Many canoe builders start as a “mom and pop” family business, and it reflects upon the meaning of the colloquial expression.
It is a small operation that makes a few boats a year, perhaps expanding into a manufacturing operation, and then are either sold to conglomerates or fade away, especially now with the trend away from the original cedar wood strip and canvas, heritage names.
The Wolverine Canoe models were once a well-known brand. It is a well-travelled name; it came of out Detroit then was manufactured in Welland, and then on to Wawa where there was a “canoe factory” putting out hundreds of boats. It moved eventually to North Bay and then to Timiskaming Shores. Along its timeline is its notoriety as being a “sturdy and durable family canoe.” Its availability waned and almost became history. It is now about to make a resurgence in Sudbury.
Its Wawa roots have an auspicious beginning involving a Satan’s Choice Motorcycle Club President, a lake, and the Wolverine Canoe Factory.
Alan Templain is the original designer. He brought his Wolverine moulds (assuming the brand name in Detroit) from his hometown in Welland. He migrated northward and created the Wolverine Canoe Factory, once located on Highway 17 North just past the junction of the “goose,” this was 1974.
As an introduction to Alan Templain and the Wolverine Canoe, there is a MacLean’s Magazine article ‘Born to Raise Hell’ (Schenk, John; Kessel, John ) of Aug. 22, 1977, that highlights what was to become known as the Oba incident.
…A 1975 raid by U.S. and Canadian police at Oba Lake in northern Ontario uncovered a bikers’ drug factory and a haul of chemical drugs (made in laboratories, as opposed to “organic” drugs such as marijuana, heroin or cocaine) valued at up to $60 million. (A phenomenal amount that today would be astronomical, approximately 325 million.)
In their escalating war against outlaw biker gangs, the police had their biggest success with the 1975 Oba Lake bust. The RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and several municipal departments teamed up to crack a drug ring operating out of a remote hunting lodge, accessible only by air, 150 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie. Police staked out the operation from a duck blind for several days.
Then, on August 6, posing as sportsmen on an early morning fishing trip, they moved in with small boats. They found nine pounds of completed PCP (a dangerous horse tranquillizer widely used as a “downer”), another 236 pounds one step away from completion and more than a ton of ingredients.
The drug network operating out of the factory was traced to buyers as far away as Florida and Georgia, and estimates of the street worth of the material seized ranged up to $90 million. At the heart of the ring was Alan Templain, a Satan’s Choice in St. Catharines until 1973, owner of the $60,000 lodge and a seaplane. At his right hand was Bernie Guindon, 34, the Satan’s Choice founder and national president…
At the time bike gangs like Satan’s Choice and the Hell’s Angels controlled much of the drug trade. The Canoe Factory was a front to the drug operation; it was believed drugs were concealed within the bow and stern of the canoes and transported abroad.
During the past few years, on several occasions, I have talked to Alan Templain. He is the biker that is front and centre of the Oba Lake-Wawa drug bust. He is also the creator of the Wolverine Canoe model. How is this possible?
He pleaded guilty to the charges laid in 1975 and started his 12-year sentence almost immediately.
Police had intercepted phone calls between the suspects on 260 tapes, with more than four- and one-half hours of conversation. During the bust, police found, “… hidden caches of chemicals and lab equipment including nine pounds of pure PCP and two garbage cans filled with a white powdery substance weighing a total of 236 pounds.“ - Sault Star, May 15, 1976
When I spoke with him on May 7, 2021, Alan told me he went to jail when he was 35. Some of the sentence was spent in the infamous Kingston penitentiary, for assessment, and then he was eventually sent to Joyceville Institution – medium security then on to the Beaver Creek farm camp near Gravenhurst. After approximately seven years he was released.
In prison, he made a canoe from conversations he had with Kirk Whipper, of Camp Kandalore fame and founder of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. The boat is now located there.
He eventually told me how the original Wolverine canoe mould was created. In the mid-1960s he “patched up a used Canadian Tire type of canoe that had dropped off a trailer.” He recalls taking that canoe going on a trip with a girlfriend and having a “eureka moment; it was too heavy, there was a need for a lightweight and durable canoe not made from the traditional cedar strip or cedar-canvas combination.”
At the time he was making ski boats and knew a great deal about chemicals and fiberglass. Barrels of acetone and epoxy arrived from Shell and Dupont at his house in Welland.
He popped out his first Wolverine from a split (two pieces) mould in 1965, built in his refurbished backyard chicken coop. Within the design, he retained the classic tumblehome design line of the famed Chestnut Canoe that was a passed-on design from a late 1800s company, the Wolverine Canoe Company of Detroit.
Canoe builders often do this, modifying original designs to make them their own.
“I sold one of my first boats to John Craig Eaton II of the T.E. Eaton family (once a national department store chain)," he said. Templain had attended Brock University and had put all his money into creating canoe moulds.
He chose the Wolverine as its logo “as it is the toughest animal in the bush.” He was, after all, the president of a chapter of the Satan’s Choice Motorcycle Club.
Taking about thirty canoes with him he moved the operation to Blind River but for a very short time.
He presented his canoe at a NOTO (Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters Association) convention in Sudbury.
To demonstrate the Wolverine’s durability, he showed onlookers how a sledgehammer bounced off the composite hull. He then secured a government-sponsored economic development loan and moved to Wawa. He took the moulds with him, and the Wolverine had a makeover with a “more natural looking 'claw mark' paint finish.”
The big change in the Wolverine was the change from epoxy to polyester, henceforth the strength and lighter weight.
Another chapter of the Wolverine was about to begin with Alan hiring Terry Sadler from Brockville (father of Shawn) as General Manager. Later and before the Oba drug bust, he sold the canoe factory to local interests in Wawa.
Templain does not deny any of the goings on during the 1970s and the relationship with Bernie Guindon known as the “enforcer” and national founder of Satan’s Choice Motorcycle Club. He is good with: “I messed up, did my time and moved on.”
Templain said, the Oba Lake drug bust was part of a storyline for several episodes, including the ‘Devil You Don't Know’ (theme of phone taps) of the Outlaw Bikers television series, season four, episode five, it aired Oct 26, 2010.
During the mid-1970s residents in Wawa thought they knew what might be going on at the “canoe factory” located just out of town on Highway 17 in sight of the famous “goose.”
Brad Buck, the second-generation owner of Buck’s Marina in nearby Michipicoten on Lake Superior said when he was a teenager that “Alan would tell everyone the barrels were full of bug dope.” And that the illegal drugs might be hidden in the bow and stern stems of the canoe.
“There are many people in Wawa who know stories about Alan Templain and the Canoe Factory and there are some who won’t tell because they were involved directly or indirectly or just embarrassed because it happened in Wawa and want the whole time forgotten,” Buck said.
At the time there was some fear of reprisal as this was the Satan’s Choice bike gang.
A little bit about Oba Lake, it is an idyllic remote lake where the destination has only two reasons, “huntin’ and fishin’.” As described in the Angler’s Atlas.
“There are backroads that go within a couple of kilometres of the lake, but no direct roads. Beautiful, remote Oba Lake is one of the lakes we feature that has fly-in or train-in access only. While it may take some planning to get here, the fishing pressure is much lower than at other, more accessible lakes.”
It is located north of Wawa and Hawk Junction on the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) line (not now in operation).
The remote enough lake would be the location where PCP (Phencyclidine) was manufactured behind the façade of a tourist lodge. Known as “angel dust” the substance is an illegal street drug that usually comes as a white powder (capsules) which can be dissolved in alcohol or water.
I visited Oba Lake in early May of 2010 when the ACR was running from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst.
At Mileage 212 I got off the train and rented a boat from Spazier’s Woods Cabins. I knew then of the story and thought I should get the feel of how the lake fit into the storyline. Post drug bust there were rumours that barrels of cash or the drugs were hidden along the shoreline and for years would-be treasure hunters would descend on the area.
Oba Lake remains a remote fishing destination, but you can’t get there on the ACR train anymore. The lodge once owned by Templain still operates as Tatnall Camp.
Floatplane service is available from Hawk Junction or Wawa.
Templain recalls, “The last time I was at Oba Lake, they put me in handcuffs and took me away in a plane.”
The Wolverine Canoe is a better design than most and now has great heritage value.
One of Northern Ontario’s best canoe builders and repairers of high-quality handcrafted canoes, Bill Schorse, was known for his knowledge of how a canoe “really works” in the water. Now retired he was the owner of North Bay Canoe and Kayak.
“There are no cutting corners to put out a product that I would not be proud to own,” he said.
In a past interview, he commented on the Wolverine model.
“It is a phenomenal little boat, the pinnacle of canoes,” he said. “You’ll never find a more stable well-built canoe.”
The canoe is based on the historic Chestnut Canoe Company’s Ogilvy model. It is known for its stability and durability.
Here is a testimonial about the Wolverine from canoeist and Wawa resident Hugh McKechnie who purchased a Wolverine from the Canoe Factory in 1974.
“…One of the lads had a trapper-style canoe. It had a wider beam and exaggerated tumblehome, and despite being the heaviest, it slipped through the water with the least effort. It was extremely buoyant, sitting high, sailing over a sandbar that other hulls would rub… I was struck dumb by the most beautiful canoe I had ever seen. It was the Wolverine, made of fibreglass, with white ash gunwales, beam and seat frames, with a woven mesh of the translucent strands of moose hide, known as babiche, a specialty of the Ojibwe and Cree First Nations. It was a space-age version of the traditional trapper, sixteen feet, with a generous bulge of tumblehome, and an absolutely flat tummy. It was urgent. We had to get one.”
Hugh has ordered a new Wolverine model.
Jason Bain is the Managing Editor of Ontario Out of Doors magazine who purchased a well-worn Wolverine canoe and had it refinished.
In his Sept. 13, 2021 blog, he says: “The vintage flat-bottomed craft glided effortlessly over thick aquatic vegetation that would slow our other fibreglass canoe to a stop, providing access to nooks and crannies we’d never wet lines in before on this home water.
“It was a timely revelation – our late 2020 restoration of the canoe prompted my quest to learn more about its creator (Alan Templain). It didn’t take long for me to realize details about Wolverine are as elusive as the solitary animal itself.”
Bain quotes me in this article: “Backroads Bill Steer, a northern Ontario journalist who has also been researching Wolverine, believes our canoe is at best, one of the first 100, and at worst, one of the first 300, made in Welland before the builder moved to Wawa.
“The Wolverine canoe factory in Wawa became the 'front' for the drug manufacturing location on remote Oba Lake, created and owned by biker Alan Templain.
Terry Sadler passed on in 2019. We pick up the story with his son Shawn.
“My dad was a car body man, stayed in Wawa and because he wasn’t being paid while the Wawa local owners went bankrupt, he assumed the moulds and kept on building canoes, from about the early ’80s; he had relocated the operation in town and stayed until 1996.
"I built with my dad in North Bay from 1997 to 2005. Then there was a move to Temiskaming Shores area.
“We then built canoes at his place in Belle Vallee until he passed away (2019). In 2012-2014 I did a test run with Mid Canada Fibreglass (Scott Canoes New Liskeard factory, now closed) building some hulls for me.
“My Dad gave the (moulds) to me to continue building or with the option to sell the company.”
On an Aug. 29, 2008, commercial post (boatdesign.net) Shawn tried to sell the moulds.
“I am tired of fibreglass and I am getting out of the business. I have nine Canoe moulds for sale. These moulds are what's left of the Wolverine Canoe Company.
“The canoes are based on the Miller model, (assumed by the Chestnut Canoe Co. in New Brunswick) once a salmon fishing-poling canoe; basically, a nice flatbottom canoe with a ton of tumblehome. The canoe is so stable and looks great. Great for families, boy scouts and fishing.” He kept most of the moulds.
I talked to Templain most recently on the evening of May 4, we talked about several topics. I wanted to share some of my Wolverine research with him.
He is now the grandfather of two and lives in Port Colborne. His brother Ross, who was also charged as part of the Oba incident, now lives close by. He is a stone mason, a trade he returned to after serving time. He is also the inventor of the masonry heater called Temp-Cast.
He will be 84 this year and still rides his Harley Electra Glide Highway King which weighs approximately 900 pounds.
“I am going to take it out of storage tomorrow, start ‘er up and decide if I am going to ride another year,” he told me.
I have sent him the Wolverine photos I collected and they are included in this article.
There are no photos of Alan Templain on the Internet. He wryly says the RCMP has one.
A limited number of new carbon composite material canoes with the Wolverine brand are now being made again in Sudbury by Gergely Lánci, who owns a small company called Black Sheep Custom Sports Solutions.
“I am currently working on the establishment of a local canoe building facility with the help of Simon River Sports, to bring Canoe manufacturing back to Northern Ontario. As of this August, the new development project will restart, with the idea of training local talent for building canoes for the specific needs of the local users.”
Shawn retains the license to build Wolverine canoes and retains the ownership of the moulds and the name.
You can still find an original well-used Wolverine on Kijiji but the price has gone up it is no longer one of those 'beaters' found at a garage sale. Alan does not have a Wolverine in his possession and would like to see one of the new Sudbury models. I told him we need to take a photo of him beside a Wolverine canoe for posterity purposes, and he agrees.
It was worthwhile tracing this lineage, like any family this canoe name now lives on. I am thinking of ordering one, Shawn will do the trim and seats and the boat will have the original claw marks of the Wolverine.