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Canoes, paddles, backpacks, tents and fly rods are not mere implements of sport. They are badges of our passions, part of the way we think about ourselves. So it’s not surprising that we like to hang out in places where we can buy such things. Shops that specialize in good stuff are such a delight to visit they can become community centers for people of like minds.

I was born near the end of the era of classic outdoor stores, those repositories of everything an outdoorsman could want. The ones I remember most fondly had tools and hardware in the front, fishing and hunting gear in the back, and were cluttered in between with shadowy nooks filled with wheelbarrows, bicycles, chain saws and stepladders. Each store had a canoe or two suspended from the ceiling, a selection of dusty paddles stacked in a barrel in a corner and racks of shelves. These were filled with such items as tents, leather boots, hunting coats, fishing lures, spinning reels, duck decoys, kerosene lanterns, hatchets, snowshoes and spare parts for a dozen makes of obsolete outboard motors.

Some stores more closely resembled museums than retail outlets. In a freestanding case of mahogany and glass were dozens of compartments filled with trout flies tied by the proprietor’s uncle; another held a framed display of hunting knives. On a back wall hung Army-surplus haversacks and gas masks and in a corner leaned bundles of wooden tent poles. Against another wall stood an ancient hunched refrigerator whose insides were crammed with cottage-cheese containers of night crawlers. Beside it were two or three galvanized tubs of water filled with tireless minnows that circled endlessly.

In winter a cast-iron woodstove gave off waves of heat and was tended by old men sitting in kitchen chairs talking about how much better everything used to be. A customer with questions could always count on those sage experts for detailed advice about plumbing, automobile repair and places to go fishing and hunting. Winter and summer an aluminum percolator as big as a trash can sighed and muttered and exhaled the scent of well-cooked coffee. The entire store was underlit and overheated, crowded with goods from floor to ceiling, and smelled of leather and old canvas, of mothballs and dust, of damp wool and wet dogs. It smelled like my grandfather’s closet.

Our town in northern Michigan had several such stores. One that nearly fit the description — though without woodstove or free coffee and offering beer, soft drinks and men’s magazines instead of hardware — was presided over by a tall, glowering man who hated kids. I was drawn to the place but afraid of the man and usually would go there only in the company of my father. The store was located just a few blocks from the lower Boardman River and was the nearest source of hooks and split shot when I was dropped off to fish the river on days my parents came to town to shop.

If I ran short of tackle I walked to the store and made a modest purchase. Under the suspicious gaze of the tall man at the counter, I always spent a few minutes looking over the racks of Mepps spinners and Rapalas and other lures I could not afford to purchase.

The shop was an official weighing station for a fishing contest sponsored by our chamber of commerce. If you caught a fish that exceeded dimensions estaished for each species — 5 pounds for smallmouth bass, 6 pounds for walleyes, 10 pounds for northern pike and steelhead trout — you took it to be weighed on the big scale at the checkout counter.

Afterwards, you received official authorization from the proprietor, and were later mailed an attractive ceramic plaque printed with your name and the fish’s size. It was quite an honor. I already had received plaques for walleyes and bass and had hung them on the wall of our family room, where visitors could not miss them. I wanted more.

One morning I caught a large steelhead in the Boardman. It struggled fiercely, lunging deep in the current below the Front Street Bridge. I fought it until it tired, then led it upstream, netted it and laid it on the ground to admire. It was the largest steelhead I had ever caught. There was no doubt about what I had to do. I beaned the fish on the head with a stick, grabbed it through the gills and set off on foot for the store.

When I pushed through the door, struggling with my rod in one hand and the big trout in the other, the owner looked up from the counter. He was not thrilled to see me.

“That fish dead?”

“Yep, I whacked him good.”

I brought the trout to the counter and tried to heft it onto the scale, but my arm was cramped from carrying the fish and I could not lift it high enough. The guy made unpleasant noises and leaned across the counter to help. He took hold of the fish by the head and tail. It trembled in a mild spasm.

“You sure this is dead?”

“I hit him on the head with a stick.”

“Well, I hope you hit him hard.”

He lowered the trout into the basket of the scale and released his hold. The pointer swung past 10 pounds and hovered there. It was a winner. The guy filled out an authorization slip and gave it to me. He scowled. I grinned. The trout thumped its tail, arched its side and slid off the scale.

It rode across the counter on a trail of slime and knocked a display of cigarettes to the floor.

The man bellowed. He grabbed the fish with both hands and threw it at me, like a basketball player making a two-handed pass. I did what anyone would do, I ducked, and the steelhead struck a floor rack of potato chips and sent every bag flying down the aisle.

I ran out the door with my trout, my rod and the official authorization of my angling prowess. The guy shouted that I should never come back. He shouted other things too, but that was what stuck in my mind. It was disappointing because I liked his store. But I got over it. The chamber of commerce mailed the plaque a week or two later. It still hangs in my parents’ house.

These days, most of the old outdoor emporiums have gone the way of corner groceries and neighborhood barbershops. They’ve been replaced, if that’s the word, by Dunhams, Gander Mountain and REI. You have to look hard and long to find a shop where people hang out to talk and kill time. We’re lucky where I live to have the Troutsman, a flyfishing shop owned by my friend Kelly Galloup. The coffee is always on and you’re always welcome to sit and watch the resident wits tie flies and tell lies about the giant fish they’ve caught.

Times have changed, though. Nobody comes in looking for minnows or shear pins for 1938 Johnson outboards or to ask if they should use galvanized or copper lines in their bathrooms. Most of the young men and women who stop by for Patagonia fleece jackets and Sage graphite rods have never heard of the wall plaques the chamber of commerce once gave out for trophy fish.

It’s just as well. Many of us release the big ones these days, and when we swing by Kelly’s shop for a cup of coffee and start bragging about 10-pound steelhead we’d better have photos to back it up. A dead fish in the trunk impresses nobody and a plaque with our name on it is not considered admissible evidence.

Excerpted from A Wooden Canoe: Reflections on Canoeing, Camping and Classic Equipment. Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press (75 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010; 888-330-8477). Times have changed, though. Nobody comes in looking for minnows or shear pins for 1938 Johnson outboards or to ask if they should use galvanized or copper lines in their bathrooms. Most of the young men and women who stop by for Patagonia fleece jackets and Sage graphite rods have never heard of the wall plaques the chamber of commerce once gave out for trophy fish.

It’s just as well. Many of us release the big ones these days, and when we swing by Kelly’s shop for a cup of coffee and start bragging about 10-pound steelhead we’d better have photos to back it up. A dead fish in the trunk impresses nobody and a plaque with our name on it is not considered admissible evidence.

Excerpted from A Wooden Canoe: Reflections on Canoeing, Camping and Classic Equipment. Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press (75 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010; 888-330-8477).

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