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Be a river deFENDER. Pick up and paddle.

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DSC04349How to Fill a Tin Canoe: pick up and paddle.

“… all this abstract fooling around we do now just ain’t satisfactory. That’s why people act so silly. If there is no point to what you do, you might as well become a consumer.”

– Robb White, author of How to Build a Tin Canoe

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Rare is the book that reveals itself before it begins. But read Robb White’s disclaimer in his boatbuilding and exploration memoir “How to Build a Tin Canoe,” and his voice is clear: “None of these stories is true … not a single word. If you think you recognize yourself in any of these fictitious characters I talk so bad about, that’s just your own paranoia. There is no point in suing me anyway. Because of the nature of the boatbuilding business, I don’t own anything at all, and if you decide to take it out on my ass, just remember, you got to bring some to get some.” 

Early on, White, who died in 2006, details building a tin canoe like the one he fashioned from a chicken house roof as a child reared in the “Red Hills” region of south Georgia during World War II. Some passages read like a conversational manual that might interest boaters more than others. But try not to skim these parts. White’s no nonsense writing style makes it worthwhile with snippets about shaping tin such as, “Do it in your backyard so you won’t attract too much attention (this is a one man project . . . you don’t want no destructive supervision.)”, and “Don’t let yourself get frustrated and frantic … hell, man, tin is cheap.” You realize White’s lifelong affection for his childhood boat when he writes, “I seldom build a boat that turns out all that much better than those tin canoes.”  

The coastal flats of Florida’s panhandle were rich exploring grounds for White and his cousins, who roamed the waters and woods unsupervised. There White and crew ate oysters and “angel wing clams as big as Coca-Cola bottles that lived in holes so deep that the excavations we left in the flats became landmarks.” White shares acute observations about tidal species, including the unusual relationship between the toadfish and the pistol shrimp. In a simple yet profound tone, White says of those summers: “You know, taking the whole summer off to go to the coast wasn’t all that unusual in the Deep South back before megalomania and AC.” 

White’s storytelling, advice and opinions aren’t confined to exploring and boatbuilding. “I think that, like hunting and subsistence farming,” he writes, “fishing for a living is a natural thing for people to do and all this abstract fooling around we do now just ain’t satisfactory. That’s why people act so silly. If there is no point to what you do, you might as well become a consumer.” And his rant against digital clocks made me laugh aloud. However, White, whose sister is author Bailey White, thrives as a storyteller. I won’t spoil or dilute his gems by paraphrasing them, just entice you with the elements of one story: a shower curtain, the Mississippi River and King Tut. And it takes place in New Orleans. Have fun.

– Edward C. Woodward

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