THE CAPE RACER and other heirloom sounds

written + photographed by TODD R. NELSON


Ayli Munro, Cappy's granddaughter. Photo: Amanda Munro

Imiss the Cape Racer, even though I never got to ride on one. According to legend, Martin Van Buren Gray, of Deer Isle, invented it in 1882. It was a wooden sled with metal runners and a flexible, ladder-like frame that was used to haul smelt-fishing supplies—and, presumably, fish—on and off Maine’s frozen lakes. And it was used to race down Perkins Hill in an era that had much less traffic.

I thought of it when I heard some of our senior citizens talking about flying along the back roads on their Cape Racers, with sentinels strategically placed to forestall collisions with cars and trucks. The only way to stop was to roll off. And I envy their other recollections of riding to school on snowy days “on the back of my father’s snowshoes,” as some of them used to do.

All is not lost. My neighbor, David “Cappy” Wardwell*, an eighth-generation Mainer, makes them. Neat rows of various unique models line his shed. He uses yellow birch, the traditional oak or ash for the slender frames, and metal runners canted at an angle putting the inside edge on the ice or snow to carve a sure, straight track. Each one is signed and numbered, lovingly crafted in the winter when weather drives work inside; beautifully sanded and varnished; each a sculpture in its own right, and the embodiment of engineering finesse and speed; form and terrifyingly fast function.

Losing old objects and practices made me think of a hidden extinction. I wondered about the lost sounds familiar in former times. How many people remember the sound of such a sled carving an icy road, or the creaking of an old leather snowshoe harness? What else are we missing from our sonic environment—or in danger of losing?

One of the earliest sounds I can remember was the rotary-blade, hand-propelled lawnmower. It is a mnemonic of time and place, and I miss it, in part, because it opens the rich possibilities of recollections released by savoring sound. We are accustomed to seeing old photos. Old sounds are more or less confined to music. We should start a new concept: the mind’s ear.

Mr. Hankner, our next-door neighbor during my toddler-to-third-grade years, mowed his immaculate lawn on summer evenings just beneath my bedroom window and I loved to hear the rattling, clipping-clatter, winding noise of his ancient, sharp, well-oiled hand mower.

Reaching the end of each row, he would turn to come back to the top of the yard, the blades suddenly whirring freely as he realigned himself for the return trip.  His yard was a postage stamp of grass, but he kept it trimmed with regimental precision. After mowing, he would put the nozzle on his hose and water the lawn, and I would drift off to sleep lulled by the soft hissing of artificial rain on his roses, peonies, and velvet grass.

Whenever I tried to use our own hand mower, it never made the pleasing sewing-machine sounds of Mr. Hankner’s—just huffing and puffing. My own huffing and puffing. I begged Dad for a gas-powered mower, and efficiency won over aural tradition.

Dad liked calligraphy pens. I loved the scratching sound that he made as he practiced Cyrillic letters—even his signature had a Cyrillic look to it. Imagine the sound of ice skates scoring a pond and you have the sound of his pen on paper. Needless to say, the sound of dipping pen in ink is also an extinct whisper now.

Words make a kind of heirloom sound too. Many are linked with a type of landscape that is fast disappearing, or inhabitants of the landscape who are no longer around to describe it—like snowshoe tail riders. We have a lot of great words for flowing water—rapids, rips, riffles and rills; seeps and sinks—that aren’t in frequent use. Certainly, those water sounds and distinctive ways of running downhill haven’t gone away. But would it be fair to say there are fewer people who will stop and listen to it, and use the tried-and-true names for the particular qualities of such flow?

I just learned the term “jackstraw timber,” apt descriptor for the jumbled thickets created when a stand of trees has enough fallen or blown-down members to resemble the old children’s game called pick-up sticks—an heirloom game … remember the sound of the sticks falling?

We are, of course, making new heirloom sounds all the time. Some of today’s most common sounds may be destined for the sound heap of history, like Mr. Hankner’s mower. Perhaps the internal combustion engine is a future heirloom sound. One can only hope so. It would help restore the sound of riffles of water.

Even if the old sounds are gone, it’s never too late to restore an appreciation of the subtleties of experience hidden in simple sonic places. Has anyone heard the sound of one hand clapping recently? I think a full woodshed has a sound—full volume. So does an empty space—not echoing, but the simple sound of volume unfilled. Listen, if you can. Silence is an heirloom sound too, like Keats’s “noiseless noise.” Or John McPhee’s description of watching Umbazooksus Stream and appreciating “the stillness of a moose intending to appear.” I hope that kind of non-sound will always be savored in living memory.

Todd R. Nelson is a writer in Penobscot, Maine, not far from Cappy.

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* David “Cappy” Wardwell, a retired pipe fitter, makes new Cape Racers in his Penobscot shop. They’re modeled on his favorite sled, the ancient racer in his hands, flecked with lobster buoy paint. Many racers are made with the same oak slats as old lobster pots, perhaps during winter construction sessions. There’s only one way to ride: on your belly, headfirst. Gravity is your friend … and enemy. Watch out for that tree …

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Want your own Cape Racer sled? Cappy charges 10 to 20 dollars per foot, depending on material, with a lifetime guarantee: “I will repair at no charge as long as I’m still around!”

Get in touch with Dave Wardwell by email:

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