Part craftsmen, part artists, Randy Pew and Scott Hale of Obed River Canoe Works in Crossville handcraft each of the Merrimack Canoes using a design Pew's grandfather originated more than 50 years ago. The business not only allows the builders to control every aspect of the manufacturing process, but also develop connections with the customers.
"We get pictures back from people showing us how they've used their canoes on trips and we've watched their families grow up," Pew said.
Hale added, "We love getting that feedback."
The company began with Pew's grandfather, L.H. Beach, in 1954 after canoes began being mass produced using fiberglass. Beach had grown up in Maine and was a registered hunting and fishing guide.
"He was used to the all wood canoes," explained Pew. "When fiberglass canoes came onto the market, they were solid, heavy fiberglass and he didn't like the look of them."
Beach took his knowledge of canoeing and combined traditional designs with the new technology of fiberglass, leading to the company's slogan, "The fiberglass canoe that looks like a canoe."
Pew's grandfather built the canoes in his carport, taking his time to form each fiberglass hull that was reinforced with slivers of wooden ribs 1/16th of an inch thick. This gave the hull needed stiffness without adding extra weight. The canoes were trimmed out with wood, as well.
Pew's father, Lem Beach, took over the company in 1969 after retiring from the Navy. That's when Pew began his boat-building career, one that he's carried on in some form ever since. The company was in Merrimack, NH, but Pew's mother, Doris, had family in Cumberland County and the family moved to Crossville in 1972.
As a third-generation canoe builder, Pew and Hale still produce the same original model his grandfather produced, the Osprey, as well as five other models. They use the same basic production methods, but have changed with the times to make the boats lighter and more durable.
Paint is sprayed into the boat mold and fiberglass is layered with Kevlar and carbon-graphite. The boat's hull is finished with cherry ribs. Each boat is signed and numbered by Pew and Hale. Ash wood is used for the yoke, thwart and seat frames, and seats are woven in a snowshoe pattern.
The current models are about 10 to 12 pounds lighter than the model made by Beach in the '50s.
"That makes it easier for portaging the boats," said Pew, who is an avid paddler.
Pew describes the boat models similarly to automobiles, with three described as "pick-up trucks," able to handle gear and families. The boats are designed for leisure paddling and quiet water, not rapids and heavy whitewater.
The Osprey has been a best seller for the business for 58 years. It's a stable and lightweight canoe that can be handled well tandem or solo and is stable enough to stand in. It's 13-foot long.
The Souhegan is similar to the Osprey, but is 16 feet in length. It's also more narrow than the Osprey, making it easier to paddle.
Between those two is the best selling model, The Tennessean. Pew said the design of the boat was spurred by a customer in Japan who said the Osprey was too wide for the car racks and the Souhegan was too long. The Tennessean is 14.5 feet long and offers easy paddling with room for families and gear.
In the "high-performance" line, there's the Baboosic, the Traveler and the Prospector.
The Baboosic is a solo boat for unpredictable backwater camping or paddling. It's fast and can turn on a dime, Pew said, comparing it to a sports car. It's popular among freestyle paddlers who perform canoe moves to music, much like a water ballet.
The Prospector is based on the boat design used by old-time prospectors in the 1800s who needed to carry a lot of supplies. It's ideal for week-plus outdoor adventures as it can carry a lot of gear and take on some light whitewater, if necessary.
The Traveler is a 17-foot touring canoe. It has a shallow arc bottom that allows it to glide through the water and respond to the paddler's commands. It can hold several weeks' worth of gear.
The boats come in dark blue, red, green and ivory. Custom colors can be done, but have an added expense. In the future, Pew and Hale hope to offer custom colors along with the custom wood choices.
In addition, Obed River Canoe Works offers seat backs for the canoes, tie-down kits and other accessories.
The boats can be customized using different woods for the inwales and outwales. Pew and Hale have recently launched the Exotic Rainforest Line that uses purple heart, teak, mahogany or other exotic wood.
"We always check our suppliers," Pew said, adding the business was concerned about the environment and taking care of natural resources. "We buy from small, family businesses, and it has to be somebody who doesn't clear cut. They have to selective cut their lumber."
Pew and Hale can complete about two boats a week in the shop between the two of them. At one time, the two had a crew of up to eight working in the shop, but found they lost control of the quality and weight. They decided to scale back production at that time to maintain the quality they want in their boats.
In addition to manufacturing quality, Obed River Canoe Works provides a lifetime warranty to the original owners of their canoes.
"We stand by our work," Pew said.
They completed repairs on some boats his grandfather and father built, as well as completed some unique orders, including cutting the end off a boat to allow for a motor to be installed.
They also perform restoration and repair work on other canoes. Pew recalled a 1902 Rustition Canoe, a Reelfoot Lake Boat and a boat to be used by a descendent of John Colter as he followed his ancestor's journey down the Missouri River.
Customers are from all over the world, with several in use at Camp Nakanawa in Cumberland County, to a canoe recently shipped to Guatamala.
"We custom-built five boats for Kevin Costner," Pew said, adding he and his wife delivered the boats to Costner at his ranch in Colorado.
A family closer to home in Hendersonville has collected seven Merrimack Canoes they use on their outdoor family vacations.
Shipping the canoes can be a challenge, as Pew and Hale avoid regular shipping agents due to the size and weight.
"I have some retired friends who will tie a boat on their car," Pew said. "And Scott and I have driven them up to Chicago, Minnesota, Colorado."
In the past, Pew and Hale handled the marketing of their boats as well as the construction. Seven years ago, he sold the Merrimack name and rights to a person in Florida who took care of sales and service. That person has since sold the rights to a Maryland resident.
"We're the only two who build Merrimack canoes," Pew said. "I used to do it all, but now, I just build the boats."
Pew said the canoes have been gaining some high praise in recent months. In December, Garden and Gun magazine picked the canoes as runner-up for Best Sporting Product Built in the South. That was followed by Vogue, Town and Country and Forbes Life naming Merrimack Canoes among the Top 10 Christmas Gifts for Men. Obed River Canoe Works will be part of a feature in Southern Living's August edition, as well, Pew said.
"We're still filling Christmas orders," said Pew, who noted each canoe is built to order.
Canoeing continues to be a family passion, with Pew adding he had his daughter in a canoe as soon as she could wear a life jacket. That's continued with his grandson, Aram, 12, and granddaughter, Evie, 5. Family outings revolved around paddling and the outdoors. Now, Aram is looking to learn the craft and, maybe, carry on the family tradition.