By Conor Mihell
New York City natives Adam Wicks-Arshack and John Zinser were boatbuilding neophytes before September 2008, when they paddled into the wilderness of northern Ontario in one canoe and came out a month later with two. Wicks-Arshack and Zinser were captivated by the process of building traditional canoes from their time spent as campers and guides at Camp Wabun, a legendary summer camp on Lake Temagami. But without the tools, workshop and form to build a wood-canvas canoe, the pair decided to go back to canoeing’s roots.
They set up a base camp and harvested birchbark, cedar and spruce roots, laid out the material on a building bed on the forest floor and, with the help of a few books on the subject, stitched the bark into a shell, sheathed it with hand-split cedar, soaked and bent supporting ribs and sewed it all together with split roots. Their wispy 12-foot replica of an Algonquin hunting canoe contained no screws, nails or glue.
In the next two summers, Wicks-Arshack and Zinser returned to Temagami to build two more birchbark canoes at Camp Wabun’s base on Garden Island. Wicks-Arshack says the local native community from the Bear Island reserve became very interested in the projects. Glen Guppy, a native builder who passed away a few years ago, crafted the last birchbark canoe in Temagami a decade earlier.
“It was amazing how many people from Bear Island came and helped us out,” says Wicks-Arshack. “When we finished [a 25-foot birchbark canoe] we paddled it over and showed them. When we took the canoe out of the water the elders put the young people in it. It was a beautiful thing. They performed a blessing for the canoe and sang a song for the eagles to guide us.”
Witnessing the power canoe-building had in uniting the local Ojibwa community convinced Wicks-Arshack and Zinser that now’s the time to bring it back. Through Voyages of Rediscovery, an outdoor education nonprofit based on the Columbia River in Washington state, the pair will return to Lake Temagami to spend three months building canoes with Ojibwa youth this summer. Currently, Wicks-Arshack and Zinser are raising $10,000 in funds to support the project with a Kickstarter campaign. The “all or nothing” campaign ends on April 9.
“We’re doing it without asking Bear Island [First Nation] for money,” says Wicks-Arshack. “They’re excited and love the idea but we thought the effort should be a gift to them. We owe it to them, free of charge.”
The process will involve a canoe expedition to harvest materials, preparing an outdoor area to craft the canoe, the building itself and, at the end of the summer, a paddling trip in the final products. Children and teenagers from the community will assist with all parts of the project. Wicks-Arshack says he hopes to build at least three canoes in the time spent at Bear Island, as part of a film documentary project to capture the benefits of celebrating canoe-building traditions. Voyages of Rediscovery has similar plans involving dugout canoes this fall on the Columbia River.
Wicks-Arshack insists that while reviving traditional building methods will preserve a fast-fading art, the other reward will be using the canoes. “The canoe is a vessel of education and exploration,” he says. “The canoes we build are not meant to hang on the walls but to paddle, to explore the land, and to help foster a stronger connection between the youth and their land.”
Also, you can watch Voyages of Rediscovery’s video about the project below.