“It’s the original variable speed paddle,” quipped Ray Boessel in his boat works near Bigfork, Minn. “A modern invention from the 1600s.”
He was talking about the otter tail, a smaller, less efficient paddle used by the voyageurs which had the great advantage of not wearing out the men who might paddle for 16 hours at 60 to 70 strokes per minute.
Boessel has studied the lore of his craft, the making of birchbark canoes, for the last 37 years. Over those years he has made 338 of them, from 13 feet up to the 26-foot freight canoes.
He learned the craft from Bill Hafeman, who came to live on the Big Fork River in 1920 and made his first canoe from elm bark. It was rough and it was heavy. He credited a local Scotsman, Fred McClean, with introducing him to the birchbark canoe.
Hafeman had made a number of canoes, learning techniques, when during the Depression someone asked to buy one. He was paid $30 – a month’s wages – and it became a career.
During the next decades, his fame grew and his canoes went home with personalities such as Charles Kuralt, Gov. Elmer Anderson and Ladybird Johnson. An immense 37-foot canoe sits in the Minnesota History Center, a canoe that would have traveled the Great Lakes with 10-15 men and 3.5 tons of freight during the fur trading era.
Hafeman’s granddaughter Christie started helping him in the shop when she was 13 years old, building smaller scale models. Growing up, Christie married Ray Boessel and he also began working with Hafeman, doing everything from collecting spruce roots to splitting cedar ribs to peeling bark, and of course, learning the lore.
In 1984, Hafeman was in an accident and Ray had to carry on alone. “That,” he recalls, “was when I found out how much I didn’t know!”
And there is a lot to know. Each canoe is unique because each tree is unique. Birchbark can only be collected in certain places with permission, and only certain trees are suitable. The bark can’t be too white, for instance, because it will separate, or too dark or it will be susceptible to cracking. There’s even an art to peeling just enough thickness to maximize tree survival. It takes Ray 3-4 hours to peel enough for one canoe, and he might climb as high as 30 feet into the tree. He will pack out with about 50 pounds of bark.
He will also need to collect 500 feet of black spruce root for the stitching and white cedar for the wooden parts of the canoe – like gunwales, planking and ribs. Fine cedar strips are formed by first splitting the cedar with a froe, then gradually making finer strips by hand with a knife.
And that’s it. The canoe will take shape in the boat works from just these materials: birchbark, spruce root and white cedar wood.
The only commercial product used is the pitch. The voyageurs used bear grease, charcoal and tree sap to seal the seams, but they also repaired the pitch daily. Impractical today, Ray uses a rubberized sealant.
Ray and Christie have often demonstrated canoe making at educational events and sports shows. During one show, Ray recalls an urban visitor explaining to his wife, “They’re just pretending for the show. They can’t really do that!”
Ray just smiled.
Although he will make canoe styles and lengths to order, the boat works standard canoe is the 16-foot Chippewa Long Nose. The shapes of the ends distinguish the work of different tribes, Ray explained, and the boat works will also do nose styles in Malecite, Tetes de Boule, Algonquin and the high nose freight canoe styles. The high nose of the freight canoes served two purposes: breaking through lake waves and raising the canoe when flipped on its side so that the men could sleep under the boat.
Birchbark canoes are historical and lovely; they often hang on walls. But Ray prefers customers who invest in a canoe personally, and use and care for them.
Why use a birchbark canoe? The great advantage is weight. Dry, a 16-foot canoe will weigh only about 55 pounds, and after taking up water only about 60-62 pounds. And despite the light weight, birchbark canoes are long lasting. One 16-foot canoe from the Wabanaki Confederacy, now in a Maine museum, has been dated to the mid-1700s.
In the spring, a 15-minute soak on the lake and the canoe is ready to use. Far from wanting to keep dry, birchbark canoes gain strength from their moisture content.
That’s also the answer to another question: why aren’t birchbark canoes white? The outer white bark repels water, explained Ray, and it would break on rocks. The moisture content held in the inner bark keeps it flexible, so that mellow gold layer is on the outside.
Canoes may be durable on the water, but Ray has had bad experience with forklifts in shipping. As a result, the couple delivers the canoes themselves across the country or they may be picked up at the shop. Orders placed early will be completed this summer.
Visitors are welcome to watch the process of building a canoe and learn the lore of the birchbark canoe at the Hafeman Boat Works, 59520 State Hwy 6, about 30 miles north of Deer River. The boat works operates Sunday through Friday, although Ray may be in the woods collecting material. To check that it will be open, call Ray at (218) 743-3709 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.