A look into Mushem's Pontoon Lake canoe shop, where old boats get new life

·3 min read
Garth Wallbridge with a restored 20-foot freighter canoe. It's one of many piling up in his Pontoon Lake shop, where he is restoring canoes of all conditions, including one that is estimated to be 100 years old.  (Loren McGinnis/CBC - image credit)
Garth Wallbridge with a restored 20-foot freighter canoe. It's one of many piling up in his Pontoon Lake shop, where he is restoring canoes of all conditions, including one that is estimated to be 100 years old. (Loren McGinnis/CBC - image credit)

Out at his cabin on Pontoon Lake, a short drive from Yellowknife, canoe enthusiast Garth Wallbridge has been bringing a 22-foot freighter canoe back to life.

"It started life in 1960 up in Inuvik," he told CBC's Loren McGinnis, host of The Trailbreaker.

Repairing the boat is part of an eventual plan to spend six to eight weeks "poking around the shoreline of all of Great Slave Lake."

The canoe came off the factory as a fibreglass boat and its new lease on life starts at Mushem's Pontoon Lake Canoe Shop, as Wallbridge calls his place. Mushem is a word in both Cree and Michif, and references Wallbridge's Métis roots.

Wallbridge said he is proud of his Métis forefathers who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and are listed in the archives as canoe men. Two of them have the added job descriptions of Cree interpreter, he said, adding that hopefully, that meant they got a pay bump.

Garth Wallbridge/Facebook
Garth Wallbridge/Facebook

The freighter repair was quite the overhaul.

On Facebook, Wallbridge posts updates of the work he's done on the boat that day.

So far, he has milled 220 feet of gunnel material made of ash and birch, built a steam box and installed eight new sections of gunnel and laminated them, and added new thwarts.

Garth Wallbridge/Facebook
Garth Wallbridge/Facebook

Wallbridge said the canoe was owned by a former RCMP officer and the boat was left sitting at the mining museum, with no one to restore it.

Knowing of Wallbridge's interest in fixing up canoes, people at the museum asked him to give it a go.

Canoes mean 'freedom'

Wallbridge said he's been canoeing his entire life — he likes newer canoes, old wooden canoes and newer plastic canoes.

His workshop and yard are so full of them that Wallbridge and his wife, Pat, have a running joke that he is not allowed to buy or acquire any more old canoes until he fixes up the eight lying in his shop.

Loren McGinnis/CBC
Loren McGinnis/CBC

"I try to get some credibility with my wife by saying I actually gave one away [to a Yellowknife school]. But then she did point out that I acquired two more this past year," he said.

Wallbridge learned his skills growing up on the prairies.

"Everything we had that broke, we fixed it," he said.

What does he like so much about canoes?

"Freedom."

You can get just about anywhere you want in a canoe, like a kid on a bike, he said.

Solving a ratting canoe mystery

Wallbridge, pointing to one 12-foot wooden canoe in his yard, says he has a feeling it could be a boat with historical significance.

Wallbridge said around five or six years ago, CBC did a story about a small ratting canoe — used to harvest muskrats and beavers — that came from Behchokǫ̀. Wallbridge is hoping that people who read this can help him track that boat's story down.

Loren McGinnis/CBC
Loren McGinnis/CBC

He estimates that the one in his shop could be around 100 years old, and he suspects it may be the one.

"What a person would do with that little canoe is have a circuit, day to day, going in one direction from pond to pond with a .22 rifle," he said.

This time of year, the fur is at its prime and using a canoe just like this one would be ideal.

If he can get the full story behind the boat, he believes the boat should be in the Canadian Canoe Museum, where he will soon be appointed as a board member.

Canadian Canoe Museum

Wallbridge said he is excited about the work to return canoes to communities as acts of reconciliation, something he says the museum has been on on with Indigenous communities.

"If I can have a little bit of involvement in helping that happen, I'd really like that."

The other is to spend quality time with other "canoe aficionados."

"I've been a volunteer on the governance committee with the Canadian Canoe Museum, and I'm about to become a member of the board, and I'm quite pleased about that."

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