In 1970, paddler Ken Fisher began building a limited selection of fiberglass canoes from his garage in Glanworth, a tiny hamlet outside of London, Ontario. Back in the 1960s, only two percent of North Americans were canoeing. But a decade later, eight percent of Baby Boomers were venturing into the backcountry in search of adventure and tranquility. Thanks in part to the popularity of the 1972 movie Deliverance, canoe tripping was suddenly cool. Grumman was manufacturing 50 canoes a day. As for Ken, well, he went along for the ride.
Ken was an electrician with a passion for canoe racing. His wife’s family worked for Munro Boats, makers of small motor crafts. To separate his business, Ken decided on the name Nova Craft—nova means new in Latin. Soon he expanded from building racing shells and flat-bottomed fishing scows to making one of the most beloved tripping canoes—the Chestnut Canoe Company’s Prospector. Not long after, he was the first builder to incorporate Kevlar and vinylester resin in canoe building.
Ken built Nova Craft boats from his garage until he sold the company to Tim Miller, Pat Malloy and Zoltan Balogh in 1986.
The trio hatched a plan to purchase the business while on a canoe trip down Ontario’s French River. Tim had just moved to London from Calgary, and a canoe trip seemed like an excellent way to start a new life in a new province. They camped at the infamous Blue Chute, where Bill Mason filmed his opening act for Path of the Paddle. As a bottle of whiskey made rounds around the fire, Zoltan mentioned a canoe company for sale. Tim hadn’t secured employment yet after his cross-country move and owning a canoe company seemed like a good idea at the time.
That settled it. The three men ponied up the cash, purchased the business and moved the operation from Ken’s garage to a warehouse. They kept the name and the company’s thunderbird logo but innovated Nova Craft’s offerings with new designs and materials. In the 34 years since, Nova Craft made more than 30 designs—17 are currently manufactured—and produced between 1,500 to 2,000 boats annually.
Like other canoe manufacturers, the brand weathered the boom of recreational kayaking and then standup paddleboarding, as well as the rise and demise of Royalex. It’s seen the paddling demographic change from older and primarily male, to younger and much more diverse.
Everything changes eventually. After more than three decades at the helm, Tim Miller retired last year and sold Nova Craft to Chris Rath, who was a corporate accountant for much of his career. Tim told me one of the first things he wanted to do after handing the driver’s seat over to Chris was to go back and canoe the French River. There he’d sit around the fire with some old friends at the Blue Chute, pass a whiskey bottle around and dream of what’s next.
Kevin Callan is the author of the bestselling The Happy Camper series and paddling guidebooks.