Downhome Magazine

Boat Building - Grandfather's Legacy

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As a young boy growing up in Clarkes Head, Gander Bay, Laurence Peckford watched his grandfather, the late Richard Gillingham, build boats and knew that someday he would do the same.

In his early twenties Laurence was married and had started a family. In the next few years he became an accomplished heavy equipment operator, working all over the island of Newfoundland as well as on the Labrador and Churchill Falls.

That way of life was hard on the family, so in 1979 Laurence convinced himself, his wife and family that it was better to seek employment elsewhere. At that time, Fort McMurray, AB was the choice place to be. So with tears in his eyes, a few dollars in his pocket and faith for the future, he pulled away from his family for the 3,000-mile journey that began with one mile at a time. Within one month he had a full time job with Syncrude Canada and his family by his side. Laurence never looked back.

With the support of his family and the seven days off that went with the Syncrude schedule, Laurence started boatbuilding. His dream was finally coming true. The first two boats that he built were of rib and planks. He cut all the timbers himself and sawed and carved them to the shape that he needed. Those two boats were comparable to the boats that his grandfather built back in 1929. He felt good about those boats but the climate and temperatures didn't agree with the timbers and they just weren't standing up.

Not giving up, because this was his vocation and dream, he decided to use cedar strips and fiberglass. So with extensions and more heat for the garage to keep his product warm he began again.

The accessibility and the beauty of the rivers around Fort McMurray gave him the inspiration to continue his grandfather's legacy. Laurence spent quality time with family on vacations and at the arena watching hockey games with his son. But every spare moment was spent boat building.

Laurence was now using skill saws, jigsaws, routers and band saws, and when more modern tools came on the market he got them as well. He scratched his head manys a time wondering how his grandfather did it with only hand tools and the small shed to work in. He admired him more and more with every piece of wood he sawed. Although Laurence had upgraded from the hand tools his grandfather used, he still used some of his ideas and sometimes felt he could hear him say, "that's a good job, son." So Laurence never gave up.

The Clearwater in Fort McMurray was the river of choice that Laurence and his family and friends enjoyed the most. There were many jet boats scouting up and down that river but Laurence preferred his riverboat with the 15 horsepower motor. His boat had a shallow draft and could navigate in water where the jet boats dared not go. It was a far less expensive alternative to the jet set and the moderate speed allowed him and his family to better enjoy the beauty of the river.

Laurence constructed eight riverboats plus a cedar canoe which he later gave to his son and family. He spent many days and nights on the river with family and friends. The children and grandchildren enjoyed the freedom and loved to play on the sandbars. His wife Margaret also enjoyed her times on the river as well. However Margaret wanted comfort, so Laurence, in his wisdom, put foam pillows and blankets in the bottom of the boat at the front, where she comfortably sat with her knitting and writing. Some of the poems that she has published were composed in the front of his boat or on the banks of the river with the moon shining and a campfire burning.

Yes, boat building was Laurence's dream, but that was not the only thing he built. Laurence retired from Syncrude in the fall of 2000, and moved to forty acres south of Athabasca, which gave him lots of room and more time. Laurence found himself quite busy building cupboards, cabinets, wishing wells, picnic tables, glider swings, as well as a tree house and slides for the grandchildren.

Laurence often wondered "what if grandfather could see me now, what would he think? No doubt he would wonder about the fancy tools that I use. But I'd like to think I'd see a big smile on his face and get a pat on the back," as he'd wander off to his shed, scratching his head.

In April of 2008, along any highway from Athabasca, AB to Appleton, NL, you could see Laurence in a 24-foot box cube van with his 25-foot cedar strip boat in tow. Sixty-one feet in all of precious goods that were admired at every stop he made.

Laurence's dreams have come full circle from when he was a little boy travelling in and out the Gander River with his dad and grandfather. As the saying goes, now he paddles his own canoe. Laurence built himself another beauty of a boat this past winter and where he lives only two minutes from the Gander River, he cherishes every moment he spends there.

Laurence is back home and his little-boy dream has become reality. Any day during the season you can see him navigating through the rapids and the rocks of the Gander River. A smile on his face and pride in his heart from what he learned from his grandfather.

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