Points North: Talon and the Bark Canoe

Ojibwe Birch Bark Canoe
Ojibwe Birch Bark Canoe

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Talon Stammen of Grand Forks, North Dakota was in Grand Marais recently to take a birch bark canoe-building class at the North House Folk School.  For anyone unfamiliar with the school, North House is a  place where you can learn traditional crafts ranging from boat building to bread baking.  But even in the eclectic environment of the folk school, Talon stands out.  That a 17-year-old high school senior will travel over 300 miles to learn how to build a canoe is unusual.  But taking a class and then spending the rest of the summer on an island in Lake of the Woods building a birch bark canoe is Talon.

This was Talon’s third visit to North House. He first came to learn  how to build his own cross-country skis.  The second time, he learned
about blacksmithing, then went home and built a forge so he  could make his own tools.  On this trip, he spent six days learning about building bark canoes from expert craftsman Eric Simula of  Hovland.

Talon says he's been interested in the outdoors and working with his hands all of his life.  Introduced to working with wood as a toddler by his grandfather, he began carving when he was old enough to safely handle a knife.  Building a bark canoe is a natural progression for a kid who spends his summers canoeing and fishing, makes his own moccasins and is helping his parents build log cabins at their island
retreat.  He says he rather make a canoe than buy one.

“It’s satisfying to make a canoe out of readily available materials,” he says.  “All you need is a healthy boreal forest.”

During the class, he spent a morning in a black spruce bog collecting watap, the spruce root used to lace and bind materials on a bark
canoe.  He also learned about collecting and working with birch bark, as well as how to steam and bend wooden canoe ribs.  One evening, Simula and students took three bark canoes out for a paddle on Grand Marais Harbor.  When they came in, they learned how to pitch canoe seams with natural materials.

A six-day class is too short to actually build a canoe, but Talon learned enough to strike out on his own.  He planned to get started as  soon as he returned to the family’s island on Lake of the Woods.  He was especially interested in acquiring the necessary birch bark,
because midsummer is a prime time to remove it from trees.  He planned to store the bark until he was ready to use it.

While Talon hopes to live “closer to the earth,” his aspirations extend beyond craftsmanship.  He’s planning on a career in medicine with a goal of being a doctor in a rural area.  Then he’ll be able to balance his passion for medicine with his love of the outdoors.  That love includes an abiding interest in fishing, primarily on Lake of the Woods.  Talon hasn’t tried hunting or trapping, but wants to do so—albeit with some trepidation.

“I have so much passion for all living creatures that it is hard to take a life,” he says.  “But I had a pizza for lunch.  I’d prefer to do my own killing for food, but with honor and respect for the animal.”

Talon’s respect for the natural world is clearly evident.  He enjoys paddling a canoe because he likes the slower pace of canoe travel and
the opportunities it provides to observe Nature.  He also associates the outdoors and living simply with personal independence, which he
someday hopes to achieve.  While his worldview is hardly unique, he doesn’t think it is shared by many other kids.

“They’d rather be indoors with electronics than be outside,” he says. “Maybe they haven’t had opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.”

Talon credits his parents for supporting his creative endeavors, such as crossing the state to take classes at the North House.  They also
must tolerate his quirks, such as his refusal to wear plastic-soled shoes.  He is especially grateful to his grandfather, 97-year-old Art
Grabowski of Grand Forks, who showed him how to work with his hands.  In fact, his grandfather accompanied the Talon and his mother to Grand Marais and signed up for a North House class, too.  He learned how to turn wooden bowls with a bark rim with instructor Lou Pignolet.  Like his grandson, Grabowski strengthens his connection to Nature by working with wood.  His specialty is ornate, wooden jewelry boxes.

Once he got back to Lake of the Woods, Talon wasted no time getting started on his bark canoe.  In an email to Lou Pignolet, his mother
wrote that he’d talked with a Native elder and was granted permission to take whatever bark he needed from trees on the reservation. Someone else told him of a good place to collect spruce roots.  He was splitting a cedar cut on his family’s property for the canoe ribs.

She also reported Talon’s project was beginning to attract local attention.  Some of the Natives asked if they can watch him work on the canoe and see how it is done.  That’s quite a compliment for a young man who sees a future in the ways of the past.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society - via Wikimedia Commons

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