The First Pirogue
St. Martinville City Marker in St. Martinville, Louisiana…
In 1976 I was thirteen years old and living the life of a young Cajun boy. July 4th rolled around that year and it found me in St. Martinville, Louisiana, a town just a short drive from where I was born. St. Martinville was a bit bigger than the small village I grew up in, and it had several restaurants, stores, and other attractions that were lacking from my regular haunts. It was also home to a large State park, which bordered on Bayou Teche, my own personal water Interstate to the Louisiana back country.
The morning of July 4, 1976 found me with my family and several others setting up in the St. Martinville State Park to participate in the annual Independence Day celebration. This was an event that I had attended for several years, but this year was going to be different. I just remember the feeling: “It’s going to be different this year.” Little did I know.
There were several families with us. We setup a bar-b-q place near one of the pavilions and chairs were arranged in a rough circle so we could all sit, see, visit, and eat. I had the foresight to bring along my bicycle, and after the usual and customary greetings and updates with relatives and friends, I departed the pavilion area to see what was up in the rest of the park. The area was thick with other families that had setups similar to ours.
I waved to friends and returned “Happy Fourth of July” greetings as I rode thought the park. I am 100% certain I had an American flag taped to my handlebars. I know because I’ve seen a picture from that day showing flags taped to the handlebars just past when the rubber finger covers ended and the chrome began.
In those days, celebrating the 4th of July was a different affair. Flags were everywhere. On cars, on bikes, from small to large.
I knew later in the day there would be several local bands playing music and scattered about the rest of the park were several events I remembered from previous years. A fenced in area that was a pig chase. A sack race. Baseball games. One of my favorites was the greased pole. A smooth skinned barkless tree that resembled a telephone pole was placed in the ground and greased all the way from bottom to top. Nailed to the top of the pole was a $100 bill. The event was simple. You had to make your way up the greased pole to grab the $100 bill, either alone or with the help of your friends. The previous year I remembered laughing myself silly as I watched the older boys struggle to climb up the greased pole. The entertainment lasted several hours before victory was announced in the grease covered hand – the $100 bill had been reached. The grease pole event attracted gawkers all day long.
Riding my bike past the freshly greased pole I knew I would return later to watch the annual struggle. When I reached the entrance to the park I found a sign listing the day’s events. A new event immediately caught my eye: “Pirogue Race today at 2PM.” I was frantic. I didn’t have a pirogue of my own and there was going to be a race! I had to participate.
I got back on my bike and pedaled furiously to the family encampment and explained my plight to my father. Soon, after conferring with a relative, a Pirogue was found and I left with them to retrieve it from their home. An hour later I returned to the park with a short 12 foot wood pirogue in the back of a relative’s truck. I had a paddle, life jacket and a mission. I was going to win that race and enjoy the glory of victory for the whole year.
For the next few hours I happily paddled in the Bayou readying myself for the race. The Pirogue was unfamiliar, and awkward to handle. It felt as wide as it was long. But since it was near 100 degrees, and I was in the water, I didn’t care. Paddling a boat on the water on a hot summer’s day was just the sort of thing I loved to do.
2PM rolled around soon enough and all the racers were lined up in a rough starting line. A rope was stretched across the Bayou and when it dropped the race was on!
I lost. I didn’t even make the top three or five finalists, but I finished the race. I think I laughed as much as anyone else and really enjoyed the experience of the race. Almost all of us ended up in the water after the race. But, one thing I did know. I wanted my own Pirogue.
Almost as soon as the race was over I began to formulate a plan to ask my father to make me my very own Pirogue. It was July. My birthday was in December. If necessary, I had six months of pestering him to convince him of my need.
Over the next month I patiently made my case to my father. “I need a Pirogue.” I repeated this daily. Lest he forget.
“I need a Pirogue” I reminded him each night when I kissed him goodnight and headed off to bed.
“WE need a Pirogue God” I said at Sunday dinner. I didn’t know what else to say at the end of Grace.
Louisiana Flat Bottomed Pirogue…
Soon my father relented. We had a working woodshop in the back of the family business (Service Station) and we often made furniture or other items out of wood to sell or for family use. A Pirogue would be easy for us to build.
Since my father had not built a Pirogue before, research was needed. We asked around and found several other makers in the area of the traditional Louisiana flat bottomed wood Pirogue. We patiently listened to their advice. We should have taken notes instead. This would haunt us later.
A few weeks later we had a rough idea of what we were going to try and build. Fourteen feet long. Plank sides and bottom. Exposed wood framing. Wide open design to increase stability. “Rugged” was what I think we were thinking.
The new few months were an agony of learning and correcting mistakes. Building a boat, especially a Pirogue out of ½” thick planks is challenging. For the bottom of the boat, the task was easy enough. Make sure the plank edges were slightly tapered to take in caulking to seal the edges. Cut the planks to fit the outline. Nail to frame. Done.
But it was the sides of the boat that expanded my vocabulary significantly.
My father cursed a blue streak trying to bend those planks to form the front and rear “V” shapes.
That wood would not bend. We tried ropes. Tying the planks and forcing them to bend. No deal.
We finally resorted to steaming the planks to make them more pliable. And bend they did. They bent so well that when we finished nailing the frame together I noticed the grain was peeling up as the wood dried and tried to resume its former straight orientation. The wood was clearly under enormous stress. I doubled the amount of nails holding the planks onto the front and rear prows as a precaution. The first night after we nailed the sides to the prows I returned in the morning to find both sides had pulled the nails out and the planks had returned to their straight configuration. We resorted to nails and glue. It held.
Getting the taper of the two prows proved to be a learning experience I never forgot. The taper needed to be from back to front and from top to bottom, narrowing in each direction. A double taper. The angle of taper determined how wide the sides would “bow” open. Our first attempt was apparently too conservative. The sides of the boat were nearly vertical. It looked like a tapered coffin. Trial and error over a week finally revealed the correct design. I worried constantly that my father would decide the project too costly or too time consuming or too frustrating.
Gradually the Pirogue came together.
Lots of sanding was required to get the sides of the boat smooth enough to paint, and for a long time after, I see the edges of the grain popping up under the paint. That wood still wasn’t happy about being bent. The stress that wood was showing matched my father’s as he struggled to finish the building of my first Pirogue before my December birthday.
Soon enough, we were done. I coated the Pirogue in deep forest green paint. I made my own paddles (one a spare) while I waited for the paint to dry.
And finally the day came. We were finished. A week before my birthday. The Pirogue was ready for the water. It was then that we had to lift it and carry it across the street and through the yard to the Bayou. I was 13. I wasn’t in the best shape of my life, but I wasn’t what you’d call a lightweight either. I could lift heavy things. But this boat was a barge. It was heavy. And I mean heavy. By the time we made it halfway across the yard I was wondering how much longer my left arm was than my right. I was out of breath and panting. I asked my father for a break and we both sat down. He was sweating as was I.
We finally made it to the water. And while it was heavy on land, it was a beast in the water. Slow to move, slow to turn, but it was mine.
For the next two summers I practically lived in that Pirogue during the daytime, and sometimes at night. I paddled my way up and down Bayou Teche as far as my arms and daylight could carry me. I strung trot lines, ran crab traps when the water was low, and generally enjoyed the freedom a boat brings. But it was a beast. When the roar of an outboard motor announced a passing boat I was slow to move the Pirogue to prevent it getting swamped by the wake, sometimes, most of the time, I ended up in the water as the waves flipped me over. It was a chore dragging that deadweight to shore and bailing it out.
I loved my first Pirogue and was happy to have it.
When an older sister returned home for a visit she mentioned she hadn’t yet been on the Bayou in a Pirogue and would I mind taking her for a spin? That afternoon paddling her upstream and then back down again was a memory we shared long after we both reached adulthood.
On a summer day, especially after a strong rainstorm, it was very easy to place myself and my Pirogue in the middle of the Bayou and occasionally paddle as the strong current moved me downstream. I often just sat and let the current take me on a tour. I grew to recognize every home, every backyard, every patch of forest between my home and my usual stretch of Bayou. I saw fish, deer, people, and as I passed under the area’s bridges, numerous people I knew, everyone always waved and pointed. I always waved back.
No cellphones. No radio. Just a boy, a Pirogue, and a lazy slow moving bayou.
By the time I was fifteen I was driving the family “service” car retrieving parts from the next town over. This was a daily chore for me as soon as school released me. I’d get in the old Dodge Dart and drive over to New Iberia picking up the parts to repair the cars my father was working on. When I returned, I’d help him install the parts until closing time.
Business was slow at times. We’d adapt by continuing to do other things to generate income. And finally one day I asked my father “Hey dad, how about we try to make another Pirogue, but this time make it as light as possible? We might even be able to sell it.” I was surprised at my father’s response: “That’s a good idea. Let’s try.”
We’d already built one. Now we needed to correct our mistakes and build a better one. So we found a large sheet of brown butcher paper and settled in at one of our work tables. My dad sketched out a familiar design and I made notes of what we didn’t want to do this time around. Near the top of my list was “Has to be as light as possible.” My father agreed.
We made trips to the local lake during duck hunting season and peeked at Pirogues being loaded or off loaded, noting the best designs.
Eventually, the design evolved into using ¼” Marine plywood for the rails, sides, and bottom vs. the heavy planks we’d used the first time. Instead of oak prows that formed the bow and stern, we used lighter poplar wood and cypress ribs for the sides with a cypress seat. We had a design and we got started.
I remember the materials list well, because over the course of the next five or six years we ended up building nearly one hundred of those lightweight pirogues and selling them. From as short as twelve feet to as long as eighteen feet. Most had a single seat; the sixteen and eighteen footers had two seats.
We carefully made templates or forms for almost all of the critical parts. We used old cardboard, cut from air filter boxes to make the templates for the wood poplar prows. With notes inscribed in pencil on each piece. Front or back. Top or bottom. A set for each length of Pirogue we would eventually build. Experience would soon show us that as the Pirogue lengthened, adjustments to the prow design would be required to adapt to the longer length.
We started with a single sheet of Marine plywood. For a fourteen foot Pirogue I began by marking off 10” on each side of the sheet. The sheet was fourteen feet long, by 48” wide. Taking two 10” strips off each side left about 28” for the beam at the center of the boat. We meticulously used every inch of the single sheet of plywood, wasting very little wood. The gunwales came from the tapered front and rear edges. Small pieces like the prow covers came from the same area. The bottom of the Pirogue resembled a long tapered diamond, wide at the center and tapering to points in the front and rear. The ribs were crafted out of local Cypress, salvaged from abandoned cisterns. We used strips of 1 by 2 inch pieces of redwood to reinforce the ribs and give the frame skeletal strength.
Building one took five days. We’d start early on Monday mornings and I would sand and paint it on Friday afternoon. By the following Monday it had a “For Sale” sign on it while it sat on two sawhorses just outside the main doors of our garage. The asking price was $150 in 1981. I recall we made approximately $30 on each Pirogue we sold. And that Monday I would start building another one. I don’t recall a completed Pirogue taking longer than a few days to sell. Often, we had two or three orders before we started building a new one.
I have fond memories of certain stages of the construction. I always enjoyed measuring and sawing those long 10” strips off the side of the sheet of plywood. Staying on a thin pencil line with a handsaw was a personal challenge and to this day I can hand saw a straight line better than most.
Nailing on the bottom of the Pirogue was always fun. We’d mix fast setting Marine Epoxy and slather it over the bottom of the exposed cypress ribs and redwood strip edges. Then we’d place the plywood bottom in position using a previously nailed hole as a guide. The epoxy was fast setting so we only had minutes to get it in the correct position.
Once the bottom dropped in place the hand nailing began. My father and I would stand on each side and rhythmically nail the bottom down from one end to the other, keeping pace with one another. Nailing mostly in silence we’d reach over and grab a handful of nails out of the brown paper sack and wordlessly hammer them into place. The bag traveled with us down the center of the Pirogue as we progressed, getting lighter as we approached the other end. I can almost hear the musical pounding of nails in my head to this day.
We had an iterant salesman that visited the family business about once a month. I don’t recall who he worked for but he drove a large van that was filled with the odds and ends that a service station might need in the days before the Internet and overnight shipping. Tire patches and cement. Inner tubes. Lawnmower parts.
One night while working on my first paddle in the fading sunlight I stopped to take a breather from my efforts. I looked up and was surprised to see him silently watching me. After a brief chat he told me he’d been making paddles for more than fifteen years as a hobby. I stood aside as he showed me how to effortlessly shape a cypress wood plank into a beautiful functional tool. I was amazed at his skill with a hand rasp. With hand tools he crafted a beautiful paddle in about half the time it took me to rough out a crude shape. Over the next year as he made his usual rounds he patiently helped me perfect my skill. Soon I was able to turn out paddles that almost rivaled the ones he made. Such is the kindness of country folk.
My father and I settled in to make Pirogues. Work and sales were steady.
We sometimes worried we might not sell the one we were working on. Small town folk can be fickle, interested in traditional Pirogues one day, modern aluminum boats the next.
But, they sold as fast as we could build them. My problem was that I wanted to keep one because it was much lighter than the one I had.
I convinced my father to let me put the first one we built up for sale. I was tempted to write “Barge for sale” on the sign. It took a long time to sell as I recall, but it finally did sell to a neighbor who lived on the Bayou. I was both happy and sad the day it departed for its new home. A lot of memories left with it that day.
But soon I had one of the new lightweight Pirogues. Mine was fourteen feet long and boasted two seats, three paddles (always a spare at hand) and several custom features I installed myself. A discrete gun rack for my Winchester .22. Two removable dowels that I could wind a trot line around when I retrieved it or decided to move it somewhere where the fish might be biting.
But my main goal was to keep it as light as possible. The rails were thinner, as were the ribs, and everywhere I thought I could shave dimensions I did in order to keep it as light as possible. I succeeded.
I was elated. I could carry this one by myself. I could pull it out of the water alone or launch it myself. Northward I could paddle to the locks on Bayou Teche, southward I could paddle past New Iberia, Jeanerette, Baldwin, until I was exhausted, or out of time. I spent many a summer night camping in someone’s back yard or field as I paddled my way down Bayou Teche. When I was ready, I just needed to find a friendly phone to call my dad to come fetch me and my Pirogue back home. I much preferred paddling downstream vs. upstream. Often a close friend, David, would join me for extended trips down the Bayou.
As I grew older I found it fit on the top of my car and I could carry it farther away from home for trips on new waterways. Some of those adventures are documented here on Bayou Tales.
One of my most memorable trips in the new Pirogue was paddling downstream to the intersection of the Bayou and a canal that had been dredged years earlier to connect the Bayou to Lake Dauterieve (now called Lake Fausse Pointe). I departed on a Friday afternoon during the two week break for Christmas and spent nine days (including Christmas day much to my mothers consternation) hunting, camping, fishing, and exploring. In the middle of the trip I encountered a seaplane that had landed on the lake. For a budding aviation enthusiast, it was like meeting your favorite explorer in the middle of a jungle. The airplane was a Cessna 180 on floats, and the pilot was ferrying a survey crew that was surveying the local lake for a state project. I camped that night near where the plane was parked and spent a memorable evening peppering the pilot with questions about his aircraft and his chosen career. He invited me aboard and patiently explained the function of the controls and how the aircraft operated. Barely two years later I would begin my own flight training to earn a Pilot’s License, but that night I knew what I wanted to get as soon as practical: My license to fly and my very own airplane.
I repaid his kindness by sharing with them two ducks I had killed that day while hunting. Roasted over an open flame we shared a meal and I listened as all three men told me about their work and their mission. It seems they envied my trip and I envied their mission. I wanted to be where they were and they wanted to be where I was. Such as it always is.
The family business…the door in the center is where we
used to stand in the sunlight to build the Pirogues…
Today, my father’s business is long closed. The building where we built all those Pirogues sits in rusting silence. When my parents passed on, the building and land were sold to a local businessman. The last time I visited was for the funeral of my mother. I walked through the building and dust covered every inch of the space. The tools we once used daily were now dust covered in their nooks and crannies. I walked over to the small low cabinet where I knew my father had kept the old cardboard Pirogue templates and wood forms. When I opened the low chest I discovered that most of them remained in the same place, unmoved for more than twenty years. I retrieved a few of the fragile paper prow templates and recognized both my fathers and my own handwriting from years ago. Looking at those old templates I suddenly recalled details long forgotten.
A fourteen foot Pirogue took exactly 1.5lbs. of 1 ½” galvanized nails. 1/3 of a can of marine epoxy mixture (to seal the bottom). 1.5 gallons of oil based paint. The first thing we did was to make the Cypress ribs because they needed 24 hours to dry for maximum strength after gluing. Four hours to sand and prep for paint. I put a penny under each prow cover and only told the date of the penny to the customer that bought it (in case of theft).
I saved a few of the old templates and let the remainder stay where they were. I tried to remember how many paddles I had built by hand, but failed. I often included a paddle with each sale, built out of local Cypress planks we had stored in an old shed behind our home. I remembered the itinerant salesmen, long replaced by the Internet.
While eating lunch later that day I ran into the son of the neighbor who I had sold that first heavy Pirogue to. We chatted for a bit, and I inquired as to what happened to it. He surprised me by telling me “It’s behind my father’s house, sitting in the weeds, it’s a bit rotten now, but it’s still mostly intact. Man, that thing was a beast to paddle!” I laughed at his memory and agreed with him. I told him the story of what had started it all, that Pirogue race in 1976 in St. Martinville. He laughed and said their family used to go to the same park for the same event. We kept talking and finally he asked me if I wanted to see my old Pirogue. I did.
A few minutes later I was standing next to it. Almost completely covered in weeds I still recognized it. The boards were still mostly there. The grain was peeling backwards in large strips, and as soon as I saw that, I cracked a smile. The wood was still rebelling after all these years. The green paint was faded and peeling. Bare wood peeked out in several places. It wasn’t seaworthy, but I was tempted to try, just for old times sake.