When I read this issue’s story about Reid Schwartz, I knew how he could have fallen into the thrall of birchbark canoes. It happened to me in the early 1990s when I was a speaker at a sea-kayak symposium on the northwest coast of Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minnesota. One of the other presenters was a birchbark canoe builder. I don’t now recall his name, but my research suggests that it was quite likely the late Walter Caribou, an Ojibwe who had lived in Grand Portage, just up the lake from Grand Marais. He invited attendees to visit his shop and there I was quickly fascinated by the process of building a strikingly beautiful vessel from sheets of birchbark and other materials harvested from the surrounding forests. Walter explained how the bark can be harvested from a standing tree without fatally girdling it and how roots are gathered, scraped clean, and split in two for lashings.
But the canoe in the shop was overwhelmingly complex and I found myself drawn instead to his birchbark baskets. Many had been decorated by scraping away the bark’s dark inner layer, and some of the small ones were made from a single piece of bark scarcely larger than a sheet of paper.
While the scarcity of suitable birch trees inspired Reid to build a traditional canoe without bark, I was inspired to make things with whatever small pieces of bark could be found. With a Chippewa basket pattern from Walter and some scraps of bark and a few roots, I made my first basket before the symposium ended.
A few years later, while I was teaching a workshop in Greenland kayak construction at WoodenBoat School, I took a break to explore the surrounding woods and, in my wanderings, found a clearing where a house was going to be built. Some birch trees on the land had been taken down and bucked into 4′ lengths. I made lengthwise cuts on one piece. I didn’t know what time of year the trees had been felled, but the bark peeled off easily and cleanly and was still very flexible. I dug up a few chopstick-thick roots in the area. In the soft duff it was easy to push my fingers through to the underlying soil to find roots almost everywhere.
When I had some free time back at the school, I scraped the bark off the roots and split them in half, working the thickest end. An inch-deep cut with a knife was enough to get the split started and then it just had to be steered down the middle. If the split began to stray, bending the thicker side more brought it back in line. I cut a piece of bark and wrapped it around the knife I was using during the workshop, trimmed the bark to make a sheath, and laced it with the split root. Some 20 years later I’m still using that sheath.
Canoe-bark birch trees grow in the Pacific Northwest but their natural range ends about 25 miles north of my home in Seattle. Western red cedar, on the other hand, is everywhere. In Hilary Stewart’s book, Cedar, I read about the many ways in which First Nations people who have lived on this land for thousands of years used cedar bark. While it wasn’t used to make canoes here—the trunks of large cedar trees provided the wood for carving them—the inner layer of bark was used to make, among other things, baskets, rope, clothing, blankets, and hats. I’d known how the bark was used for some time, but I had never gathered any to see what I could do with it.
One spring day, on a path through the foothills of the Cascade Range, I found some recently wind-downed cedars still green with their flat, scale-like needles. It was the time of year when the sap would have been running before the trees fell, and after I made cuts through the bark it peeled off easily. As I ran my fingers between the bark and the slick sapwood it felt as if cold creek water had just been poured through the widening space. The soft bubble-gum pink inner bark of the cedar, the cambium, has to be separated from the craggy umber outer bark before being cut into strips for weaving. I made a few small baskets with 1⁄2″-wide strips and a larger basket with thicker 1 1⁄2″ strips.
Later, on a car-camping weekend when my kids were six and nine years old, a downed cedar supplied bark that I used just as it came off the tree with the inner and outer bark still together. With a long rectangle divided roughly into thirds, I folded the ends up, cambium to the outside, and pleated and gathered the ends. That curved the center into a small semicircular trough. With the ends of a twig handle lashed with strips of cambium to each upturned end, the bark was quickly turned into a blackberry-picking basket for the kids. The same form had been used by Nootka mariners as canoe bailers.
In all the years I’ve been building boats, I’ve developed a fondness for a few types of wood, cedars mostly, for their color and warmth, the fragrance they bring to the shop, and for the many things they can do and become. For much of that time, the wood came from lumberyards and beach driftwood, stripped bare, but when I began harvesting birch and cedar bark from windfalls, I found a closer connection with the trees and a better appreciation of the reverence native people had for them. Walter said that before bark is taken from a tree, it is given thanks. I suspect that the gratitude runs deep and is not just for the bark but also for air to breathe and life itself.