Monday, June 25, 2012

                Human beings are crafted by water, and in return, we craft upon it. In the vessels used to discover Polynesia more than 5,000 years ago or in the plethora of styles of canoes roaming the northern lakes of Canada, in all of its forms, the canoe, is a metaphor for our complicated being. Yet it is also a practical use for carrying out our daily lives for whatever purpose. It is truly our vessel. Beginning August 1st 2012, I will undertake a year-long journey as a Watson Fellow on every continent (besides Antarctica) to build and study traditional canoes with local experts.. Respectfully, this year is dedicated to the art (the artists!) and ecology of the canoe.

                The global journey begins on lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia where at 12500 feet beautiful reed canoes are made throughout the lake. The native peoples of Titicaca live on floating islands of the same reed harvested in the lake ecosystem a. From there, I build in Zanzibar with the dugout builders of the island, traveling into mainland Tanzania and Uganda as well. After a brief stay in the United Arab Emirates with a palm frond boat builder, I work with Maori war canoe builders on the North Island of New Zealand. Canada calls next in the spring with the intricate birch bark canoes of the north woods. The year ends with a summer building traditional Kayaks in Norway and a stay on the Mekong in northern Laos.

                 I began the construction of my first canoe in the spring of 2011 – a sixteen-foot pine and walnut strip. When I told my advisor Marcia Bjornerud about the endeavor in early winter, in such amazing synchronicity, she paired me and my four-person crew with her father, who has since become one of my greatest mentors. Jim Bjornerud, an avid canoe builder with decades of experience from the Wisconsin and Minnesota Northwoods, worked with us every week, checking our progress, teaching us vital skills, and providing us with subtle wisdom on the art of the canoe. He was truly our wise elder. Working with Jim I realized the immense possibility of knowledge and the deep importance of tradition and doing things right.

I became completely consumed by the idea of hand-crafting a canoe. Through snow, near-tornadoes, high water, four different workspaces along Wisconsin’s Fox River, and endlessly late, sleepless, nights, filled with nothing but saw-dust and an idea, we completed our boat in time for half my of team to graduate. The local hardwood dealer knew us by name. Everything we owned was covered with tiny wood scrapings and resin and everyone who knew us could tell that she (the canoe) was on our minds. It was then that it became clear to me that by putting an idea to work, we had each undergone personal transformations.

When she finally rode the water for the first time, I remember lying on my back looking at the setting sky from her seat-less, native style, belly. I pulled in the bulky paddle I had made and let the water take us; the border between river, canoe, and person faded with the setting sun. Riding in canoes my entire life, but now finally building them, I had grown an insatiable desire to do more.

             That experience, one many of us share, drives me. I know nearly nothing. Yet there is an infinite amount to learn and create in this world. When I leave the United States for a year, the opportunity to build and learn from cultures in each of these places is one I cannot even yet fathom. I am grateful to have you along as the river twists and turns!

              Furthermore, I am humbly grateful to the people involved both in my personal journey and involved in the making of these traditional crafts. It is astounding how many people literally come out of the woodwork to share their knowledge and offer a helping hand. So many, even in the planning process! There are true elders and teachers which shine in the canoe building communities. Cheers to those people and their respect for the crafts, as well as the respect for the relationship between nature and culture.

Ultimately and simply, this journey is about following passion. Like a bird’s nest or a beaver’s dam, the canoe is a part of the ecosystem, crafted by the human organism. They are the coexistence of creativity and nature.  Rather than the bane of the world, we are its creativity, sense of exploration and passion. This is true, only if we are wise, that we will be able to build a good and promising future. This is what I see when I am in the presence of these amazing crafts, with such knowledgeable builders in these unique environments. That is what I am journeying to understand. 


  1. Thanks for the invite, Will--beautiful canoes!

  2. Right on. Love the words--all the best on your journey Will. Forest

  3. Great to hear about your project Will. Our family stayed with Viktor and Kristina on Uros Khantati and loved the experience. So your note about their site on FB sent me to your site. We are from New Zealand, where I've and I studied in Vancouver, UBC, all the while compelled by the power of rivers, stories and memories (my 1999 PhD 'Writing the Memory of Rivers' was one outcome.)
    So, I have just 'liked' the Uros FB page if you need to contact me anytime. We are in Australia this year (R de Heers DVD '10 canoes' may be of interest); next year back in Wellington, NZ, so let us know if you need a bed for a night there passing through. I studied Te Reo Maori in the far north of NZ so have a fondness for that area too.

    Your wonderful canoe building experience and then your first journey reminded me of something Loren Eiseley wrote:

    Loren Eiseley touches on mystery and transcendence in his essay “The Flow of The River.” He reminds us that -- “common water” can hold our myths and, more importantly, enable the world’s functioning: “[i]ts substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares for the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of air” (16). His journey begins with some trepidation; a non-swimmer, alone in the plateau, he realises “[a] man in trouble would cry out in vain” (18). But he lies back, “in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off” (19):

    The sky wheeled over me.
    As for men, those myriad little detached ponds with their own swimming corpuscular life, what were they but a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers? I too was a microcosm of pouring rivulets and floating driftwood gnawed by the mysterious animalcules of my own creation. I was three-fourths water, rising and subsiding according to the hollow knocking in my veins: a minute pulse like the eternal pulse that lifts the Himalayas and which, in the following systole, will carry them away. (Loren Eiseley. 'The River' in _The Immense Journey_ pp19-20)

    flow well Will!
    Charles Dawson