The thing you need to know about peeling bark from a birch tree on a hot summer morning is this, and it has nothing to do with canoe building.
Like a small advancing army, the woodticks scamper up your pant leg, into your ears, throughout your purse, and down your throat.
Also, know that the thick brush snaps hard on a passing face. That an even terrain may camouflage a sudden steep hole that’s anxious to twist an ankle. That sweat runs like the Mississippi River from your neck past your bra cups and down the inside of your shirt before it splashes to the forest floor.
Readers, I was a bug-ridden, deodorant-challenged, red-faced, hard-breathing mess.
But God bless them, one of the Indian Scouts stayed behind with each faltering step to ensure I didn’t get lost.
The many Indian Scouts were part of the language immersion/canoe building project sponsored by the FDL Cultural Museum and paid for by the FDL Band and an Administration for Native Americans grant. For three weeks in June, eight to 14 full-time and part-time Ojibwe co-built a birchbark canoe. Most builders came from the Rez, but a couple traveled from Michigan and Indiana.
Mornings started in the Museum. Dave (Niib) Aubid, East Lake, led the group through new Ojibwe words that described the work and building materials.
The canoe construction took place under a wigwam-like structure behind the Museum with Ojibwe words taped to the walls. I didn’t know the words for “large squeamish bug-hating weenie woman” and didn’t ask.
That’s because when you’re in the middle of the deep woods under three coats of insect spray, surrounded by hearty, strong and highly motivated Ojibwe Scouts, you shut your mouth. Following the language lesson, the group piled into trucks and vans and headed west for Ditchbank Road. A tire path extended from the road into the woods. We set out on foot, seeking towering, straight birch trees.
What signals birchbark peeling season?
“When the mosquitos are thick and fly into your mouth,” said Jeff Savage, Museum Director and organizer of the event. He spotted two ideal birch trees early as the van bumped down the narrow path. The best bark trees are about 70 years of age. The best canoe bark is thick with short lines and is unlikely to tear.
About a mile into the woods, we reached a semi-clearing and parked. We carried cell phones, a Global Positioning System and an alarm device that signaled a truck’s location. Yet no matter where the group trekked, someone knew the way out without technology.
Sweat lessened the impact of bug spray. After climbing over 20 logs and a mile of zigzag steps through thick brush, wood ticks moved in over flesh as bug spray trickled off. Each time I pulled a tick off my scalp, I looked at my watch.
Finally Marvin Defoe, master canoe builder from the Red Cliff Reservation, stopped at a tree, judged its straightness, cut a strip of bark, and pronounced the tree ready. In a flash he reached up and cut a line through the bark to the ground. Marvin then propped a ladder against the tree, climbed and extended the bark cut higher.
Two Scouts on the ground grasped a wide strip of bark and slowly began to peel. Birch trees emit a “pop” sound as they release their bark when the time is right. We heard two pops. In slow motion, the Scouts lowered the bark to the ground before carrying it to the path, rolling it into a bundle and delivering it to a vehicle.
It takes 60 to 70 square feet of bark to make a canoe. That day the group collected three bundles. A few younger Scouts led by the ever-alert Marvin immediately returned to the woods for more bark. The older Scouts headed back for the vehicles and ate ham and cheese on wild rice bread and then watermelon.
They jabbered nonstop, waiting for the younger Scouts to return and eat before everyone took off in search of the two birch trees near the tire trail entrance.
I learned about cohesion that day — the way energetic and talented people with a single purpose can labor hard and succeed.
Deborah Locke can be reached at email@example.com. The finished canoe will be on display at the Black Bear Casino Resort. Eventually, it will be used.
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