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The Sound Of Wood On Water

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2010

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

"Wow! Look at the big frog!" my seven-year-old son said as we fished along the bank of a local lake.

His four-year-old sister, following his gaze, asked "Where?"

Before I could say a word, the two suddenly stood (not the best idea in a canoe) and pushed up against the gunnel, but it wasn't until the boy leaned out to point that the horizon seemed to tilt and everything in the boat began to move.

An orange soda can shot past my feet like a speed skater. Cheese puffs fountained from the opened bag that rested on top of the sliding cooler. Fishing poles and tackle clattered against the side.

I instinctively shifted my weight to counter-balance the kids. The canoe seemed to tremble on the very verge of tipping, then rocked back heavily before steadying itself.

I heard someone shout in a stern voice, "Kids, don't do that!"

It was me.

That close call convinced me we needed something more stable than a canoe for our family floats, so I built an old-fashioned wooden johnboat. I finished it clear, allowing the Missouri oak and the warm glow of the pine it was fashioned from to show through. The kids named it Water Eagle.

The 14-foot Water Eagle easily carries two adults, two kids, a dog, and gear for cooking, floating and overnight camping. She has run many rivers and some lakes to boot. She has served as a pirate ship, a diving board, a water toy and the subject of a Conservation Department video.

The Water Eagle attracts attention wherever she goes., "Nice boat, did you make it?" people ask. Though I am proud of my work, I think the people are just attracted to the novelty of seeing a wooden johnboat.

The first johnboats were all made of wood. It may seem like heresy to say it, but it wasn't a Missourian or, for that matter, an American who invented the johnboat. F. H. Chapman's Architectura Navalis Mercatoria, published in 1768, contains an image of a trim little craft it labeled a pirogue. You and I would call it a johnboat. The actual origin of this type of small workboat may go back to Roman times.

The origin of the name is also lost to us. It may have been a corruption of "joined boat," a boat comprised of boards rather than the common dugout made from a hollowed-out

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