SUMMER SOLSTICE FESTIVAL
JUNE 18-20, 2010
BIRCH BARK CANOES
SIMULA CONTINUES NORTHERN TRADITION
By Ada Igoe
Erik Simula has spent every summer for the last 15 years building traditional birch bark canoes. It’s a practice that allows him to continue a Native craft that was nearly lost in modern times. It also keeps him immersed in the woods he loves.
Simula’s interest in birch bark canoes began as a young man. He’d had a lifelong passion for the woods of northern Minnesota and over the years he’d developed snowshoe building skills. As he learned more about Ojibwe culture, he found himself wanting to build birch bark canoes.
“It’s the most meaningful way to travel in the wilderness,” hed said of the birch bark canoe.
Simula said there was a slow transition between learning the craft of building birch bark canoes and actually building one of his own. Because Simula is not Native, he said he feels a deep responsibility to honor the traditional builders when he builds birch bark canoes. To develop as complete an understanding of the craft as possible, he examined old birch bark canoes, visited builders and elders he knew, and studied at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario.
“It took me about five years to make my first birch bark canoe,” he said.
Simula mainly builds canoes from Lake Superior Anishinaabe designs. The canoes are built completely from renewable resources found in the boreal forest. Simula uses permits from local foresters to gather his building materials and he says he often looks at 10,000 or more birch trees to find the perfect sheet of bark for the bottom of the canoe. Cedar planks, hard wood pegs, and spruce roots are also used. Spruce resin mixed with charcoal and bear grease forms canoe sealant.
“There’s no finish, oil or varnish used. There’s a natural beauty to these canoes,” he said. “It’s all from the forest, all gathered by hand.”
Simula uses traditional tools such as a crooked knife, ax, and froe. From start to finish, each canoe takes him approximately 1,000 hours to build. While Simula said he’s sure he could build canoes faster, he said that doesn’t appeal to him.
“The focus with my way of building is to take however much time it takes to do it right and well,” he said.
Simula builds birch bark canoes every summer at the Grand Portage National Monument. There he not only demonstrates the art of canoe building to Monument visitors, he also takes on an apprentice through the Grand Portage mentorship program where he helps Grand Portage Band members learn the craft of birch bark canoe building.
“I feel it’s important to carry on the tradition and pass on the skills to the future generation,” he said.
One of Simula’s birch bark canoes, the one which he used on a 1,000-mile journey through Minnesota’s Arrowhead region last summer, will be on display at North House Folk School during this year’s Wooden Boat Show and Summer Solstice Festival on June 18-20. He will also be teaching three classes at North House, including an overview on birch bark canoe building, in conjunction with the Boat Show.