Montreal

Handmade canoe paddles from the Gaspé region shipped worldwide

A 26-year-old school teacher from the Gaspé region has combined her love for the outdoors and her passion for art to create a thriving business. Now she has a new problem: how to keep up with demand.

Tipsy Canoe Designs expands business to meet growing demand

Caitlin Barter, the founder of Tipsy Canoe Designs, started out the company simply wanting to paint a few paddles to decorate her room. (Julia Page/CBC)

Caitlin Barter did not have an exhaustive strategic business plan when she launched her paddle-painting business in 2016.

She simply wanted to decorate her room with her grandfather's old canoe paddles.

"Anybody who knows me knows that I am terribly nostalgic — for all things home, especially."

So nostalgic, in fact, Barter purchased a deconsecrated church in her hometown of Cascapédia-Saint-Jules, a small town south of the Chic-Choc mountains. The 26-year-old will move in once the renovations are done.

The new space will not only be her home — it will also allow her to expand her business, Tipsy Canoe Designs, which she started from her parents' kitchen table.

"They're starting to get sick of me, so it was time to try to create a space for myself and try to get out of theirs a little bit," Barter said with a laugh.

The name Tipsy Canoe Designs was inspired by Barter's own fishing trips with her father.

"I've been in a canoe for as long as I can remember, but I'm really not the graceful type at all. So the joke is that every canoe I get into is a tipsy canoe."

What she calls her "accidental business" started growing when Barter's father brought some of her painted paddles to the local salmon camp on the Cascapédia River, where he works.

Fishermen at the world-renowned sports fishing destination started asking where they could get their hands on the brightly coloured paddles with ornate geometric designs — and a business was born.

Barter purchases the paddles from woodworker Larry Brash, from the neighbouring town of New Richmond. It takes eight to ten hours to paint each one.

Caitlin Barter is inspired by colours and shapes that remind her of the Cascapédia River and her attachment to the outdoors. (Julia Page/CBC)

The colours and shapes she uses are inspired by the Cascapédia River and the outdoors.

"It's what I associate with home. The idea of adventure, exploring, the unknown — things like that definitely resonate with me."

The region's francophone, anglophone and Mi'kmaw residents share that way of life, shaped by the close relationship with the water and mountains that surround the area.

Barter said the straight lines and geometrical shapes found in her paddles are reminiscent of Indigenous art — a line she is mindful not to cross.

It takes Caitlin Barter about 8 to 10 hours to paint a single canoe paddle. (Julia Page/CBC)

"I try to separate myself enough to recognize appreciation and appropriation."

After producing a series of paddles in 2017 bearing the Canadian flag, she received "a lot of positive response."

"But a lot of the people that I'm close to are Indigenous, and their response wasn't positive, and I understood that."

This prompted Barter to launch a new project in partnership with local Indigenous artists who will design their own paddles, with their representations of home — the profits will go toward charities of the artists' choice.

"I think it's an opportunity for me as a non-Indigenous artist to be able to recognize my place — not to speak for Indigenous people but rather provide them the opportunity to do so."

International interest

While the paddles are designed for the water, Barter said roughly 50 per cent of her customers buy them to hang them on the wall.

"I didn't want them to be used as a decor originally," Barter said. "But I came around to the idea pretty quickly because that's what people wanted." 

Barter has set up a roadside boutique at her parents' home where locals and tourists stop by during the summer.

With more and more calls coming in, Barter built a website and started selling the paddles online, with clients as far away as Kuujjuaq, Vancouver, Oregon, Texas and even Paris.

She estimates she's sold around 500 so far.

The paddles "have gone a little bit farther than I have, actually," said Barter, who credits her success to the uniqueness of each paddle. She's even made custom designs for Microsoft, which gifted them to employees.  

Caitlin Barter's creations are now hanging in bars around the world, including at the Bowen Island Pub, in British Columbia. (Submitted by Caitlin Barter)

In addition to the artwork, she manages online sales and shipping in the evenings, once she's done with her day job.

"I'm a full-time teacher actually, so it's crazy," Barter said. She's dedicated to her students, who get all her attention from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"When I get home at night, this is my evening job, and that's where my time and energy goes to."

Caitlin Barter now has a workshop and boutique by the side of the road in Cascapédia-Saint-Jules, where locals and tourists stop by in the summer. (Julia Page/CBC)

She is often asked if she'll eventually turn her full attention to Tipsy Canoe Designs, but Barter said that's not in the cards, at least not for now.

"I don't think it's the end goal," she said. "It's something that I enjoy and I think it's rooted in the enjoyment and the representation of home."

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