An Outdoor View: The little red boat

Like the Kenai Peninsula, the place where I was born and raised in Western Washington is a place where people either own a boat or wish they did. My father, who wasn’t far removed from the Vikings, always owned a boat. Having caught the boat bug from him, I’ve always loved boats.

In the 1960s, I was without a boat in my life, but I’d developed a powerful yearning for one. One spring day in 1968, a work-buddy, Lyle Pehlke, said he was thinking about building a “Can-Yak.” It was half-canoe, half-kayak, he said, and would be great on the rivers and lakes of Interior Alaska. The next thing I knew, he and I were boatbuilders.

I was 30, and Lyle was younger. Neither of us knew much about woodwork, and we had few tools. I had a variable speed drill and a circular-blade saw, but after I saw all the curves and angles that had to be cut, I bought a good saber saw. Between us, we had enough tools.

We were pleasantly surprised to find everything we needed in Fairbanks, all the fasteners, and even the ¾-inch mahogany and the ¼-inch marine plywood. With the coming summer urging us on, we went to work.

My house became a boatyard. We worked on the boats in every spare moment, and finished them in less than a month. Lyle’s was yellow; mine, red. They didn’t look homemade. Gleaming in their new paint and varnish, they looked racy.

I gave my Can-Yak a trial run in a local pond. It felt stable, like a good kayak should. Its canoe-like keel made it easy to keep on a straight course. Plywood decking over the bow and stern gave it a rainproof storage area.

The first real test came in May of 1968, when Lyle and I paddled our boats down one of Alaska’s largest rivers, accompanying the participants of the first Great Tanana River Raft Classic. On this 65-mile float from Fairbanks to Nenana, our boats performed beautifully, and we felt safe and comfortable in them.

We made plans to float the Upper Chatanika River, where we’d camp on sandbars and fish on the 30-mile float to the takeout. Someone warned us to watch out for a big logjam and sweepers. Other than that, the float would be duck soup, we were assured.

The clear, cold waters of the Upper Chatanika are perfect for floating and fishing. We ate grayling for dinner. Sipping from a cup of grog beside the campfire that first night, we agreed that building these boats had been the act of geniuses.

The next morning, we’re paddling along on the gentle, sparkling river in warm sunshine, and all is well with the world. Lyle is downstream from me a ways, in the lead. I look away from him for a moment. When I look back, he’s gone.

I can’t see where he went. I notice that the current is faster. The bow of my boat drops a foot. I see that I’m at the top of a long, fast rapid. I’m picking up speed. Now I see Lyle. He’s 50 yards ahead of me, going around a wide bend to the right. Now I see a log jam, high as a house, blocking the whole river. We’re headed right for it. If we get pulled under that, we’re dead.

Desperate to stop the plunge toward the logjam, we paddle toward the steep bank on our left. We grab for a hold on something — anything. I grab a tree root, and finally stop a few feet upstream from Lyle. My heart is pounding. The current is roaring past. A root the size of my little finger is saving my life.

“Whose idea was this?” I yell to Lyle.

“I don’t know, but you got any ideas for how we get out of this?” he says.

Our best chance is to try to pull ourselves and our boats out, right where we are, we decide. First, we tie the upstream end of our boats to tree roots. Then, standing up in our boats, and aided by terror-induced adrenaline, we claw our way up the steep bank. From there, it’s a simple matter of pulling 90 pounds of boat and gear eight feet vertically from the river, and a couple-hundred yards through the woods to the slough we should’ve taken, but didn’t.

After that the float went as planned. We’d learned what our boats would do, and we liked what we’d learned. We’d also acquired a new respect for floating wild rivers in remote areas.

I loved that little boat, but didn’t keep it long. Using it to float the Upper Chatanika and the Upper Chena made me hungry for a boat that I could take apart and put in an airplane, so I could float some truly remote rivers. I ended up with a Klepper “single” kayak, which took me on many adventures. But those are stories for another time.

The Can-Yak? I sold it to a friend in Fairbanks. I ran into him a few years later, and he said he had really enjoyed it, but had sold it to someone else. I hope that little red boat is still making someone, somewhere, happy.

For Can-Yak plans:

Les Palmer can be reached at

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