Monday, April 29, 2013

Viking Waters

Viking Ship Restored at the Viking Ship Museum
It has been a long time since the Viking culture blessed the blue waters and fjord lands of what is now Scandinavia. From Canada, an airplane brought me over the North Atlantic, through Reykjavik (Iceland), a quick and adventurous stop in Olso (Norway), until I reached a chief trading land of the Atlantic's bearded wayfarers, Copenhagen (Denmark). Though the continuum of culture has changed this water plenty city since the Vikings in the 1100's , the hip and aware population has kept alive a few boats. Making the journey (though much faster) the ancestors would have made, I went to meet them.

Viking Burial in Ship (Viking Ship Museum)
Bow of a ship reconstruction using all traditional tools
Roskilde in the Copenhagen area is both an ancient capital and home of the Danish Viking Ship Museum. Not too far from here, five different size Viking ships were found buried in a line to create a natural block during times of strife between different Vikings groups. From these war, fishing, and trade ships, modern Danish have been able to reconstruct vessels which would have been of top importance, in all possible ways to this Nordic culture of the past.

Cutting a plank
The axe is the most important tool in building Viking ships
The hardwoods of the north were used to make a keel based, symmetrical boat that had clinker (overlapping planks) and ribs. Depending on use, these vessels would vary in width, length and other design elements. With these forest materials and a treasured knowledge of the North Atlantic, the Vikings were able to make boats that would venture round Europe, to the Arctic and west to Canada. They were truly masters of their resources, and forever shaped this part of the world with their boats.

On a cargo ship reconstruction
The Viking longship is the most iconic of these vessels, with dragon heads protruding its curved ends and colorful shields riddling the sides. These ships were used to protect lands and to raid others. They were the vessels of culture and spiritual significance, being used for burials of important figures along with wives and favorite horses.

The Sea Stallion, longship reconstruction
Along with my friend Polly, I spent time with the Viking boat builders and sailors in Roskilde. Showing me the axes and design thinking, as well as sharing stories of sailing in the Atlantic was inspiring. This is the ship of my own Scandinavian genetic heritage, and to see the vessels of the past floating on these waters is a source of identity for the present.

Nyhevn's a canal in downtown Copenhagen

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Meeting Masters of Canadian Canoes

Tools of master birchbark builder, Rick Nash
I spent time with Rick Nash, master birchbark canoe builder, the other weekend with Uncle Rob. Seeing his fascinating work and learning from this incredibly insightful and hip guy was one of the highlights of my Canada experience.

Rick trying my knife
Rick has become one of the most well learned experts on restoring craft from native birchbark traditions, hundreds of years old. He knows, as best as anyone can, the forms and methods for building these canoes just as they were originally. Rick is a special energy in the canoe building world and I hope to learn more from him as I follow my path. He gave me a rock, sharp for cutting wood, just like the original way. It holds tight next to my knife in my bag, ready to teach me lessons on the rest of the journey this year.

Ted explaining the process involved in such a large strip canoe
I also had the opportunity to meet Ted Moores of Bear Mountain Boats, whom wrote the book Canoecraft, my manual for my first canoe. It was a pleasure and a honor to spent the time with him seeing his workshop. When Jeremy and I left, he talked to us about "keeping the spirit of the traditional canoes alive". An insightful and innovative man, it was a true affirmation to hear him talk about the importance of these traditions.

A bever felled log
 I I spent time, while not at the museum, in a forest near Peterborough making a paddle from a tree that a bever felled. I found a straight section and cut it from the rest of the tree.

Getting the length right
I then split the long in half to make it manageable, using a birch ballet and wedges I made.

ThThe poplar wood wasn't great for making paddles, but the experience of using hand tools is the woods is always valuable.

Wedge forcing a split

An axe helped on the split aswell

Now where's the paddle?

Cutting it to size with an axe
Once the right piece of wood was scoped in the log, I cut it to size with splits and with my axe.

 Once it was in blank form, unfortunately someone stole it while I went home for the night, so the crooked knife never got to slice the wood down to be a paddle. Oh, well, I hope they finish it!

A view of Big Toad and Moose from Jeremy's on the Indian River
I spent my final days in Canada paddling the Indian River with John and Jeremy, seeing beautiful weather and a coming spring. On to the land of the Vikings and the knowledge of the Arctic.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Wood Chips on the Museum Floor: Honouring CCM's Traditional Collection with Sawdust

Dugout collection at CCM

I don't just mean the wood chips and sawdust that inevitably comes from age old canoes and kayaks like the many in CCM's collection. Yes, its true, traditional crafts degrade naturally, and it is paradoxical for museum's to try and preserve them. Or is it? What if we took a different approach to preserving heritage, rather than putting everything on shelves, why not keep the traditions alive? That's the approach of the Canadian Canoe Museum, to keep the woodchips on the floor from the practice of these age old traditions. 

Kayaks on display

In The Living Tradition and workshop initiatives of the museum, the chips are flying and people are learning, having fun with the traditions. At the museum, you can make paddles, canoes, and learn a host of skills from the past, important for the future. What a better way to learn of other times and cultures, by participating in them!

Russ Parker in a finished skin on frame kayak

I've spent a lot of my time at the museum observing and learning from these efforts. After making my knife, I've had wonderful opportunities to learn from the volunteer artisans that come to the museum to support these programs. Just this week we cut ribs of cedar (and how good it smelled) for a new cedar canvass canoe to be auctioned in support of the museum. A cedar canvass canoe was the first of the "white man's" canoe using Native American designs. Canvass replaces bark and the canoe is built from the inside, ribs first, while the birchbark canoe was built from the outside in. Both are gorgeous.

Jeremy and Russ cutting ribs. 

Jeremy, doin' his thang. Measuring ribs for a new cedar canvass

At the museum there are other opportunities to piece together the past contexts of the crafts. For example there is a trader's store where you can see and feel the goods, particularly pelts, that would have been traded. You can try on clothes of the voyagers or make snow shoes of the far north. You can also play a canoe made into a massive drum (if you didn't know, im a drummer!).

The lovely Lauren, dressed as a voyaguer

The thing that inspires me the most about all of this, is the ability for these traditions to be in dialogue with each other. Canoes from different times, different cultures, places, and perspectives can exist in the same room and it only makes it more peaceful, interesting and fun. I can think of no better metaphor or lesson for modern society than this. 

Dugouts in Dialogue

Friday, April 12, 2013

Making a Mocotuagan: The Crooked Knife of the Northern Native

Using another Mocotaugan to design my handle.

The Mocotaugan, or crooked knife, is the tool of the birch bark building cultures. Drawn towards ones self with one hand, the knife can be used to shape softwoods, bark, roots, and animal skin without using a clamp (simply the other arm) thus being a beautiful tool for bush craft and wilderness survival. It was used throughout what is now Canada, first with bone and sharp rock, and only flourished with the arrival of European steel and the white trader's want for the extremely useful tool.

With the help of Jeremy Ward, I was able to use the Canadian Canoe Museum's Living Tradition facilities to make my first Mocotaugan.

Finding the handle in the wood.

From a piece of maple log squatting in Jeremy's backyard we found a gorgeous handle that has both curly (or flamed) and spalted effects. Curly or flame effects on the wood make distortion of the grain, looking wavy and unique. Spalted effects are a fungus which leaves black lines in a map like pattern through the wood. While it reduces strength, I have confidence in my maple handle. The handle of a Mocotaugan should have a curve away from you where your thumb will rest and give you leverage. 

Arnold Allen is heating my blade red hot to anneal or soften it.
My blade came from the heart of an old table saw blade (1/8th inch thick), cut to a 3/4 inch width and a 6 inch length (2 in the handle, 4 for cutting). It was annealed by metal-master CCM volunteer Arnold, by heating red hot and then cooling slowly, which makes the steel softer.

The process of shaping the blade just right is a tricky one. Most blades come directly out from the handle, though a slight tilt back, away from you, gives a better slicing effect on the wood. Mine is straight out. Mocotaugan can have curved blades at the end or not. Mine curves up, which gives the extra capability of working along longer surfaces or digging in. Once I had gotten my shape just right (including a 90 degree curve into the handle for lasting together), it was tempered and hardened by cooling quickly. 

Workshop in progress, note a hunting knife, top left, given to me by Rob Stevens!!!

Rasping out the handle to put wire, lashing the blade and handle together, on the same level with the wood.

Finishing touches to the handle including cutting a space for the blade, the blade lock (90 degree angle bit), and a lower section for the wire. I gave it three coats of oil and then it was ready for steel!

Chiseling space for the blade

Finished handle, note the curly and spalted effects. The circular handle and map like lines make it look like a globe, how fitting.

The connected pieces. Note that the spalted effects left a center line down the side and the top, strange!

Copper wire is then coiled around the handle and the blade, pulled as tightly as possible. Then ends of each are inserted into small holes. 

Connecting the pieces.
Finished Mocotaugan
Now, using it in the woods!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Canadian Canoe Museum: Hands-On with Heritage

Birchbark exhibit at the Canadian Canoe Museum
With more than 600 canoes from around the world and in every era of innovation, the Canadian Canoe Museum  in Peterborough, Ontario, is the world's largest collection. Yet what drew me to spend three weeks of this incredible journey at the Museum was its global role in the idea of the canoe. The museum is not some mausoleum for dusty artifacts, it is a hands-on experience with heritage, culture and identity, while acting as a nexus for community of all walks to celebrate what the canoe is and what it represents.

Storehouse at the Museum for canoes not on display

In essence, the museum is keeping some very important things alive, while making it a fun experience. What else could one want: spending time studying the impressive collection of bark, skin and dugout canoes while also learning from the knowledgable community members who walk through the door.
In what other museum can you try on clothes of ancient traders, make snow shoes, learn to carve a paddle, or go fishing, right in the lobby!?

Jeremy Ward, observing old bows found next to a nearly 300 year old bark canoe.

I am spending a lot of my time at the museum learning from Jeremy Ward, curator of the museum and canoe builder in his own right (having built a voyageur bark canoe as an exhibit!). His articulate voice and enthusiasm is inspiring, radiating the importance of the work. He and the museum are helping me give context to my work, understanding each tradition in a broader historical and practical sense. Again, I am constantly reminded of how little I know and it inspires me to work harder.

Figuring out how to steam bend a fasten for a basket repair

Right amongst the exhibitions there is a workshop where volunteer artisans restore canoes and artifacts. This workshop is used for teaching skills and keeping the canoes in good shape. When I am not researching my millions of questions or starring at the wonderful craft, I'll be making a few things in the workshop, expanding what little I know about the canoe world.

Sizing a Pacific North West paddle to make a replica

As Jeremy said "once you have lost the stories behind the canoes, you can't replace them" and each of these stories, whether an ancient Arctic kayak revealing a tale of survival, or a famous tripping canoe representing the Canadian love for nature in wilderness, are important to who we are and what we have yet to learn. Walking through the store house Jeremy made me realize how important these collections are. Looking back at the hundreds of canoes, each with their own story, he slowly said, "these stories are conversing with each other in here", portraying the complex evolution of our species, our nations, and our ideas.

The Museum is looking to expand to a new and better location along the river in this historic canoe building town of Peterborough. They need all the help they can get to make the dream come true. I HIGHLY recommend taking part and joining the community any way you can. Lauren and I joined the Adopt-a-Canoe program, a fun and easy way to support the mission and to take some responsibility for a canoe on collection. We supported the unique Kutenai canoe, made from Balsam bark. Its sturgeon nose tip, the only one on collection jumped out to both of us.

The well-lit bow of a Malecite canoe.