Well-crafted boats keep souls afloat

Birch bark canoe
PHOTO: veggiefrog, Flickr CC-BY

We are what we make. That’s been true of every culture that ever walked the earth.

Think of the Sphinx of Giza, the heads on Easter Island or the arrowheads we sometimes find while sifting through the dirt of northern Minnesota. Each object grew from a ritual that brought people together to create something that would outlive them all.

We remember the making. I fondly recall my Grandpa Johnson crafting wooden toys for the neighborhood kids, the same ones he made for me when I was little. And I’ll always remember watching Grandma Johnson conjuring the Christmas krumkake filling in a cloud of pudding mix dust. As a boy, I saw my dad, my Grandpa Brown and my uncles make a working diesel engine out of scrap at the junkyard shop behind our house.

And I remember my dad rebuilding a boat.

The story goes that my great-grandfather bought the wooden speedboat from a mining executive at Crosby in the early 1950s. My great-grandpa was a mining engineer. He was probably helping the boss unload his old boat so he could get one of the shiny new ones.

This wooden boat was a beauty, though: caramel-colored finish with baby blue hull and silver keel. During one of the early water skiing runs on Serpent Lake I’m told my late grandmother lost her swim top but stayed on her skis. The scandal built a roguish mystique around this sleek aquatic machine.

This boat played prominently in family gatherings for two generations, even into my early childhood. But wooden boats possess a tragic allergy to water. Over time, the hull began to rot. My dad took possession of the sick patient and spent many of my teen years trying in vain to restore the original boat. Instead, he eventually removed all the fittings and features and installed them on a vintage fiberglass hull of a similar shape. He crafted a new boat with the spirit and bearings of the old one. It still floats! We’ll have it out again this summer.

Boats are one of humanity’s primal inventions. All of us crossed oceans, traversed rivers and piloted lakes at one time in our cultural history. Here in northern Minnesota, we must consider the birch bark canoe perfected by Ojibwe people of the Lake Superior region.

Dr. Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe language professor at Bemidji State University, wrote about these canoes in a recent edition of American Craft magazine. He described how the Ojibwe improved the design with experience navigating big waters like Lake Superior and small inland creeks. Abundant birch trees provided an endless supply of waterproof bark, easy to remove without killing the tree.

When French traders first met the Ojibwe, they abandoned their European boats for the lighter, more durable birch bark canoes. The design endures even today in the shape of commerce canoes, and yet crafters continue to produce the real thing.

“Anywhere there is water, Native people traversed it, fished it, and called it home,” writes Treuer. “Many tribes developed incredible watercraft—the products of their unique bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing. Learning about these living cultures and art forms can enlighten and heal us all. The vessels are as deep and significant as the water itself.”

The American Craft Council will hold free online panel discussion April 13 about the construction and cultural importance of boatbuilding. Dr. Treuer will be the moderator, detailing the information from his article in American Craft magazine and discussing the role of making in the human experience. Other guests include antique boat restorer Daniel Creisher of Massachusetts and James L. Jones Jr., an artist and canoe builder from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

You can find out how to participate at CraftCouncil.org.

There’s something special about making boats, and that is nothing new at all.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, April 8, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Ron Liedman says

    Hi Aaron, i grew up in Deerwood in the 60s and the tale of your grandmother’s waterskinning adventure on Serpant lake rings a bell for me but I’m unable to remember any detail. Would you be so kind as to share her name in hopes of triggering my memory. I’d be happy to share back anything that comes to mind.

    • Ha! Well, as a point of fact my grandmother was named Shirley Brown at the time of the incident, but I was told it was the ’50s not the ’60s. By the ’60s my family had moved back to the Mesabi. She later split with my grandpa and died before I was born, but that happened years later. If you know something I’d love to hear another perspective. My e-mail is available on the Contact page.

  2. Bill Hansen says

    I highly recommend “Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America” by Adney and Chapelle. Your library probably has it. It’s not so much a book to read, as one to page through, but it is truly remarkable.


Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.