Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

May 22nd, 2006

Building the Pinou, Part 1
By Roger Stouff

To be honest, I was not only stricken with the "winter has been too dadgum long and if I don't get out and catch copious numbers of fish soon I'm going to turn into a quivering bowl of guacamole-flavored Jello" syndrome, but I also had a hankering for a canoe.

Yes, I said a canoe. First person that holds up their hand palm first and says, "How, Chief Bayouwater" or something equally cute gets slapped with a lawsuit, understand?

Not a pirogue, mind you. A pirogue is something that we, as Louisianians in general and Louisiana Indians in particular, have somehow been bred out of. I mean, the pirogue gains its origins from the dugout, which my ancestors made by felling a good tree then hollowing it out to form a canoe using fire and mud to control the burn. I kid you not, that's absolute truth. The Cajuns came along and started making dugouts out of cypress planks, then later plywood.

But somewhere along the line, we have evolved away from the use of the pirogue. Our ancestors just a hundred or two years ago could stand in a pirogue about the width of a two-by-four and use a push pole for propulsion. These flying trapeze artists obviously possessed some gene for this ability, which has not been passed along to their descendants.

Back many years ago, my fishing buddy and I decided we wanted to fish some of the ponds we couldn't get to with the boat and trailer, so we loaded dad's homemade pirogue into the truck and went and dropped it into an appealing pond.

I've told this story before, but it bears repeating, I think. Entering a pirogue is the first step in a series of harrowing experiences. The first person has to board and make their way to the far seat, crawling in this vessel which, despite the fact that you know it is 14 feet long and 28 inches across, has just taken on all the characteristics of a rabid alligator in a river. It rolls and bucks, threatening to plunge you into the pond, until all you can do is drop on your face and pray for your life, which amazingly, stabilizes the pirogue so you crawl to the back seat as carefully as you can.

Then the second person has to enter, but now your weight in the stern has further destabilized the pirogue and watching him get to the front seat, turn around and sit down is rather like watching someone in slow-motion. At last you're all settled in, and you realize you left the tackle box on the bank, and have to decide whether to go back for it or just fish with whatever tackle is already on the rod.

We decided to use what we had. However, the beer had made its way to the middle of the pirogue. It's important to note that my friend remembered the beer, but forgot the tackle box. Go figure. A man's gotta have his priorities. I do not drink beer if I am boating, but I don't preach at those who do, if they remain responsible. But whoever said, "Beer and boating don't mix," undoubtedly had a nightmarish experience with a pirogue.

It wasn't so much the drinking of the beer that caused the problems, it was the reaching back to the middle of the vessel to open the ice chest, retrieve a beer, close the ice chest and return to a semi-upright position without causing a major maritime disaster.

The first cast was mine. I reared back and pitched my lure (I wasn't a regular fly fisherman yet) as I normally would, which sent the pirogue into spasms of rolling and lurching so much that water spilled in over the side, ruining the ham sandwiches and chips. My pal's cast was a little better, having learned from my misfortune. So along we fished, and finally, my friend's cork suddenly shot off across the surface of the water.

He looked at me. I looked at him.

"What should I do?" he asked.

"I dunno," I admitted.

"Should I jerk?"

"Don't you dare," I warned. Just talking about it was making the pirogue start to roll.

"But we're here to fish," he protested.

"I know that, but if you jerk, what's gonna happen?"

He jerked anyway, and the pirogue rolled, water slopped in, and my shoes were soaked.

"I thought you weren't going to jerk?" I yelled.

"It's okay," he said. "I missed him, anyway."

"Jerk," I said, but he thought I was still complaining about his fishing-in-a-pirogue technique. "You ready to go home?"

"Yeah."

"I got some fish in the freezer," I noted.

"Sounds good to me."

That's pretty much the last time I tried to use a pirogue, and even though I still have that old vessel of Dad's, it's not the boat I want. I wanted a canoe.

See I've gotten tired of spending all that money on gas for boats, all the maintenance costs, all the rest of it. If I had a good canoe I could put into some ponds or hidden canals that few people if anybody get to, man, I just know I could mop up on the fish. The grass, you see, isn't the only thing that's always greener.

I think my southern Indian ancestors, who invented the dugout that eventually became the pirogue, were hampered by the fact that water here is usually still. Whereas my northern Indian ancestor kin, who made birchbark and deer hide canoes that were wide and beamy and more stable, had it going on in fast-moving water. The modern pirogue is a manifestation of one, the modern canoe a result of the other. We've lost the genes for operating a pirogue with six-inch-high sides, but a canoe is wider and the sides 12 inches or more.

It's kinda like thumbing my nose at the man, at big oil companies, OPEC and Osama bin Laden all at once. All I gotta do is drive to a place in the truck, which gets far better gas mileage than my big ugly bassboat, and put my canoe over for a relaxing day of fishing with the fly rod.

First I started looking for a canoe online, and the money involved put me off. Canoe sticker shock is a dreadful thing. There is a line where sticking it to the man is meaningless if you're going to pay all that money to do it. Like setting up $50,000 worth of solar cells to quit paying the power company, you see?

Since I could not decide whether I wanted to buy or build, I decided I'd try to build. What the hey, I figured, I got two boats under my belt and another started, I can do a canoe. I wanted to do a cross-breed, though. A hybrid, so to speak, of the canoe and the pirogue. I decided I would call this a pinou, pronounced "pee-noo" since it is a little of both.

So I gave it a whirl one weekend, and remember, I'm designing this as I go: Short and wide. Sorta like myself, right? No problemo, although I suppose it can be argued that while I am short and wide, I'm not very stable.

I broke the first pinou under construction Saturday and one on Sunday, each when bending the bottom chines or, as we say in Looziana, the "stringers." I've bent stringers for three boats so far with no problems. Okay, I broke one side of the first one I ever did, on my runabout, but that was it. A little marine epoxy will cure many ills. The pirogue is built narrow, and I think I was pushing my luck widening it more like a canoe. Either that or I'm just a klutz.

Every boatshop must be fitted with an essential item: the Moaning Chair. This is the place you sit and moan when you have done something really stupid in your construction project. So after I spent all day on the second peenou and broke the chine, I went inside and got me a beer, went back outside and sat in my Moaning Chair and moaned for a good half hour. Then I tore the whole thing down and threw it away.

I was telling my finacee this, and bemoaning that I might have to actually break down and get a set of plans to build a water craft of this type, and she said, "Oh, well, God forbid that you should tap into the collective wisdom of dozens of generations of boatbuilders who make that sort of craft and have perfected the art." Not a bad point, really, but it woulda been cooler to say, "Yup. This here's me pinou. I designed and built it myself." Now, instead, I have to say, "Yup, this is my canoe. I bought a set of plans from some outfit in New York and built it myself." It's just not quite as satisfying, somehow.

But I broke down and ordered a set of plans for a plywood canoe. As it turns out, the plans were just not to my liking at all. So much for collective wisdom and I stuck them in a corner with the rest of the plans. I have lots of boat plans I acquired and never built: "Elly," a Norwegian kosterbat some 150 years old, and "Marsh Cat" a 15-foot sailing catboat and a Riva "Aquarama" runabout. If I do build it, then I can only assume folks in New York know a lot about pirogues - I mean, canoes. I think "Last of the Mohicans" had canoes in it, and that was around New York, wasn't it? It'll be okay. ~ Roger

Do you have your copy yet? It's out! And available now! Get your copy of Roger's book. Native Waters: A Few Moments in a Small Wooden Boat

Order it now from www.iuniverse.com, Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble.com.


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