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Caddo Watershed

When your day job has you down, building a canoe by hand may be the way to go.

By May 2016Comments

Bowen at Lake Palo Pinto, near Gordon, where he takes his canoe to go fishing.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Starr Bowen always has a good story, and it is often set near the water. There’s the time he worked as a ship’s carpenter during the Vietnam War, and the time he built a rowboat in North Carolina as a graduate student, and the years he spent honing his woodworking skills as a missionary in the Amazon. He’ll also offer detailed reflections on his family’s annual trip to the boundary waters of Ontario, Canada, where they sometimes test out new boat designs. Bowen, who grew up fishing on the rivers around Hurst, had an early fascination with adventurers like Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. But it wasn’t until years later, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Scotland, that he decided to fully embrace this interest: in 1982 he took a break from reading up on German philosophy in the university library and spent the summer building a wooden canoe instead. He studied the work of canoe makers from the 1800’s, such as J. Henry Rushton, and once he was done with his vessel—a sixteen-foot-long canoe made of cedar—he tried it out on the waters of the North Sea. Since then, Bowen, who is now a pastor of First United Methodist Church and oversees congregations in Gordon and Santo, has made at least one canoe or kayak every year, working in the shop he set up in the church garage. “I don’t get much immediate satisfaction from my day job,” he says. “I have a master’s in counseling and a doctorate in theology, but not everyone I counsel changes their lives radically, even after hundreds of hours. Working with wood is also challenging, but at least when you’re done, you see a beautiful finished project. Building boats keeps me balanced.”

Bowen with a canoe awaiting its final sanding and varnish (boats start at $3,000).
Bowen with a canoe awaiting its final sanding and varnish (boats start at $3,000).

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Q&A With Starr Bowen

Wooden boats are uncommon these days. Why is that?

A wooden boat is a commitment, because you are always sanding or varnishing something. Wood contracts and expands, so whatever the boat’s coating is, it will develop cracks. You have to be constantly inspecting it.

How do you build one?

My first boats were based on designs by J. Henry Rushton; I eventually adapted those to create my own. You build the strong back first—the long bench the canoe sits on—and then you build the form station, which looks like the skeleton of a whale. I use a system called strip building, in which you tie strips together that are one inch wide and a quarter inch thick. They have to be glued together sideways to create the sheathing of the boat. Bottom strips are shiplapped, and then I coat them with fiberglass and epoxy resin, then add more than five coats of varnish for extra strength.

Sounds long and tedious. How many do you build a year?

Sometimes only one from start to finish, but I’ll refurbish several. Last year, I built one that is hanging in a dentist’s office; I think he thought it was too pretty to put in the water. I have another boat hanging in a bar and another in a jewelry store.

Where are your favorite places to canoe in Texas?

My father and I always fished on the Brazos when I was a kid—John Graves’s Goodbye to a River is one of my favorite books—and Caddo Lake.

I guess that explains the name Caddo Watershed? Because your shop is not near Caddo Lake at all.

Yes. I love the mystery of Caddo Lake. There are all kinds of alligators and critters; you never know what you might see. Caddo is the only natural lake in Texas, and I wanted to make boats that celebrated this history and honored the Caddo Indians it is named after. The “Watershed” part is a play on words—if you’re going to build a boat, it had better shed water!

For more information, go to caddowatershed.com.

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