WINTHROP — A funny thing happened to Eben “Ben” Thomas on the way to the dump.

Thomas, an 82-year-old Winthrop man, was driving a truck full of brush to the landfill in September when he spotted a cedar canoe lying along the side of Main Street. Its hull was damaged. A sign declared it free for the taking.

An avid paddler and outdoorsman, Thomas made a mental note to retrieve the canoe if it was still there on his way home. But before that could happen, he bumped into the woman who was giving away the canoe, Erin Towns, and learned it had belonged to her father, Donald Coltart, who died four years ago.

Thomas took it off Erin’s hands and soon recognized the handiwork that had gone into the 14-foot boat two decades earlier — because it was his own.

“It was weather-stained and fiberglassed over,” Thomas recalled with a sly grin. “I thought, ‘Who did this? These joints are really good.'”

Sheets of fiberglass were peeling off the vessel and its bottom was caved in, but Thomas said he noticed one detail in particular that convinced him it was the same canoe he had constructed 20 years ago: a special support he had placed under the front seat.

“It had returned to me like a wounded homing pigeon,” Thomas said.

Thomas, the author of several books on canoeing, who also has worked as a teacher and guidance counselor in Winthrop, first built the strip canoe with instruction from a book by Gil Gilpatrick.

Thomas used the canoe on fishing trips, he said, but because he had used less fiberglass cloth than was recommended in the book — in order to keep the boat weighing a relatively light 50 pounds — he often had to repair its bottom. After five years, he decided to sell the canoe through the classified publication Uncle Henry’s.

Thomas doesn’t remember who bought the canoe then, and he doesn’t know what waters the boat has crossed in the last 15 years.

But along the way, it came into the possession of Donald Coltart, who died in 2012.

“He liked to tinker with a lot of stuff,” his daughter, Erin Towns, said recently. “I imagine he came across it and wanted to do something with it, like fixing it up.”

After he came back into possession of the boat last month, Thomas initially thought the damage to its bottom was not worth the time and expense of repairing it. But when he floated the possibility of taking it to the dump himself, Erins Towns asked if she could pay him to fix it up with her son, Maranacook High School student Gavin Towns, so the canoe could stay in her family after all.

Thomas agreed on the condition that she pay him only for the materials needed for the repairs, he said. He also recruited his own grandson — who is a friend of Gavin Towns and also named Ben Thomas — and his grandson’s friend Joe Currie to help give the old pigeon new wings. Currie and the younger Thomas attend Winthrop High School.

They pushed out the canoe’s caved in bottom, and Thomas taught the teenagers how to apply new layers of fiberglass to its hull. They also added new cedar rails and fresh seat webbing on the boat and spray-painted a camouflage pattern over the final product, using oak leaves as stencils. The refurbished vessel now sits on sawhorses in Gavin’s backyard.

The project was a relief to Erin Towns, who said she was “conflicted” about giving away the old canoe in the first place. As a teacher, she was happy that Thomas made a learning experience of the work.

Towns also noted the personal connections that were strengthened by the project. Not only is that boat connected to her father, who owned it at one point, but her deceased mother-in-law, Sally Towns, happened to have had Thomas as a history teacher when she was a girl.

“She thought really highly of him,” Erin Towns said. “This project was kind of cool, because Gavin and Ben grew up together, and now it has tied together the grandparents that they had.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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