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Kettle River Canoes: Restoring memories and friendships

Canoe restoration a true labour of love for Mike Elliot
Mike Elliot stands with some of the canoes he is in the process of restoring for clients. Photo: Roxanna Constantinescu

by Roxanna Constantinescu


Mike Elliot, long time resident of Grand Forks and active member of the theater community, spends a great deal of his time restoring canoes—or as he likes to put it, “restoring friendships.”

Some of the canoes he restores have been in a family for generations; all the owner wants is to have their old friend back, looking as it did when their grandfather taught them to fish in it years ago. Mike spends months lovingly and carefully restoring each and every canoe.

His canoe restoration business, Kettle River Canoes, began as a hobby with the work done in the basement of his house. A gleaming, fully restored canoe sitting on his front lawn on Central Avenue served as his advertising campaign, and with 10,000 cars driving by each day—he counted!—it didn’t take long before people began calling him.

Before canoes, Mike had been in elite level fencing for 20 years. He’s a fencing master and was national champion twice. It was in fact during a radio interview as a provincial fencing coach that he met his wife. She worked on a radio show in Prince Edward Island at the time. Mike had been called in to do an interview, but the interviewer fell sick so his co-host happily stepped in – Christy Luke.

Sparks flew and the couple became serious quickly. After they married, they moved to Grand Forks in 1994. Christy had lived here in the late 70s and early 80s and she’d already bought a house in town.

Their move prompted Mike to get back into things he did as a child, restoring canoes being one of them. His carpenter father, a canoe racer, inspired a love of canoes in Mike.

Christy was his biggest cheerleader; she loved seeing him pursue his passion and the things that brought him joy.

“The only thing that’s holding you together emotionally is a canoe you’re restoring for a friend of a friend,” she’d say. “Why don’t you look at the possibility of doing it as a business?”

And so Kettle River Canoes, Mike’s business, was born.

The business celebrated its 20th year anniversary on Feb. 11, 2023. Unfortunately, Christy missed the milestone as she had passed away not long before from kidney failure.

Canoe restoration is a niche art – there’s an association of wooden canoe restorers and enthusiasts, of which Mike Elliot is one, but the group is small. Their love for their canoes, however, is big.

Most owners will do anything but get rid of their canoes, and when they discover that somebody restores them they simply ask, “when can I bring it to you?”

Utmost care is taken to shipping their canoes, and oftentimes customers drive them down themselves – even from as far as Saskatchewan. Joy and memories overwhelm them when they see the final product. Mike sets up the canoe with studio lighting in preparation for pick up and stands at the ready with a box of tissues—the owner always bursts into tears at the sight of their newly restored “friend.”

For Mike, their happiness is the most rewarding part of the whole restoration. Old customers send him emails and pictures of them on trips with their canoe, which Mike loves and cherishes.

“Working on canoes is what kept me going through hard times,” Mike confesses.

His business has been a huge motivator in his life, especially since Christy died.

His canoes get him up in the morning and put structure in his week. Every day when he steps into his shop, he thinks of his wife, his biggest cheerleader in all his endeavors.

“The first few months after she passed, I couldn’t even come into the shop without breaking down and crying,” Mike says. “Now I can work and it’s fulfilling.”

Mike Elliot also partakes in the theater productions here in Grand Forks. He loves singing and dancing on stage—even with two artificial hips after 20 years of fencing!

He and his son have even performed together on a few occasions. Mike’s son, James, 36 years old and born with a disability, also lives in Grand Forks. He moved here at the age of 22 and lived with Mike and Christy for a year and a half as they taught him how to live on his own.

He is the grateful recipient of a house built through Habitat for Humanity, works a steady job, and volunteers at the library helping seniors navigate computers.

Mike takes great pride in his son’s accomplishments and in the way he’s tackling life, one day at a time. Mike enjoys sharing his knowledge with other people, and has written two books on canoe restoration.

Between his work as a writer, a father, and an expert in “friendship restoration,” he keeps busy and gives back in practical ways not only to the local Grand Forks community, but to the world at large.