In Saskatchewan’s boreal forest, one man is bringing new materials into the mix when it comes to an ancient craft — making canoes.
When Martin Bernardin crafted his first canoe, he and his brother used it to follow an old fur-trade route from the tip of Lake Winnipeg to Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba.
Now, his La Ronge, Sask.-area company — Kisseynew Canoe Company — makes canoes out of aerospace materials, which are shipped to customers around the world.
It all started, Bernardin says, when he was bit by the paddling bug during that northern Manitoba canoe trip.
“About five years later, I was living in Saskatoon at the time, and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, suggested to a buddy of mine and I that we should paddle in this canoe quest called the Saskatchewan Centennial Canoe Quest,” Bernardin said.
The race, which crossed Saskatchewan west to east from La Loche to Cumberland House, featured 30 teams of paddlers.
Bernardin said he and his friend had always talked about building a canoe together. Although they had little experience between them, the canoe quest was a chance to do that.
Together, they built an eight metre-long voyageur canoe in Bernardin’s garage.
He noted that at the time, the pair didn’t even know enough paddlers to put a 12-person team together.
They advertised that they were looking to participate in the trek. Some told them they were crazy, Bernardin said, and walked away. Others thought it was a great idea and joined up.
All of a sudden we realized that the canoe we had built was way faster than all the others.– Martin Bernardin
Initially, the team wasn’t supposed to be competitive, Bernardin said.
“That lasted up until the first gunshot went off near La Loche there, where the race started,” he said. “All of a sudden we realized that the canoe we had built was way faster than all the others.”
He figured the team should have been in the bottom 10 by the time the race was over. Despite their terrible paddling technique and their fierce competition, the team placed consistently in the top 10 through each of the race’s checkpoints.
After placing ninth in that race, Bernardin caught wind of the Yukon River Quest, a 715-kilometre paddling marathon that bills itself as the world’s longest, running from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon.
Again, the team he assembled wasn’t looking at the race too competitively. Few participants looked at the voyageur canoe category as the most competitive class in the race, according to Bernardin.
“We ended up knocking 10 hours off the voyageur canoe record,” Bernardin said.
Following his team’s success, he said entries into the voyageur canoe category went from three or four teams to about 15 teams a year.
But the next year, the canoe specifications changed and racers were required to participate in a narrower and longer boat than what the team had used previously.
That’s where he started looking into canoe designs and materials he could use to the team’s benefit.
Carbon fibre and Kevlar then replaced the wooden builds they had used in the past.
Bernardin said they weren’t the only team who had the same kind of idea at that particular Yukon River Quest event. A team of Texans had also built a boat using the same materials for the race.
“That year we ended up coming second to those guys, but then the next year after that we came back and we ended up breaking the overall course record for the race,” he said.
“That was back in 2008 and that record stands still today.”
‘A long, cumbersome process’
It was around that point that Bernardin decided to start making canoes for other people, and founded Kisseynew Canoe Company.
Today, the company’s handmade canoes are sold around the world. Bernardin said he’s shipped boats as far away as the United Kingdom.
“We kind of got out of the racing thing for the time being, and concentrated on building these high-quality recreational canoes,” Bernardin said.
At the start, the company didn’t have any moulds and making a canoe by hand was a long and cumbersome process, Bernardin said.
The company built their own canoe mould and decided it was time for a location change.
He sold his Saskatoon-based shop, packed up his materials into a trailer and headed north to La Ronge and the tri-community area.
They acquired more recreational canoe moulds and started using fibreglass and Kevlar to build those canoes.
He noted traditional canoes weigh between 65 and 70 pounds (around 30 kilograms). Kisseynew’s canoes cut that weight in half — something that makes a big difference for paddlers, Bernardin says.
“Getting it on and off your car is one thing, but a lot of the places people like to go canoeing, there’s portage trails in between the lakes or the rapids or what have you,” he said.
“These things can be from a few metres to several kilometres, so if you’re carrying a canoe on your shoulders, saving yourself 20 pounds makes a big difference.”
He noted the techniques he learned have greater application beyond just canoe-making.
Bernardin said he would hypothetically be able to exchange his canoe moulds for moulds for aircraft parts and make high-quality pieces for airplanes.
While he hopes things slow down so he can get a chance to go out and do his own paddling this year, he noted Kisseynew Canoe Company has already built 25 canoes this year.
Looking back to roots
The company is also heading back to its roots in a sense, by building more racing canoes again.
Bernardin said he loves the challenge of building a canoe that can compete with the best. With the recreational canoes, a lot boils down to someone’s personal opinion of the boat in question.
With racing canoes, Bernardin said it comes down to whether or not the canoes are winning races — and his are.
“We’ve got a tandem recreational racing canoe that has been doing really well, and it’s being used up in the Yukon Quest. I think last year we had four canoes up there — this year there’s probably five or six of them,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the tandem canoe record falls this year with the guys paddling one of my canoes.”