canoe doing what it does best...
Spend any time peering down driveways around the tiny town of Grand Lake Stream, and you'll notice almost as many boats on trailers as cars, and that most of those boats are long, broad-beamed wooden canoes with an upswept bow.
But don't make the mistake of simply calling it a canoe. You're almost certainly looking at a Grand Lake Canoe (a "Grand Laker" if you're into Maine guide slang), and suggesting that its roots run deep around the tiny town of Grand Lake Stream is to underestimate its connection to the area; the Grand Laker has big chunks of Grand Lake DNA directly wired into its genetic code.The Guide's Choice
Typically powered by a 9hp motor, it's a craft that's perfectly suited to guiding the lakes in the area
, where the wind often blows and a lot of water needs to be covered, sometimes in a pretty mean chop.
Like most great tools, it's a deceptively workable design, and while newer, high-tech boats might cover more water, there's something irresistible about a wood canoe that's so perfectly suited to its environment that it's named for the lake upon which you're currently fishing.
It even reflects Mainer frugality by fishing for several days on one small tank of gas.
And – unlike bigger boats – a Grand Lake canoe can successfully navigate the boulder-strewn shallows of the local lakes - where submerged boulders the size of houses rise eerily from the depths, often topping out at a keel-scraping inches from the surface.
(Watching a guide casually thread the big, broad-beamed canoe through a slot no wider than the boat itself is breathtaking stuff.)
In addition to negotiating boulder-strewn shallows, it also trailers well, launches easily on unimproved boat ramps, and moves a guide and a couple clients at surprising speeds despite the use of small-displacement motors.
It's tempting to say that fly fishing from a Grand Laker is like a trip back in time, but that statement belies the sheer fishability of the craft. Like Western drift boats, it's not still used because a bunch of backward locals can't give it up, but because it does the job it was intended to – in most cases better than anything that's come after it.Nearly a Century of History
The first Grand Lake canoes were built just prior to the 1920s, and because there were no outboard motors, they were "double-enders" which were paddled by guides.
With the advent of the outboard motor came the square stern, and in the 1950s, the Grand Lake canoe underwent its final incarnation: the stern was strengthened (to accommodate bigger motors) and a fiberglass skin replaced the canvas exterior.
The result is a 20' canoe that handles superbly, even with a guide
, two clients, and a lot of gear. And despite their light weight, Grand Lake canoes are famous for their longevity.
It's common to learn you're sitting in a canoe that's several decades old (last visit out I enjoyed the singular experience of fishing from a Grand Laker that was almost as old as I am, and one of the canoes in these pictures was built 30+ years ago).
The reliability of the Grand Laker is so deeply ingrained into the local zeitgeist that when an aluminum skiff flipped a couple years ago (it was late Fall, and a man and his son were lucky to be seen and rescued before hypothermia set in), a couple of locals sniffed that it "wouldn't have happened in a Grand Laker."
True or not, it's a measure of the faith the locals have in the craft – and these are people who are on the big lakes when sudden, violent storms whip up some sizable waves, and get home to tell of it.
Clearly, Grand Lake canoe seems at home here because it is – and the same can be said for the guides who pilot them. You could say that they're deeply sunk into the traditions of the area, but again, that's an unnecessarily nostalgic view - unless your view of "fishing" necessarily means warp-drive boats, footlocker-sized tackle boxes, and a lot of yelling and screaming every time you land a fish.
Instead, the Registered Maine Guides
– and their Grand Lakers - still do things pretty much the way they were done 50 years ago because nobody's invented a better way to do it.Grand Lake Canoe, Grand Lake Stream, Maine