|Don Meany / XY Company
Talking with Don Meany of the XY Paddle Company is like trying to carry on a conversation with a speeding train. To say that he is animated and brimming with ideas is to grossly understate the case. Like many of the people I have been interviewing recently, he is a man who is passionate about his craft, and this area.
Now, this is something that canoeists know – something that makes Atikokan pretty special. I suppose I could have figured it out, with my background at Old Fort William, fur trade canoe routes and all, but it was so much more fun learning it from Don Meany. It's this: because Atikokan is situated so near the height of land, you can canoe to British Columbia, to Montreal, to Churchill, Manitoba, even down to New Orleans from here, or near here. The canoe routes, known to the voyageurs and to intrepid paddlers now are highways to the rest of the continent.
And Don should know. Not only has he been a paddle maker since the sixties, he has crossed this country by canoe in the 1967 Canoe Challenge, an event marking Canada's Centennial year.
Don grew up in Kirkland Lake. He has been in the military, underground diamond drilling at Steep Rock, worked at Caland and now puts his considerable energies into paddle-making and promoting Atikokan and region at every chance he gets. His paddles have gone around the world. His marketing plan is word-of-mouth, and it works very well. Call him on the phone, he makes what you need, ships it with a bill. If you like it, you pay; if you don't, you send it back.
There are six basic styles, which all carry the names of great men from Canada's past: – Sir Alexander MacKenzie
– William McGillivray
– Simon Fraser
– David Thompson
– George Simpson
– Louis Riel
-- La Verandrye (traditional voyageur style
Paddles can also be custom-designed, smaller, larger, to accommodate injuries. What you need, Don can create. Paddles are also decorated with computer controlled laser-burned designs.
He becomes even more animated when he starts to talk about the fur trade and the voyageurs who made it possible. It is easy to hear the admiration in his voice for these strong, stocky French-Canadian paddlers who helped to open the country for trade. Now, Don has to deal with customs brokers and NAFTA – how far we've come.
While Don will never really retire, he is getting ready to turn the brunt of the business over to his son, Spence, which will free up time for fishing and maybe something new, like pottery.
When asked about the early days of his business, he speaks about the importance of the mentoring spirit of a man, a lawyer out of Toronto, who believed strongly in what Don wanted to do. He believed so strongly, in fact, that he took paddles to his office in Toronto, showed them to his friends and sold them, taking nothing for himself.
Don has huge faith in the Atikokan area to weather the hard times, as it has in the past. While he wants to see more people visiting the area, he does warn about the possible over-exploitation of the area. There has to be a balance between use and abuse.
Don takes time to talk with visitors to his workshop. He can spin a tale with the best of them about Canada's colourful past. He recommends places to visit, and satisfied customers return to him and recommend his paddles to others. He is a true ambassador for Atikokan