My dad was fresh off the boat from Germany, arriving in a Canada that was famous back in his birth country for hunting, fishing, logging and most importantly, canoeing. He yearned to seek out the wilderness and carve a little niche for himself and his family in “wild, rugged” Canada. Manfred Wolf intended to carry on his proud Teutonic heritage by blindly throwing himself into nature’s unforgiving clenches with little experience but plenty of determination, efficiency, and an eternally stoic poker face.
Every journey begins with a single crucial step. Dad’s first step took him through the doors of a Canadian Tire in search of a canoe. Browsing the aisles wearing his rainbow-striped polyester pants with flared bottoms and white stitching, Manfred spot- ted it hanging seemingly in midair, suspended by fishing line above a Coleman stove display. It was love at first sight.
The sheet-aluminum hull was painted to look like birch bark and accented with black foam lining held in place by aluminum ribs. A burly outrigger of exterior black foam flotation ran from bow to stern just below the gunwales; the foam seats were removable. It measured a stout 10 feet long and a generous 39 inches at the beam. The clincher was the profile of a proud Indian chief painted in black at the side of the bow. He looks forever unflinchingly ahead with the word ‘Sportspal’ emblazoned behind the flowing feathers of his headdress.
To a 29-year-old father looking for adventure, the Sportspal embodied his romantic ideal of the great Canadian outdoors. After a couple of thoughtful strokes of his muttonchop sideburns, the decision was made. On July 14, 1970, exactly one week before I was born, Sportspal became a member of our family. My sister Christina was the first born but Sportspal was Manfred’s first son. I straggled in as the third child of the clan and spent years trying to measure up to my older brother.
RELIABLE, STABLE, AND LOYAL
My brother Sportspal was an important part of our family’s camping trips in Northern Ontario throughout the ‘70s. Faded airbrushed pictures show me on a day trip with Sportspal in Georgian Bay when I was six weeks old. The Pal may have been slow, but he was stable enough to transport the whole family and was as reliable as coffee in the morning. He didn’t argue, was always ready to play, and taught me to love the lakes and rivers he floated over whenever called upon.
At the cottage, I spent my formative early teen summers with my older brother. Sportspal and I gunwale-bobbed on hot August afternoons and fished for lunker largemouth bass in the calm pink of dusk. I often fell asleep in the cavern of his plush hull as crystal clear water lapped against his faux birch bark and the afternoon sun beat down on my face.
As the years passed, Sportspal established himself as the loyal son, heir to the estate, staying home to watch over the cottage and our parents while I could never quite settle. I ran off here and there to explore and experience the world, while he lounged contentedly in his little piece of freshwater and Canadian Shield granite. I was disciplined for missing curfew or slacking off on my studies—a natural rite of passage for any young person…unless your name happened to be Sportspal. He was always perfect; he was born an adult.
Inevitably, time wore on and we went our separate ways. University, canoe tripping, travelling, and a move out West took me away from Sportspal for several years. Despite my absence, reminders of him were everywhere. On one canoe trip down the Rideau Canal I counted 14 other Sportspals sitting under the decks of cottages along the waterway. Often, I would see Sportspals cruising comfortably on the tops of Winnebagos and loosely tied to wood-paneled station wagons travelling across the country. I missed my family.
On my first visit to the cottage in quite some time, I spot him in his usual spot under the deck. Like me, he’s a little worse for wear. Some of the birch bark on his hull has peeled off, revealing specks of shiny alloy beneath. A couple of the aluminum ribs are missing, allowing the foam lining to bulge out.The Indian chief on the bow has faded slightly from years in the sunshine, though his gaze remains steady.
I’ve spent the better part of a decade travelling the world trying to fulfil my wanderlust and quell youthful angst while he’s remained content in his cottage paradise. During the summer, Sportspal takes my father—in his sixties now—for a paddle every morning. After 32 years, the diminutive canoe still spends more time with my dad than I do. Sportspal is as reliable and stable as ever.
Frank Wolf is an adventurer, freelance writer and retail sales slave based in North Vancouver, B.C. In 1995 he canoed 8,000 km from the Bay of Fundy to Vancouver with his partner to become the first to paddle across Canada in a single season.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here.