by EFS on September 2, 2016
Did you notice the fine piece of paddle-able art that took shape this summer on the lawn next to the Fisherman’s Headquarters building? The Ely Folk School’s birch bark canoe building project was headed by Erik Simula, former interpretive ranger and canoe builder at Grand Portage National Monument.
The project drew together a motley crew of local laborers, summer resort workers, odd passersby, and retirees from various professions. Although prior woodworking was not required, many who participated in building the canoe had at least a little woodworking experience; some had a lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday evening, the dedicated crew would carve, sew, soak, or split materials used in some detail of the canoe. During the days, Erik spearheaded field sessions for gathering materials such as cedar for planks and ribs, birch bark for the hull, spruce roots for sewing the gunwales, and pitch for sealing the seams.
Even idle folk like myself joined them every so often. One lovely Tuesday evening as the sun was setting, Erik was giving a tutorial under a grey-pink-orange sky on the proper way to apply spruce pitch to the seams. First you melt the pitch, then you pour it through a screen to remove any bark chunks, then you mix it with charcoal which makes it black and gives it body, then you add some bear grease to keep it pliable…
Bear grease? I started to realize that building a canoe wasn’t something you decided to do in early June if you wanted to have a canoe by mid-August. For a canoe builder, collecting materials happens all year round. Maybe you notice a large birch tree in the winter, but you can’t collect the bark then; you have to wait until the Popping-bark moon in June. Bear grease is something you save from the previous fall’s bear. Spruce pitch bubbles can be collected only if you happen to come across them.
“How often do you have to re-apply pitch to the seams?” I asked.
“Depends on how much abuse the canoe gets, usually every 4-5 days.”
“Pitching seems like a tedious process,” I remarked to Erik.
“Well the Native Americans used the materials they had. Some birch bark canoe builders today might be content to slap on some roofing tar. It is much easier to work with, and it looks authentic, at least to the untrained eye.”
The untrained eye… Perhaps that was Erik’s greatest gift to each of us who participated in the birch bark canoe building project. We now notice things about bark canoes in a new way, such as how the bark sheets are sewn which indicates which end is forward (bow) or back (stern). We also notice new details about the natural world that only a canoe builder would consider. I will never be able to pass a large spruce tree again without wondering how far away from its trunk the roots reach, and checking it for hardened drops of sap.
Most importantly, Erik taught us that it is not enough for a canoe to look authentic. Erik wants the canoes we build together to be authentic, right down to the methods we use for sewing the birch bark panels together with spruce roots, and using spruce pitch to seal those seams. In canoe building, as in life…. It is not enough to look authentic; the true craftsman of life takes care to BE authentic.