Keith MacAllister’s innovative spirit shines on in Langford Canoes
Keith MacAllister is a name many paddle sports enthusiasts may not recognize, which, given his contributions to the world of canoeing, is extremely unfortunate.
More than anything I just want to express how thankful I am to Keith and I think it’s unfortunate that he is this little-known, unsung hero.
Keith, who died February 2 after a battle with cancer, was responsible for two major accomplishments both of which have left an indelible mark on the canoe industry. Keith is responsible for creating the first truly functional light weight composite canoes, as well as keeping the art of cedar canoe craft commercially viable and pushing it to new levels of artistry.
Keith bought the Lake of Bays property that included the Langford Canoe factory in the late 1980s. He never intended to build canoes, but it’s a good thing for the industry that he did. Keith was a true innovator and sports enthusiast. His pioneering spirit and successful background in manufacturing were applied to canoe building in the same way, and it was this that led him to make major investments of time, energy and capital while he sought to push the envelope of composite canoe building to unparalleled levels of aesthetic quality and function.
Keith was a genius, he really came at the industry from a completely different angle. Rather than catering to the wholesale business and rental quality canoes, like the other manufacturers, Keith was interested in building canoes for enthusiasts first. He was interested in building a precision instrument rather than a blunt tool.
His goal to build ever lighter, stronger, and better paddling canoes, and even the paddles used to propel them, was what lead Keith to use new materials and manufacturing methods that decades ago were seldom seen but are now common place.
Keith had the foresight to see the potential in materials like graphite/carbon fibre, structural materials like core cells, vacuum- and heat-assisted manufacturing, and his use of these methods and materials was well ahead of the curve.
He set off an arms race in the canoe industry that has benefitted anyone who has recently purchased a new canoe or modern paddle.
Keith led the charge, and even decades ago his canoes were at the tip of the spear. He lowered the weight of the average canoe by 20 to 30 pounds while also improving upon more modern and classic designs. These changes have allowed people to participate in the sport longer, to paddle and portage further, and to do so with much greater ease.
At the same time that Keith was pushing the limits of what a modern canoe could be, he was breathing new life into the age-old art of cedar canoe manufacturing. Keith’s investments led to the cedar canoe being rescued from obsolescence, becoming true works of art that are now sought after the world over.
I know that if Keith, who had a serious background in manufacturing, hadn’t been the right guy, at the right time, coming to the right place in Muskoka, canoes just wouldn’t be the same. It’s really tough to articulate just how much he did for the sport, because he let the canoes sell themselves. He really was a sort of unseen hand moving a whole industry in a different direction, and enthusiasts out there, regardless of whether they know it, have benefitted immensely from his pursuits. His company’s canoes act as ambassadors for Canada and the sport itself, and can now be found plying the waters of lakes, rivers, and oceans the world over. They are hung as art pieces in palatial homes and cottages, department stores, airports, and government offices; they are owned by Hollywood celebrities, captains of industry and dignitaries such as Canada’s Governor General, world leaders, and even Her Royal Majesty the Queen. One of Keith’s full size 16-foot Cedar Canvas Canoes painted with the iconic stripes of the Hudson’s Bay Company is on permanent display at Canada House in London, England, the home of Canada’s High Commission. Quite the accomplishment for a Canadian Company hailing from the shores of Lake of Bays.
Keith will be sorely missed by his family, staff, friends, neighbours, and countless customers that stop by just to chat with “Mr. Langford.”
The next time you roll a canoe onto your shoulders and casually stroll across a portage without breaking a sweat, or see gleaming varnish glinting in the sun as a cedar canoe glides across a lake, maybe you’ll think of Keith and his contributions to a pursuit as Canadian as hockey and maple syrup.