Going Huge

Reflecting on a season of canoe—and community—building

By Conor Mihell

Things had a way of working out in 2012 for outdoor educator Adam Wicks-Arshack and his colleagues at Voyages of Rediscovery, a Washington-based nonprofit. Last spring, CanoeKayak.com first reported on their KickStarter campaign to reintroduce aboriginal youth to birch-bark canoe-building on Ontario’s Lake Temagami. Having achieved their fundraising goal of $10,000, Wicks-Arshack, and fellow environmental educators John Zinser and Dan Cassell traveled across the country from their base on Washington’s Columbia River to Temagami in May and set up camp near the baseball field at the Ojibwa reserve on Bear Island. Just when they thought they might have to import bark for the construction project, a local craftsman showed them a secret stash of suitable birch. In the end, the team constructed two canoes with the help of native youth, parents, elders and the greater Lake Temagami community.

“The community embraced the project as their own,” says Wicks-Arshack, “and that’s what made it so beautiful. The canoes were built because of the energy of so many people.”

Wicks-Arshack, Zinser and Cassell demonstrated the building technique in first constructing Makominising Chiman (the Bear Island Canoe), a deep, seaworthy, 17.5-foot tripper that made its inaugural voyage to Maple Mountain, a remote lake country peak with profound spiritual meaning for local First Nations. The second canoe—a traditional Ojibwa long-nose with recurved stems and a sweeping sheer line—was designed and built by a team of Bear Island teenagers. It’s name, Bi-Giiwe Chiman (the Coming Home Canoe), was chosen by the community at a ceremonial dinner just before Wicks-Arshack, Zinser and Cassell returned to Washington.

Wicks-Arshack says the serendipity continued after they completed the 45-hour marathon drive to the Pacific Northwest. Upon arriving in Kettle Falls, Wash., they were given five massive logs by the Idaho Forest Group, which provided the starting point for their next project on their canoe-building agenda—the traditional dugouts of the West Coast. “Two of them were big 33-foot cedars with 4.5-foot butts,” says Wicks-Arshack. “We thought, ‘Well, what are we going to do now?’ We just started building the next day.”

They recruited local First Squad of Discovery historical reenactment troupe, invited Mississippi River-based outfitters and canoe-builders John Ruskey and Mark River, and set up at the Kettle Falls Historical Center. “We’d never build dugout canoes before and had no idea where to start,” says Wicks-Arshack. “Ruskey came up and taught us how to do it. It becomes a spiritual practice for him. He got up with the sun and sketched the canoe’s lines as the sun is rising. He was there for two weeks, working sunrise to sunset everyday.”

Even more than the art of finessing together a birch-bark canoe, Wicks-Arshack says the process of shaping a canoe from a 10,000-pound log requires many, many hands. It all begins with floating the log in the water “to find out how it wants to lay,” says Wicks-Arshack. Then the builders use crosscut or chainsaws to cut the rough shape before moving on to the bulk of the job—hollowing out the log with cupped adzes. “Your hands are constantly stuck in the grip of holding this tool,” says Wick-Arshack. “But after a month you started to get strong and calloused. At first it’s a rough process—just smashing and wailing on it. Later on you get into the finish work, using planes to get it down to a perfect grain line. With dugouts it’s very much like starting with a blank canvas and doing what feels right.”

The finished Tyee canoe is adorned with renditions of Chinook salmon at the bow and stern, and is being stored for the winter in the library of the Kettle Falls Elementary School. The team finished a second canoe, the Fox-Feather or Sockeye, with the help of Kettle Falls students. Then they moved to the village of Inchelium on the Colville Confederated Tribe reservation, to begin construction of a third canoe at the local school, which will be completed in the spring.

Ultimately, Wicks-Arshack’s goal is to build dugout canoes with all five donated logs, each one to represent a native salmon species that once spawned in the Columbia River. Voyages of Rediscovery is currently looking for two more schools to volunteer to build their own canoe next spring. “It’s been such an incredible year for us,” says Wicks-Arshack, who works for the winter as the resident biologist at a nature reserve in Costa Rica. “You get to see people working together, respecting each other and learning from each other. It’s been as much of a learning and sharing experience for us as it’s been for the people we’ve worked with. We’ve all said it’s been the most incredible time of our lives, to have been building and paddling canoes for six months.”

Watch John Zinser, Wicks-Arshack and Xander Demetrios demonstrate the initial stages of building a dugout canoe in this Voyages of Rediscovery: 

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  • Sandy Stehlin

    Just figures…if there is a canoe to be dug out, John Ruskey would be there…LOL…said with the utmost respect and admiration for my favorite Mississippi River canoe man. From your Cincinnati friends, Sandy and Tory the bow sitting Jack Russell.

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