I remember wandering through what seemed like a treasure trove of old miscellany, my neighbour Mr. Grimes was an odd old duck who refurbished antiques. Rain or shine he sold his wares on a large laneway surrounded by a verdant lawn, our barn and ourselves, his neighbours to the west. Saturdays he’d dole out 15 or so bb’s for myself and my siblings to use with his gun. I’d shoot for practice, my brother would shoot at squirrels, and when we ran out, pencil crayons became the new currency aimed at a foot or an unsuspecting buttocks. He was a kind man, and one day, for whatever gracious reason he asked me if I’d like to choose anything that I could physically carry out myself at 8 years old to my delight.
The biology geek in me loved birds and I had had my eye on this patented brassy toucan hanging among the pots and rusted out spades on the inside of his garage. I pointed. He mildly and hesitatingly relented with a smile and that toucan has been with me through many of life’s ups and downs. Through thick and through thin, it’s what introduced me to finding value in the dusty and often forgotten. I played pirate and dug for treasure as toucan Sam looked on.
My favourite author is John Irving, not all of his works moved me to tears, but most do. One thing he said has always stuck with me… he always writes the last paragraph of his novel first. ‘How’, says Irving, ‘can you know where you are going if you don’t know where you will end.’
In the midst of an unusually undelightful year as I sought more substantial fare, my 16 years as a massage therapist in private practice was wearing thin emotionally, I find this beautiful, derelict old boat on Kijiji during the summer of 2015. I dream of a future on the water and building a chartered boat-tour company in Ottawa. Its a cool, rather unusual looking thing, sailboat boat bottom, tuggish kind of top, like a glorified gondola with a hat and I fall in love with its dapper proportions. Now, I don’t know much about boats, most of it I have gleaned is from years ago when I used to wax other folks sailboats down at the yacht club in Kingston and fly around on a zodiac with my teen friends another life-time ago. My learning curve is steep.
At that time, I got to know a friends parents, we spent many nights indulging our mutual foodiness and love of wine when the discussion comes up that I want to buy this ridiculous creature. An offer to go out and look at it is made and the rest of this story begins.
Can you imagine if Big Bird and Einstein made an Irish baby, this is Dez. He stands non-intimidatingly over 6 feet tall with wind-swept hair and a silver more subdued Groucho Marx moustache. He gestures animatedly, winks conspiratorly and makes great espresso. He also runs a custom paint shop in Greeley, has a heart of gold and without the help so readily offered by his family and friends at the shop, this adventure may never have started. But first, I need to check it out, I need his advice about whether the 24 foot skeleton is a lemon. And we hit the road to Newborough Ontario in early fall.
It is a beautiful little town, and among its residents is a charming man whose face looks carved from a soft wood. His home was placed among trellises and vines, winding pathways through arbours and odds and ends from boats.The bow from one nestled in long grass like a giant turtle shell, another stern rested against a tree. He had no name for the bare-bones boat that I bought from him. I do know it was his original plan for retirement on the water. Its a sailboat bottom, with a cabin as an afterthought as he didn’t particularly want to put his pants on lying down. His other two were at one time both stunning and peculiar, all based and built from designs from a 1920’s boat builder Phillip Bolger who engineered hundreds of designs from 6 foot sails to 40 foot cruisers. The Turtle was a livaboard and the other named the Pelican, seemed too fragmented and tired to return to the water. Dez,his gracious to a fault partner Beth, and my friend Matt are looking at this boat when I ask for some time to think. In hindsight I know my heart had already decided to buy it months ago when I first looked upon it online, but the point was to have Dez there, for all his boat experience and expertise on repairs. While I was prepared to walk away if it were too much work, I asked Dez if I was to crazy to buy it. There came his signature wink, he said the workmanship was phenomenal. Later I heard, that if I hadn’t have bought then, Dez would have in an instant…or so the story goes.
The naming of the Brass Toucan, why that particular name was chosen, was to pay tribute to John Bartlett, the man who put hours and hours of workmanship on the wood and fibreglass frame and whose penchant for oceanic animal names complimented nicely with the memories of my imaginative romps with Toucan Sam where I dug for treasure in a sea of fields and lilac in Kingston, Ontario.
She’s my acorn, this little diminutive gondala-looking Boatie McBoatFace with a hat. I see my future if she’ll have me, but first I need to get this Tour business going. And there is John Irving again, reminding me of where I want to go. One day I want to run a retreat on the water, one part boat tours, two parts B&B with massage therapy, all parts where I wish to grow old under the expanse of branches I watched grow.
So we finish it, its faux mahogany varnish shines care of Dez’s artistic flair and decades of experience. The logo in place, the fabric and upholstery screams bombastic in its rainbow of colour, such a poor choice for pragmatism, but its pretty. My art deco gold and blue floor at once garish and charming. Its on the water at Hogs Back and I don’t know how to steer…I decide to spend the next 9 days trial by fire, sink or swim, any euphemism that imparts that I better learn to do this or I’m sunk. And I nearly am! At one point on a wing and a prayer I manage to avoid the rocky bits at Burritts' Rapids when I miss the queue at the locks and pass into rapids…how I managed to turn my stern is beyond me. I scrape the keel, knock the propellors on my brand new outboard. My fingers shake. Water. Sunscreen are imperative, you need this so your brain functions. I write a strongly worded letter to my future self to remain hydrated and alert.
Some of the Rideau is terrifying if you have a boat that maneuvers like a rubber ducky in a toddlers bath tub, I don’t want to alarm anyone. The day tours are in calm water and with sometimes inconsiderate boaters, but not big waters like outside Portland, or after Long Island where Finn, my apricot golden doodle and first mate shudders at my knees with every hit from big waves.
I’d never built a boat before, I never had driven one either, so my first bit on moody’s bay was super stressful! Like too many cooks in the kitchen, I had to ask everyone off her so I could practice in peace. Honestly, its the only way to learn in my opinion, you have no choice but to succeed or fail. The Irishman helped me through the first two locks to the Swan on the Rideau and that’s where I hesitantly said au revoir! I spent the next week and a half through 24 locks from Hogs back to Chaffeys locks to Benson Lake and back. I broke 2 toes, braved a tornado with another salty dog I met in Smiths Falls, slept with a broken bug net in the marsh, nearly capsized my boat in the lock and got escorted by the OPP to pick up my BBB (that’s best boat buddy) a enigmatic middle-aged man I befriended with a military background after he was picked up on his houseboat by the OPP after someone called him in after he accidentally backed over a buoy, failed his breathalyzer test and was escorted with me, his only contact with a boat license to drive his enormous houseboat through the locks to Merrickville locks. Those officers were lovely and will remain nameless.
The Brass Toucan has manifested. I sometimes am completely in awe that I’m here. That this experience has begun. I’ve hit walls and then doors, more red-tape than ever before. I feel tenacious. I am proud. I’m mostly thankful. We are truly nothing without the small army of friends that support us. In this case, its also the acts of kindness from strangers and acquaintances that have so moved me.
I want to thank everyone from Dez’s Paint Shop, Steve whose knowledge of glass guided me in installing and cutting the doors and windows, teacher Mike for his patience in helping me do the electrical and soldering, Paul, Jeremy, Jamie, Kale and Conner for all many little things, braving my small annoyances and ignorance of rudimentary tools, for lending a hand to tape for paint, sanding or showing me how to use new tools or cut metal. Tom and Terry with wood cutting and tools and advice. Jesper for his amazing talent in hand painting the domain and putting on the logo. Chris Barber for the bug screens and vinyl. Kale for patiently helping me with the upholstery with his much stronger grip on the staple gun. Matt for his help in frequently getting back and forth from Ottawa to Greeley and keeping the humour. The other lads whose names I might miss whose advice, ridiculous sense of humour and words of encouragement made tireless days invigorating. Most of all, Beth and Dez….you believed in me and I wasn’t sure if I believed it myself, you brought me into your home weekend after weekend, you provided respite and an infinite amount of patience and kindness. I couldn’t have done it without you both and for that I will always be thankful, even if you think ‘its not a big deal.’
The Brass Toucan offers day boat-tours with pick-up at Hog’s Back Locks, provides guidance in maneuvering the locks at Black Rapids while you bring your own picnic for stop off at Long Island for BBQ, swimming and refreshments or stop off in one of Manoticks water-front restaurant and back.
For more information visit www.thebrasstoucan.com