A few years ago my wife and I were walking in Ely, Minnesota when we came upon an unusual flower bed. Propped up against the wall of a repurposed bank building was an old wood-canvas canoe, overflowing with zinnias.

I’ve seen plenty of boats turned into flowerpots through the years, but this one struck me. Maybe it was the fact that it was a wood-canvas canoe, quietly living out its final years against a brick wall, slowly decaying back into the earth. I like wood-canvas canoes, and I couldn’t help wondering if this one might have been saved. Brought back to life to travel the North Woods once again, rather than filled with dirt.

Pushing daisies: Where good boats go to die

Where had it traveled? Who had paddled it? Certainly, it had spent some time in the Boundary Waters. Maybe it had made it all the way to Hudson Bay, riding home in a freight car after a months long adventure. Or maybe it was a cottage canoe, dragged out from under the porch for summer weekends with laughing children. We’ll never know. Dead boats tell no tales.

Thinking back on that old canoe I wonder: where do old boats go to die?

an old canoe filled with flowing lupins
From wild waters to wild flowers. | Feature photo: Aimee Hodgins

Obviously, some of them end their lives as flowerpots. Or signs. More than one kayak has made its way up onto the wall of a shop to announce to all the world, “Get your kayaks here!”

A range of resting places

When a tornado ripped through Northern Wisconsin years ago and hit the Bear Paw Resort, it flung their whitewater rental fleet up into the trees, ending the lives of dozens of boats. Today, many of these old kayaks still hang in the air, bolted to a “kayak tree” that serves at once as an advertisement and, perhaps, as a talisman to ward off future storms.

Luckier kayaks might end their days as museum pieces. Twenty years ago, while visiting Nigel Dennis’ kayak school in Wales, a friend and I came across a sea kayak that had been used in the first kayak circumnavigation of Norway. A deal was struck and the old Nordkapp was boxed up and shipped across the Atlantic. Today it hangs in the rafters of Madison, Wisconsin’s Rutabaga Paddlesports, along with a handful of other historic canoes and kayaks.

Down the end of a long gravel road in rural Pennsylvania you’ll find another informal kayak museum. This one at Starrk Moon Kayaks, where Brad Nelson has been collecting prototype Pyranha whitewater kayaks for decades. If you’re ever interested in a trip down whitewater memory lane, Cold Cabin Road is the place to go.

Waiting to part the waters again

Then there are roads closer to home. How many of us grew up with an old aluminum canoe in our garage? Purchased during the height of canoe mania in the 1970s. Rarely paddled. Never growing old. Discarded perhaps, but not dead. Just dormant. Quietly resting until adventure calls once more.

Even battered old boats are willing to answer the call, if we care to ask. The COVID years saw resurrection upon resurrection of ancient discarded canoes and kayaks. Along with calls to manufacturers asking after the parts needed to return them to service. Countless good boats were saved from an early death by our need to get outside, away from the restrictions and fears brought on by the Pandemic.

In the end, though, even the best boats will meet their end. The cracked creek boat that’s been welded one too many times sits mildew and moss covered behind a cinder block garage in the Southeast. A sleek composite kayak is snapped in two by an unsecured bow line. An unlucky canoe ends its life in an instant, wrapped around a rock in a rapid that its owner never intended to run. Or, maybe as a flowerpot. Quietly returning to the dust from whence it came. Fading into the mists of paddling history.

Q: Have you ever thrown out one of your boats?

pie chart on old boats; no 58% and yes 42%

Q: Have you ever given a boat away as a gift or donation?

pie chart on old boats; no 91% and yes 9%

Q: Have you ever repurposed one of your boats?

pie chart on old boats; no 72% and yes 28%

Reader feedback on old boats

We asked readers about their retired boats. Here’s what they had to say.

Q: If you’ve ever repurposed one of your boats, tell us how!

Shelves in our storefront, drilled to our entry signs, raised bed gardens. —@missouririveroutfitters

Gave to sister for flower bed. Aluminum canoe leaked bad.

Canoe shelf. —@daytodaytrey

Q: For what reasons have you gotten rid of boats?

I broke up with them and traded them in for ones that better fit my needs. —@melissaannestudio

Crack down the center, won’t survive more rental customer abuse, too pretty to use. —@missourriveroutfitters

Didn’t paddle it and found the right buyer. —@tracelessintiveden

Wanted something better. —@matthewrandall004

Not enough room for all of them! —@lintondoug

Got new boats as an upgrade, usually sold or gave away the old boat. —@mattylerp.outdoors

Cover of the 2023 Paddling Trip GuideThis article was first published in the 2023 Paddling Trip Guide. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

From wild waters to wild flowers. | Feature photo: Aimee Hodgins



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