Thursday, June 28, 2012

Birch Bark Canoes at North House Folk School, MN



Through the window is a foggy wild-land paradise. But I can barely see it, the speeding high-way nighttime shrouds it out as we drive north, the four of us, on Minnesota’s gunflint trail at the North-eastern edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness. Though I am traveling 10 times faster than the native Ojibwes would have in their canoes, I can’t help but notice something in the deep woods. White faces are staring at me, hundreds of them, scarred and aged with wisdom. They are the white birch trees and this is their land.  
A view of the Magnetic Rock Trail in the BWCA at sunset.

Mid-June I spent a week at North House Folk School (www.northhouse.org) in Grand Marais, MN, just south of Ontario, learning the construction process of the birch bark canoe tradition of the native Ojibwe or Anishinabe people of this area. A group of 10 students sat before instructor Erik Simula in the boat workshop, a solid red building, whose doors opened to the vast Lake Superior. For four days, we discussed and listened to the vast tradition of the birch bark canoe, built and utilized by native peoples across northern North America. Using the materials they had such as cedar, spruce, and of course birch bark, these people make amazing quality crafts giving them the ability to travel, trade, hunt, and fish throughout the rivers and lakes.


Three very different canoes and handful of students and staff

North House Folk School, where the class took place, is an incredible community of artisans and artisans-to-be learning traditional northern skills such as woodworking, ecology and sustainability, blacksmithing, basketry, ski-making, boat building, and dozens more equally important and interesting skills. The community beams with respect for the traditions and for the materials. An anniversary celebration book entitled Celebrating Birch written by many of the school’s staff discussed the uses, traditions, and stories around this amazing material while also providing instructions for making your own birch items. I made a birch and spruce root sheath for my axe and a ring for my girlfriend! It was easy to feel deep respect for the tree, and the people for whom the tree has provided so much as I read this book while staying on Birch Lake on the northern part of the gunflint trail just a portage into the BWCA.

A view of the North House campus with Lake Superior in the Background and the Wooden Boat Show in the Foreground.
Transitioning basic ecological understanding when harvesting materials, into the ability to construct these beautiful craft, requires intense skill. Erik has that. I like the way my canoe teacher Jim put it, “Erik seems to have some sort of unconscious competency” knowing things intuitively, deeper than language. One example was when Erik was explaining how to split roots. “I don’t really know how I do it” he says taking a deep pause “I just do it”. Like a wolf knows how to track a deer’s smell, Erik knows how to work with bark, sewing and bending, until he finds the perfect form in his building beds.

Erik explaining a steaming and soaking process for bending the cedar wood.
 This knowledge comes from, no doubt, years of experience. A true Renaissance man of the wild, Erik spends his winters as a dog sled musher and guide. Erik took one of the canoes he built on a 1000 mile journey to completely circle the Boundary Waters (www.arrowheadjourney.blogspot.com) .

As soon as the land thaws he looks for materials to build canoes, for his classes at North House, for his work at Grand Portage constructing voyager canoes, or for his own purposes. Once materials are harvested, the bark is sewed and laid out in the manner the builder wants, a whole range of processes, including making ribs, gunnels, stems (structural pieces inside the ends), planks (or bottom boards to step on) and lashing them, or pegging them, together, must happen. One of the most interesting of these processes is called pitching. Tree resin, essentially sap dried on the trunks, is melted and mixed with grease (often from bears) and charcoal from the fire and used to harden and cover the seams in the bark, making it water tight.

Pitching the canoe

These processes took thousands of years to master and originated long before European Voyageurs began learning the ways of native bark canoes to travel the north. In fact, each tribe that builds does it in their uniquely evolved way. One interesting characteristic of the Ojibwe canoes is the long curved nose which returns to point into the boat. This style is both for artistic reason as well as a good design in taking on the local waters.   

The land and water, the North House community, way cool classmates, and an incredible teacher, makes it is hard to simply sum up the week. Rather I can only take smidgens of lessons and listen to them, just as Erik, bit by bit has become a master, and trial by trail this beautiful tradition has come to be.  The deep respect for traditional culture and the ecosystem is surely one of those lessons.


Consider the ends of the canoe. There, the cedar, bark, spruce and pitch all meet to face the water. Each piece needs to be in its rights place, a balancing of the parts. Yet it is the builder who stewards this balance. As the climate changes the birch habitat shifts north, die offs and deforestations become an increasing threat, I am reminded of our uncertain future.  While nature is resilient, when things could unravel, there is no replacement for good craft.

Good craftsmanship on Erik's canoe

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