In the windows of The River City Grill’s lofty dining room on Third Street in downtown Radford, stained glass panels glow and the walls are lined with local art.
Look up, and there is art hanging from the ceiling too. Over the door, is the surprise of a gleaming canoe, amber, cocoa and blonde woods and the keel tapering gracefully out over the heads of lunchtime patrons. It’s sculpture and craftsmanship carrying the restaurant’s riverine theme.
The canoe’s builder is Radford native, Bart Castleberry. Interviewed at River City, where he’s a regular, everyone greets him asking, “are you here for lunch?” as he takes a seat with a canoe-view.
Thoreau is said to have mused, “everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”
That may have been what Castleberry was thinking when he determined to build the canoe 15 years ago.
He was already a woodworker and he’d made a few fiberglass kayaks when he saw a picture of a similar canoe.
“I thought it was really pretty and I was doing a lot of woodworking, and I thought it would be cool to build a boat like that,” Castleberry said.
So the project was launched. The hull, 15 sleek feet of it, is mostly Western red cedar; the accent strips are redwood, the prow, a glossy swirl of bird’s-eye maple. The gunnels and seats are cherry he travelled to North Carolina to acquire. Not just a bauble, you can put it in the water.
Hung above the restaurant door with stained glass bunches of grapes, and an exit sign, viewers from the floor see inside the boat’s hull, concentric swirls of cinnamon and gold, a handsome little ash yoke and the seats are caned like snowshoes.
“Oh yeah. I caned those,” he says off-handedly laughing. I must have Googled them. I just found a plan for it, and I figured I’d do it that way and I did it.”
There are websites and books detailing the steps to building a cedar strip canoe including estimating epoxy costs, the price of cedar strips and navigating something called “lofting,” the process of transferring — and transforming — a design from a lifeless paper diagram into vibrant boat form.
It took Castleberry a year to complete, mostly working evenings and weekends.
“It’s just mesmerizing, sitting there with a chisel and cutting it out. Yeah. It is a lot of fun,” he said.
Not only fun, Castleberry, who is also a realtor, found woodworking relaxing.
“Real estate is all mental — negotiation it’s all mental, so wood working and building stuff is a good balance to that mental headwork,” he said.
But once the boat was finished, it had nowhere to go languishing in a spare room until Castleberry talked to old friends at River City.
“I didn’t get to see it. Now I get to see it all the time, he said.”
“Chris and Heather [Bell, the restaurant’s owners] and I have known Bart for years and when he said he was looking for a place to put the canoe, we said ‘Put it here!’” Chuck Hussey, the restaurant’s manager said.
Castleberry still canoes, now with wife, Laurie, and their three children Abigail (8), Colin (6) and Conor (3). They woodwork too, building birdhouses for Laurie.
Castleberry said that the hobby is actually quite popular, and that there are message boards and books to help. He recommends those to anyone who might want to build a canoe.
“Just start. It’s not bad, really. It’s just a whole bunch of little projects,” he said.
Now, he, a restaurant regular, can look at the canoe as he lunches. It’s for sale, like all the local art there, and he says he’d sell it.
“It’d be hard, but I would.”