Birch-bark heroes

On the trail with Temagami canoe-builders

By Conor Mihell

On a drizzly morning in late May, John Zinser hefts 100-pound wooden wanigans and bulky canvas duffels into a 24-foot birch-bark canoe on Lake Temagami, in northern Ontario. This summer, Zinser, Adam Wicks-Arshack and Dan Cassell, all outdoor educators who live in the Pacific Northwest, are organizing a birch-bark canoe-building project for native youth back east on Lake Temagami’s Bear Island reserve. Today, they’re packing gear for a multi-day mission into the surrounding backcountry, “cruising” for building supplies and taking their stout voyageur-style canoe back to the land from which it came.

“How many canoes can be paddled to the exact place where they were created?” says Wicks-Arshack. “We’ll be paddling in the same place this canoe was built, grown and harvested.”

Wicks-Arshack, 23, and Zinser, 24, are longtime campers and guides at Lake Temagami’s Camp Wabun and directors of a nonprofit called Voyages of Rediscovery on Washington’s Columbia River. In 2008, the childhood friends from New York City wrapped up a busy season at Wabun by venturing into the woods of northern Ontario and crafting their first birch-bark canoe. A year later, they built the hulking 24-foot Shishcan Chiman—“Spirit Canoe”—on Lake Temagami. This year they’re back, along with Cassell, 29, and fresh off a spring fundraising campaign that secured over $10,000 to support to a project to reintroduce birch-bark canoe-building to the area’s aboriginal youth.

“It’s amazing that two guys from New York City ended up here, in a place where you can take your cup and drink out the lake,” says Zinser. “[Temagami] has given us so much and that’s what led us to build these canoes. We’re not here as a business. We are here because it’s our way of saying thanks.”

But first, the builders needed to spend some time gathering materials. Wicks-Arshack estimates that only one in 100 birch trees has suitable bark for canoes. Trees need to be straight, be free of rot, fungus and branches, be at least one-foot in diameter, and have tough, flexible bark to meet the criteria. Late spring is the prime time for the onerous task of peeling bark, so the canoe builders are rushing to lay in a good supply when I meet them for our May trip. The rest of the building materials have been easier to find: A local sawmill donated the butt ends of massive white cedar trees for canoe ribs and sheathing, and another area canoe-builder generously offered Wicks-Arshack, Zinser and Cassell a good supply of Jack-pine roots, which are used to lash and sew everything together.

But we’re also out for a good time. On sprawling Obabika Lake, we meet Ojibwa elder Alex Mathias. Mathias grew up here and has lived on the land year-round since 1993, but he’s never seen a canoe quite like Shishcan Chiman, though he’s certainly heard stories. “For years, the canoe was the only sort of transportation on water,” he says. “So everybody had them and I guess a lot of people made them. When they made a birch-bark canoe, they made it a size to hold the whole family.”

The 24-footer glides effortlessly with six paddlers and a truckload of gear on the water, but it’s beastly on the portages. The crux of our journey comes on Day Three, when we navigate the twisty Wakimika River and make two 600-yard portages to Diamond Lake. “Just think, we’re probably the first people to take a birch-bark canoe through here in a long, long time,” muses Wicks-Arshack as we summon the energy to manhandle the fragile, 250-pound canoe over rugged terrain.

That night, Wicks-Arshack, Zinser and Cassell concoct a delicious lasagna in a reflector oven beside the campfire, and we wrap up our trip the next day. Later on, Zinser elaborates on the significant of their project. “Bear Island is a small community,” he says. “They’ve welcomed us and shared their traditions. Whenever we harvest material, we leave an offering of tobacco in thanks. We are really happy to be working with the children, adults and elders and excited to leave them the canoes we produce.”

All their struggles to secure an adequate supply of birch bark paid off in early June when a local invited them to an impressive stand on a nearby lake. “All of a sudden, we have enough bark to build three canoes,” says Wicks-Arshack. The birch sap was running just right to make peeling the bark effortless. Working together, Wicks-Arshack and Cassell used each other’s shoulders and a ladder to slit the bark on standing birches and removed impressive 15- to 20-foot-long rolls. “We got more birch bark in two days than we got in an entire month,” adds Cassell.

Already, the builders have been organizing weekly sessions with local grade- and middle-school children to get them involved with the initial stages of the project and to get out for paddles on Lake Temagami in the 24-footer. Come summer, the crew will rely on the help of children and adults to build 12-, 16- and 20-foot canoes. With materials prepped, next up is setting up canoe-building beds near the Bear Island baseball field and the magical alchemy of shaping canoes from natural materials.

“It’s a whole process in itself just to get to the stage when you’re ready to build,” says Zinser. “Once we stake out the building bed, sew the [birch-bark] panels and put the gunwales on, all of a sudden it starts looking like a canoe. Time is different when you’re building a canoe, just like it is on a canoe trip. It all happens so quickly.”

Click HERE to read the canoe-builders blog, and check out Wicks-Arshack’s historic birch-bark restoration below:

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  • Alan Zee

    Which print issue is this article in? July or August issue of Canoe & Kayak? Many thanks.

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