February 5, 2006 in Outdoors

Bark is back

John Lindman 53, birch bark canoe builder, instructor
By The Spokesman-Review
Holly Pickett photo

John Lindman cuts the bark at the end of a birch bark canoe at the Bark Canoe Store in Spokane Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 17, 2006. Lindman uses traditional Native American techniques and natural materials to build the canoes.
(Full-size photo)

Tools of trade: Bowie knife, crooked knife, ax and awl. In production work, Lindman uses a planer for ribs and gunnels. With steel tools available 150 years ago, it takes a month to gather materials and build a birch bark canoe.

Materials: Bark from white paper birch, clear cedar for ribs, split spruce root for lashing, spruce pitch blended with bear fat for sealant. Savvy bark canoeists carry a “pitch pot” for expedition repairs.

Trade secret: Commercial pine resin can be substituted for pitch and Crisco will “rubberize” it almost as well as bear fat.

By the numbers

12 MEN: Approximate number of North American craftsmen making birch bark canoes for a living, although many more make them as a profitable hobby.

55 POUNDS: Typical weight of dry 16-foot birch bark canoe.

10 POUNDS: What a 16-foot bark canoe is likely to gain as it absorbs water while being paddled.

26 FEET: Longest birch bark canoe Lindman has built.

“Choosing a birch bark canoe over one made of Kevlar is like comparing the choice of bamboo vs. graphite for a fly-fishing rod,” Spokane boat builder John Lindman explains. “It’s not a matter of being practical, it’s the feel and the romance. The canoe gets wet and the cedar smells good. The hull is lively in the water, like a drum, and it floats like a feather.

“Head out on a trip in a birch bark canoe and you’re not bringing civilization with you. You’re one with the wilderness.”

Background: He got his first birch bark experience with a used canoe he bought from Kents Canoes in Spokane in the 1980s. He complete a Minnesota bark canoe-building class in 1992 and bought the group’s product.

“That 16-foot boat became our family RV. We put our two little boys, the dog and all of our gear in it to paddle up Lake Kachees and camp.”

Claim to fame: Lindman’s bark canoes are used in the PBS documentary “The War that Made America,” the movie “Dream Keeper,” as well as a French-Canadian TV mini-series and an AFLAC commercial. One boat, which he abused over the years and rebuilt three times, hangs in an Austrian bar.

Inspired by Native American techniques, design and ingenuity and by Henri Vaillancourt, New Hampshire canoe maker since 1965, as introduced in “Survival of the Bark Canoe,” by John McPhee. Required reading: “The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America,” by Tappan Adney, Howard Irving Chapelle, Edwin Tappan Adney.

Deep thoughts: “The American Indians were masters at adapting to their environment. A good skier doesn’t kick up a lot of snow when he turns and a good kayaker doesn’t try to out-muscle a river. The Indian culture personifies that notion of going with the flow. Left alone, their culture would have sustained itself and the environment forever. I’m not so optimistic about modern culture.”

Rookie mistakes:

Wearing all-black clothing while climbing a birch to begin harvesting bark.

“A car drove up and stopped. They thought I was a bear up in the tree. I could have been shot.”

Trying to roll out and prepare birch bark with boiling water as a Minnesota youth camp project with a large group of enthusiastic and under-supervised young children.

“It was too hot outside and I didn’t have any shade for the bark and it was scrolling (rolling up at the edges) way too fast. I lost my cool. The kids later told me I should go to time out.”

The rub: Essential materials that once seemed inexhaustible — bark from healthy birches and tall clear cedar wood — are rapidly vanishing and hard to find.

Bark can be peeled off a birch during summer as though it were a banana. In most cases, the cambium is left intact and the tree will survive. However, permits are still required to harvest the bark from trees on public land, and few private landowners want their trees de-barked. Lindman imports his bark from Siberia.

“I still feel bad about the bark I poached years ago from a Minnesota state park,” he said.

Bottom line: Order a custom hand-made birch bark canoe for about $375 a foot or buy a fiberglass replica for about $2,000.

Learn to build a bark canoe in a group class in May for $700.

Learn techniques while building your own canoe at an encampment along the Spokane River Sept. 3-18 for $2,850.

Where: Bark Canoe Store, 15 E. Sinto (in alley between Sinto and Mission), Spokane, telephone 327-7902; www.barkcanoe.com.

Craft Masters is a series devoted to local craftsmen of distinguished outdoor gear. They might have a Web site, but their business comes mostly from word of mouth. Their shops may have a small sign or no sign at all, but floors littered with metal filings or wood shavings advertise the nature of their work. Even in a world obsessed with iPods and all the other glitz in the era of plastic and high-tech, outdoorsmen still have a weak spot for the craftsmanship of quality gear made by hand.

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