Published May 27, 2012, 12:00 AM

VIDEO: Grand Forks teen builds birch bark canoe using traditional tools

For Talon Stammen of Grand Forks, building a canoe using materials he’d harvested with traditional tools was as much about the journey as the destination. He now has one of the few birch bark canoes to grace Lake of the Woods in the past century.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. — When a tribal elder on Lake of the Woods saw the birch bark canoe Talon Stammen was building, the native was quick with a quip.

“You know they make those in Fiberglas now,” the elder joked.

The point wasn’t lost on Stammen, 18, of Grand Forks, but building a canoe using materials he’d harvested with traditional tools was as much about the journey as the destination.

He now has one of the few birch bark canoes to grace Lake of the Woods in the past century.

“It’s kind of a craft of love,” said Stammen, whose family has an island cabin on this northernmost point of the Lower 48 on the Minnesota-Ontario border. “I spend the summers up here — and any free time that I have — in the forest and on the lake, and this is a way to connect with nature at a deeper level. It’s pretty amazing to be able to travel in a craft of your own creation, to catch fish in a birch bark canoe that you built yourself.”

Stammen obtained permission from the Anishinaabe tribal members to harvest birch bark for the hull on reservation lands. He also gathered black ash for the thwarts that extend across the width of the canoe and black spruce roots for lacing to lash the materials together.

The cedar, which he carved and formed to make the canoe’s 50 ribs, the gunnels and the sheathing that lines the interior, came from a huge tree that fell near the cabin.

All of the materials, he said, were harvested with respect for the earth, including the offering of tobacco to give something back to the land, in keeping with native tradition.

“It’s also important to recognize the spirit of the tree and that it’s providing you with a vital material,” Stammen said.

Enjoying the process

Stammen built his canoe with traditional tools — a Hudson Bay ax, a “crooked knife” to carve the thwarts and ribs and a deer shank awl to punch the holes in the bark to stitch the sheets of birch together and lash them to the gunnels.

Power tools and other modern conveniences were never an option, Stammen said.

“Maybe I’m more of a purist than I should be, but that destroys the spirit of it,” he said. “Traditional tools have been refined over such a long period of time, there’s almost no better way to do it.”

Stammen said the 14-foot canoe, which he completed last September, took him about two months to make.

“I didn’t build the canoe from 9 to 5 — I just worked on it when I felt like it,” he said.

His dad, Larry Stammen, said Talon, whose first name comes from a character in a Louis L’Amour novel named Jean Talon, “poured his heart and soul” into the project, often rising at dawn and working until sunset.

Jean Talon traveled west with dreams of building steamboats on the Missouri River, Larry said, but he and wife, Mary, didn’t pick Talon’s name knowing he would be a canoe builder.

“The juxtaposition of names was intentional; the dreams of building boats was not,” Larry said. “It is an interesting parallel, though.”

Talon did most of the work alone, Larry said, and neither heat nor rain got in the way.

“He couldn’t even be bothered to swat the mosquitoes and flies that bit him,” he said.

Despite that persistence, Talon said the project wasn’t a race.

“Building a canoe for me wasn’t really about the end product,” he said. “It was about the journey, it was about learning how to find materials that are suitable for building a canoe. It’s important to enjoy the process, and for me, the finished product is just an added benefit.”

Natural step

The road to that finished product started long before he decided to build the canoe, in the Grand Forks workshop of Stammen’s grandfather, Art Grabowski, 98. It’s there Stammen learned to work with wood, carving bowls, making furniture and snowshoes, and where grandfather and grandson still spend much of their time.

“He was my mentor and got me started doing things like this,” Stammen said.

Combine a love of woodworking with a passion for the outdoors, and it probably was inevitable that Stammen would build a birch bark canoe. Last summer, he took a class in birch bark canoe making at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn. The school specializes in teaching traditional crafts.

He also read “Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America” by Edwin Tappan Adney, a book he said is the only source of true historical information on traditional canoes.

“I really studied it,” Stammen said.

The effort paid off at North House Folk School. Erik Simula of Grand Marais, a master canoe builder who taught the birch bark canoe course, said he was especially impressed by Stammen’s interest in the traditional ways, both in terms of tools and native culture.

“I know it kind of bucks the societal trend for that age group today,” Simula, 47, said. “It’s really hard to study birch bark canoe building without a cultural context.

“He asked very important questions and he didn’t talk too much. He really concentrated and when it came time to learn something new, he would study, he would focus and he would try it. I really enjoyed working with him.”

Finding ‘The Tree’

Stammen said finding a birch tree with canoe-quality bark was the biggest challenge he encountered. There’s a significant difference between the “paper birch” that easily separates into layers and “canoe birch” with sturdier bark that doesn’t come apart. The Anishinaabe, he said, have several words in their native language to differentiate the types of bark, even though all come from the same white birch used in canoes.

“There are very few canoe-quality birch right on the road,” Stammen said. “You need to go deep into the woods. As soon as you see ‘The Tree,’ you just know it.”

Stammen also built his canoe outdoors. Unlike the more modern wood-and-canvas canoes, in which the hull is shaped around the frame, the material in a birch bark canoe is stitched together to form the hull and then lashed to the gunnels that give the top of the canoe its shape.

The frame, which consists of the thwarts, the ribs and cedar sheathing, then is built inside the canoe, and the ribs dictate the shape. Pitch from spruce trees is heated, mixed with charcoal and bear grease for added durability and spread over the seams to seal the hull.

“There’s a lot of lore behind the canoe,” Stammen said. “You just don’t lay out a sheet of bark and build a canoe.”

Stammen said he did more bailing than paddling the first time he tried the canoe last fall, but adding more pitch to the seams fixed the leaks. The canoe is patterned after an Algonquin style in Tappan Adney’s book that was made for carrying hunters and game.

The hull is flared with a narrow waterline, Stammen said, so it’s efficient and easy to paddle. It weighs less than 50 pounds.

“A birch bark canoe is hard to describe — it becomes part of you,” Stammen said. “It’s a joy to paddle, even more so than any other canoe I’ve paddled. It’s pretty satisfying to spend all that effort and time creating something like this and then getting in and being able to paddle to a distant shore.

“This summer, I plan to paddle everywhere I go.”

Stammen, who graduates today from Red River High School, plans to attend UND in the fall and eventually study medicine.

He also plans to build more birch bark canoes.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “I would love nothing more than to at least have people appreciate it, if not build one themselves.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to