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The Birth Of Persephone

The Birth Of Persephone

On the shores of Great Slave Lake, Up Here editor Jake Kennedy joins a boatbuilding legend to craft a uniquely Northern vessel—and to uncover secrets about wood, waves and life.
By Jake Kennedy
May 16
From the May/June 2007 Issue

Everyone is quiet while Ted Moores walks around the front of the workshop, stopping to stare at the skeleton on the floor. The backbone is for a 16-foot Gloucester light dory, a traditional East Coast lobster-fishing boat. Two long pieces of Okoume plywood are sitting alongside the frame. And they’re about 10 centimetres short of where they should be.

“Hmm,” Ted mumbles, lifting his blue ballcap and scratching his head. “Hmm.” I don’t want to be the first to say it, but I’m pretty sure we’re in trouble. These pieces were pre-cut by Ted in his workshop in Peterborough, Ontario and shipped up to Yellowknife.

“Ted,” says Joan Barrett, Ted’s partner in both life and boats, “I think that piece might be upside down.” A grin creeps across Ted’s face as the sides are swapped. The fit is perfect. Within a few minutes, everyone is back to the job at hand: building Great Slave Lake’s nicest-looking dory for Ted and Joan’s daughter, Jennifer. And learning a thing or two about boatbuilding in the process.

Of course, in this small workshop in Yellowknife’s Old Town, probably the last person who needs to learn about building a boat is Ted Moores. In 1983 Moores released a book called Canoecraft. Take a trip around cottage country anywhere in Canada and you’re likely to see one of the designs from his book. The 148-page guide to hand-crafting cedar strip canoes -- stunning vessels that are equal parts art and function -- almost single-handedly rekindled the nation’s love affair with canoes. To this day it’s known as the Bible of canoe building. Which would make Moores … well, you get the picture. 

When Pierre Trudeau was looking for a wedding gift to present to Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, he approached Ted for a canoe. So, it’s no small deal that Moores has come to Yellowknife – with Joan and his apprentice from Belize, Marcos – to build a boat for Jennifer, a Yellowknifer. As a friend of Jennifer’s and something of an aspiring boatbuilder, I was invited to participate. I jumped at the chance. 

Of course, I really thought my role would be more of an observer than an active participant. But now that the crisis with the sides has been resolved, Ted is quick to put a jigsaw and a piece of wood into my hands. “Relative perfection,” he says to me. “When you’re building a house, one-eighth of an inch doesn’t matter much, but when you’re building a boat, it does.” I’m not sure if that’s a vote of confidence or a word of warning.

Jennifer reassures me. “I think my dad subscribes to a very liberal school of thought when it comes to parenting and boatbuilding,” she says. “He was always very good at letting us figure things out for ourselves. When it came to projects in the workshop, he would help set us up with the tools and then would watch quietly from the background. If he thought it was necessary he would ask if we wanted help.” 

Gloucester light dories aren’t exactly common on Great Slave Lake. Very lightweight, they were designed to ride the surf off Massachusetts, to go fishing and lobstering. Yet Ted says he chose this design specifically for the sometimes-choppy waters of Yellowknife Bay. (At the time Jennifer was living in a houseboat and had to commute to shore daily – waves or not.) 

“It’s 85 percent preparation, and 15 percent work.” That’s what Ted says when I ask him about the effort that goes into a handcrafted wooden boat. It’s going to take us 10 days to put this boat together – albeit with liberal breaks for fishing, Yellowknife’s Folk on the Rocks summer concert and lunches at the Wildcat Café. Ted’s already pre-cut many of the pieces. If this is only 15 percent of the job, well, I don’t think I want to know the rest of the equation.

“My dad spent countless hours researching designs and preparing many of the parts so we wouldn’t have to spend their whole visit in the workshop,” Jennifer says. “He also bought a set of inexpensive oars, reshaped them, installed leathers and applied carbon fibre on the blades so I could bounce them off rocks.  I’m guessing he stayed up pretty late on this project.”

The hours it takes to create this boat can’t be measured. When we reach the final day of construction, I realize the only thing pushing us to finish is the deadline we imposed. That, and the fact Ted’s plane is leaving the next day. Jennifer and I are none too keen to finish the project by trial and error. 

The hours spent fibreglassing the hull, sanding down the sides, fine-fitting the foot pegs – all of these could have been cut back for efficiency’s sake. But a wooden boat isn’t about efficiency, it’s about love and friendship. The hours that go into menial, and sometimes mind-numbing, tasks are paid off when you can look at the finished product and know that every square inch has been painstakingly crafted. “I retired 30 years ago,” Ted says a couple of times throughout the process. “I’ve just been building boats for fun ever since.” It’s a sentiment that I didn’t understand until I saw the finished boat, sitting in the dim workshop but seeming to glisten with a light of her own. 

When we carry the finished boat out into the bright morning, I’m surprised at how light she is. It seems somehow fitting that on the day we’re ready to launch her, the Canadian Coast Guard ship Eckaloo is parked at the government wharf. It’s as though the Coast Guard is here to toast the newest addition to the fleet on Great Slave Lake.

As we prepare for the launch, I’m equal parts sad and overwhelmed. I can hardly believe the pile of wood we started with 10 days ago has turned into the boat perched on the dock. I want to go back into the workshop and continue to create. But then I realize how difficult it must be for Ted and Joan to constantly form works of art, to put so much of themselves into a project and then have to give it to somebody else.

“I think initially we were both intrigued with the idea of being independent, working from home, living in the country, creating something unique and of value, being able to raise a family at the same time as earning our livelihood,” Joan says. “I wanted to have children and we were living far in the bush on a very small budget, so it just sort of happened that we worked in the business together. It hasn’t been easy, and many times we both wanted out. But we’d invested so much energy and were so tied to the dream that we just kept going.”

That, it occurs to me, is exactly the essence of boatbuilding: It’s less about building a boat, more about building a dream.  

Before we put our own dream into the waters, Jennifer christens the dory by pouring champagne across her bow. Persephone is born. “Persephone is the Greek goddess of spring,” she explains. “Each year she’s forced into the underworld and takes the warmth with her, leaving a world of darkness, snow and ice. Sounds familiar in the North, huh? In the spring, she returns and the Earth recovers from the cold and spring emerges again.”

The vessel slides into the crystal-blue lake, sending wavelets rippling across the surface. Jennifer steps in, the captain now. 

We watch her pull Persephone smoothly across the water, the rest of us standing on shore laughing and toasting our success with the rest of the champagne. “It’s amazing what you can do with a couple pieces of plywood,” Ted says. I’m not sure if he’s even talking about the boat. 


Jake Kennedy is still trying unsuccessfully to convince his wife they have plenty of room for a workshop.