How long does it take to build a birch bark canoe? If you really want to know, ask Grant Goltz, an artist, craftsman and teacher who lives near Longville.
“Everybody asks that,” he says, “so let’s first break it down as to what’s involved in making a canoe. Let’s assume that you already know what you’re going to do and how to do it.” In other words, we’ll eliminate the learning curve.
“First,” he says, “you have to go out and find the materials.” That could take a week or more, when you consider three or four days to harvest good quality birch bark and another day or so to get cedar that has a straight grain with no limbs or twists.
“It’s not as easy as it used to be,” says Goltz, explaining that the right trees can be hard to find — and then they might be on somebody’s property.
Next you need to dig spruce roots because “that’s what it’s laced with.” A typical canoe requires 500 to 800 feet of lacing, which requires “a lot of digging in the swamp.
“Now you’ve got this pile of stuff — you’ve got birch bark, you’ve got a few logs. You’ve got to make all that into canoe parts.” He smiles.
The cedar needs to be split down the grain for the ribs and gunwales; the bark needs to be taken off the spruce roots and they need to be split and split again until they become thin, flat laces; and the birch bark needs to be cleaned — and it’s all got to be done by hand.
“If all goes well and you’ve got a couple of people to help you, probably another week goes by,” Goltz continues, “so, after a minimum of two weeks of pretty intensive labor, you’re ready to actually start putting the canoe together.
“When most people ask how long it takes to build a canoe, this is where they start. But we’ve already spent at least two weeks, sometimes three, getting to this point. And you’ve got to do that with every canoe. It’s part of the process.
“From here, if you’ve got a couple people to help, you can probably put a canoe together in a week.” He should know. He’s built lots of them.
Goltz and his partner, archaeologist Christy Hohman, have been “studying birch bark canoes for at least 40 years” and building them since the mid-1990s. They thoroughly research, then build using methods and materials as close to authentic as they can replicate.
“When we build our canoes, we’re usually using an example of an actual canoe that was documented. We don’t just build a generic birch bark canoe,” he explains.
For example, in 2002 he built a 27-foot birch bark canoe for a group from France that wanted to use it to traverse Canada. “It was a replica of one of those old fur-trade canoes and they paddled it 3,000 miles, from Portland, Oregon, to somewhere on Hudson Bay. They had 2,000 pounds of equipment and six people in that canoe.”
On that journey and countless others, birch bark canoes have proven to be reliably sturdy. This one crashed against a bridge support, breaking the gunwale. They repaired it with a hockey stick and completed the final 2,000 miles of the trip.
As Goltz explains, native people had been using those boats for thousands of years. During the booming fur trade, from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s, the French voyageurs were also paddling birch bark canoes.
Why? “Because they were the best suited watercraft for where they had to go and what they were doing. You could repair them, they were lightweight, they were sturdy. There was no comparison,” says Goltz.
He doesn’t use the word “primitive” to describe ancient people’s methods because, “When you look back at how people used to do things, it was very sophisticated. They understood everything that they were doing and they did it very well and very deliberately. To me, that’s not primitive. They understood the scientific principles of a whole lot of things that we’re just starting to figure out today.”
For example, they mixed powdered charcoal into the spruce pitch they used to seal the birch bark seams on the canoes. That’s why the seams are black.
“Sunlight can’t penetrate and ultraviolet radiation doesn’t break it down. That’s science. For the world that those people lived in, that’s as good as any of the science that we use today. It’s just geared to another time, another situation. You can find all sorts of examples like that.”
Goltz and Hohman also make museum-quality replicas of native pottery, again using authentic methods and materials. Much of their handiwork is on display in exhibits, and they also teach the skill to others, many of whom are descendants of native cultures.
“It’s one of those things that people quit doing. When the fur trade brought in brass kettles, people said, ‘hey, we don’t need to do this anymore’ and quit, so the skill was not passed on,” Goltz explains. “Some native people were not even aware that their ancestors made pottery. It’s part of their cultural heritage that’s almost gotten lost.”
But as Goltz and Hohman discover these skills, they research, learn, then teach them to others.
“It’s fun,” says Goltz. “We like to share what we’ve learned with other people. A lot of the things we do are fairly unique. There aren’t many people out there doing them.”
They’ve woven baskets, built guitars, carved wooden animals, tanned leather, built furniture and kayaks and worked with stone, wood and clay. “We can make almost anything because we’ve worked with everything imaginable,” Goltz laughs. “We’ve been on an almost 40-year adventure and we still continue to pick up new ideas and things.”
As they revive lost arts and develop an appreciation for cultures that were here before ours, we can all be grateful that they invite us along for the ride.
For more information, visit www.Squeedunk.com.