An Outdoorsman's Dream

improvise and enjoy the view

Cured Fiberglass, Vibrant Wood

I snapped a few photos of the canoe this morning, a little over 12 hours after laying down the fiberglass. In short, I’m ecstatic about the result. No bubbles, full contact, full wet out, and a nice, matte finish are the pillars of successful glassing, and we’ve got a nice showing of each. Up next I’ll give the glass a light sanding. Once that’s done, I’ll roll on a thin filler coat and sand that, at which point it will be time to take her off the strongback. It’s now a race against time as fall comes barreling into Minnesota in full force. However, if I can get the entire boat glassed by the first week of October, there will still be hope for getting it in the water this year.

Timelapse of the Canoe Fiberglass Process

Another milestone in my first build bites the dust as we laid down the fiberglass on the hull. I’m using 60″ wide e-glass and have a 3 gallon thin, 3:1, medium pot life epoxy resin kit. My only other fiberglass experience stems from a surfboard build I completed over ten years ago, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that this stuff was pretty easy to work with on this larger scale. We simply rolled the cloth out over the sanded sealer coat, poured a pot of resin near the 4 / 5 station mark where the hull is flat, and spread it down and a towards the bow. Once the cloth was wet out from the center line to the shear line and about 1 foot from the point, we cut a slit in the cloth and wrapped it over the bow. We repeated the process on the stern, ultimately deciding to do it in two segments since we were uncertain as to how long it would take, or exactly how long the pot life would be. It was a sunny fall afternoon and we were working at about 55 degrees. Realistically, we probably had an hour or more to work with the resin at that temp, but it can’t help to work fast and stay ahead of the cure.

Interestingly, between the sealer coat, the bow and stern reinforcement patches, and the first full length layer of glass, we have only used about 2/3 gallon of resin so far, if not a hair less. I was expecting the process to utilize a whole lot more, but at this point we’re pacing the glass the entire canoe with about 1.5 gallons of epoxy.

Here’s a timelapse of the canoe fiberglass process:

Sealer Coat and Bow / Stern Reinforcements

After sanding the entire hull with 80 grit paper on random orbital sanders and filling in all major gaps with an epoxy / sawdust mixture, we applied the filler coat. It rolled on easily and gave us our first glimpse of the wood as it should it look, and Caity followed me with a squeegee removing excess resin. We also decided to add bow and stern reinforcement patches during this phase. It was tough to get the e-glass to lay flat over the pronounced bow and stern curves, but we eventually got it down. This week’s weather brought our first stretch of chilly temps. With evening lows in the high 30s and low 40s, it took the sealer coat and bow / stern reinforcements almost 36 hours to set enough to sand. Part of this may have been a mixing error, too. Hard to tell. Either way, once the resin was close to fully cured, I scratched up the sealer coat and gave the reinforcement patches a light sanding, both in preparation for the main glassing event.

Sanding Cedar

Caity and I blocked off an evening to batter the canoe with the first round of sandpaper. Between our random orbital sander, another borrowed from a kind neighbor, and a stack of 80-grit sandpaper discs, we made sanding a cedar strip canoe look easy, working off the rough strips and hard glue in about two hours. We hefted the monstrous strongback into the yard, and spent the evening crawling around the canoe on hands and knees, fending off sawdust with swimming goggles and dust masks. Aside from the stems, no strip was spared. When we were done, the wood looked impressive. Any offset strips were flush, globules of glue had vanished, and the wood looked and smelled alive. Browns lightened, reds turned to a fresh pink, and grain patterns started to pop. Now I need to find some motivation to work on the stems, fill in all remaining gaps, and move on to the sealer coat. The current goal is to glass the exterior of the hull the weekend of September 13. Pacing behind at the moment, but am trying not to rush.

Building Community Through Project-Based Work

An added and largely unexpected benefit of this canoe build has been its tendency to draw in friends, neighbors, and strangers. Every time the garage door is up, the work light is casting its warm glow, and the sander is whirring or the stapler is shouting, someone inevitably pops their head in to see what’s going on. Friends and family from near and far have called, visited, or emailed to see how it’s coming. Certain neighbors make a visit, without fail, each time I’m working, searching for an update. And utter strangers, just passing through our alley, have stopped to say hello and stoop over the strongback. Invariably, each group asks the same string of questions:

 

How long have you been working on this?

Why did you decide to do this?

Will you get it in the water this year?

Tell me about the process to make a canoe.

What’s the next step?

Is it expensive?

 

Followed by a similar line of commentary:

 

This is impressive.

It’s going to be beautiful.

I could never do something like this.

I’m hardly patient enough for a project of this magnitude.

I wish I could do this, but I’ll never find the time.

 

I’m continually struck by a few different thoughts. Primarily, that everyone is curious. There’s not enough “hands on” creative work in the modern age, and that rings especially true for my peers (I’m twenty six years young) and generations younger. These groups harbor the idea that they simply don’t have the skills or the mindset to do it at all, while our neighbors, who tend to be a little older, air on the side of awe, and a respect for the craftsmanship of it. Curiosity resounds loudly for both, but manifests itself in different ways. Regardless of the differences in approach, a project like this strikes a chord with everyone, from naive children to old fogies. Everyone wants to learn about the process, to touch it, smell it, and stare at the lines. I think this might stem from an innate principle of self-sufficiency. In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been all that long since a canoe was one of the only ways around this entire country, particularly our home state of Minnesota, and the only way to get one was to make one. Hell, the first cars as we know them today have barely been around a Century, while wooden vessels have been around since the dawn of man. This kind of craft is “in our blood,” and I think that sparks a very genuine, very unique sense of curiosity. We can channel that unique curiosity to teach great concepts, and some groups are already doing that. Urban Boatbuilders in St. Paul is a prime example. By leveraging the curiosity sparked by a semi-ancient craft, they’re teaching skills that I suspect will genuinely stick with young, distracted minds. We need more of this, and a on a grand scale.

This personal project is a manifestation of what building community through project-based work can look like. I have gotten to know my neighbors better through an open door policy, and by simply being outside, working often. I have been excited to share the project with friends, showing some how to lay strips, or just by talking it through and describing the different steps with others. Personally, I’ve learned all of this, plus a few new woodworking skills and surely some lessons in patience. Let’s see what else we can get out of this…I still need to sand, fill, glass, outfit, and maybe throw a christening party.

Minnesota Forest Roads

This Labor Day, Caity and I decided we wanted to do some exploring. We’re coming up on two years in Minnesota and had the shared realization that we didn’t truly know what the Northeastern quadrant of the state has to offer. The State Parks on the shores of Lake Superior are tried and true. Plus, they were all booked up months ago for this final weekend before school starts. I recently bought a detailed recreational atlas of Minnesota, and the possibilities appeared to be endless. Unimproved roads, public lands, rustic campgrounds, designated trout streams, and non-motorized trails speckled each page. It looked like a playground, and all we had to do was drive North up the shore, then turn left, inland.  I was imagining winding forest roads through rolling hills of dense, green forests, rivers rambling through willow thickets, rugged hikes, no cell service, and an abundance of wildlife. Aside from the wildlife, of which we saw almost none, that’s exactly what we got.

We left Minneapolis early on Saturday morning. Skies were overcast, but our spirits were high. It felt good to be getting out of town, and to be getting into new territory. Halfway up to Duluth, the low flying, fall-like clouds that were zipping across the lower atmosphere began to break, granting us glimpses of sunshine. When we crested the little mountain that drops into Duluth, the Big Lake sprawled before us, and several ore ships were at anchor off the coast. It seemed like a rare treat to see the lake from the hill, but skies were once again gray, and a cold mist had settled on the city. The paper mill in the heart of town was working through Saturday, and its bland exhaust melded with the dusty sky. The day felt gray, and our moods started to turn with it. We pulled off Scenic 61 just North of town to let the dogs have a swim while we skipped some stones. The air was still, another seemingly rare occurrence. Superior was almost glass. A good number of fishing boats dotted the horizon, no doubt dropping lead and lure in search of lake trout. The mere thought had our mouths watering, so we pulled off at Russ Kendall’s and picked up a pound of sugar cured smoked lake trout and a sleeve of ritz crackers. Without it, we may not have made it all the way up the coast.

Grand Marais was jammed up like I haven’t seen it before. Minivans and pickup trucks, noticeably bogged down by tents, beers, and marshmallows, lined the streets. Every shop and every restaurant was filled with families. One last hurrah before the school year starts. We strolled through town with our labs, and it felt oddly as if we were walking through a fishing village on the coast of Oregon. We hadn’t even left the highway, but already felt far from home. After a break for some delicious fried fish baskets and an afternoon beer at the Dockside Fish Market, we hit the road for what we came for: dirt roads. At the north end of Grand Marais, we hooked a left onto the Gunflint Trail and immediately left the riff-raff behind. Save for a couple of cars loaded with canoes, bound for the Boundary Waters, we were the only souls out. I would have liked to roll down the Gunflint until it ends, far north and on the verge of Canadian land. Maybe next time. After we climbed the ridge of the Sawtooth Mountains, we veered left onto County Road 8, which eventually fed into Devil Track Road. For a time, I wasn’t sure we had gone far enough inland. Would the pavement end? It did, thankfully. Near the end of finger-like Devil Track Lake, we passed the Devil Track Lake Campground, which is where tar turned to gravel.

Simultaneously, cell service vanished and our world suddenly shrank to the size of our navy blue 4Runner. Our thinking was to camp at the Cascade River Campground, the fist of many rustic campgrounds we would encounter. After a few wrong turns while getting the feel for the map, we found the campground. It was no more than three sites, each with a picnic table and fire ring. Not a lot of privacy, so we moved on. Up forest service road 58, then a left onto 170, which had us traveling West. This was a true Minnesota Forest Road. Wide and level, it found its way through stands of pine so thick that we couldn’t see more than a few yards in. To think, sometime a few decades ago, a renegade band of conservation corps dudes braved heat, cold, and plagues of biting insects to lay this weathered track. I thanked them silently as we kicked up a cloud of dust. Our next stop was the Crescent Lake Campground, maybe 15 or 20 miles further West on 170. We passed a succession of lakes. Judging by their sizes and shapes, we placed them on the map and they guided us like mile markers. Cascade Lake, Little Cascade Lake, Lake Gust, Lichen Lake, Boulder Lake, Midget Lake, Petit Lake, and then Crescent Lake and its campground. There were plenty of open sites, so we took a quick trip further down 170 to check out the Baker Lake Campground. It was small and full, so we turned around, checked off Baker, Nelson, and Moore lakes, then pulled in to campsite #18 at Crescent Lake.

A flight of wooden stairs lead us to the tent pad and fire ring, and another set of slick steps brought us down to our own private point on Crescent Lake. The air was damp and cold and we were losing daylight fast. We made camp quickly, strung our hammocks up on the point, and enjoyed some thick red wine in utter silence. That was easily the most striking part about Crescent Lake. The silence was deeply, truly penetrating. When we climbed back up to the site to make dinner a short while later, we paused at the top to listen. The only sound was blood pulsating in our ears, and the ever-so-gentle sound of leaves rustling against each other. When night fell and the fire eventually died, the darkness was equally as penetrating as the silence. Together, they created a type of fear. We slept restlessly, eyes and ears on full alert, tricking us into believing that any sound was an unwanted creature. This is the result of life in a city, full of connections. It was full blown, natural fear that was refreshing in many ways. At one point in the middle of the night, Caity shook me awake. “I hear wolves!” she proclaimed through a whisper. Not knowing what she meant, I shot upright, senses on full alert, straining to hear something foreign. What I did hear was not wolves, but instead a full on orchestra of Loons, calling to each other from across what sounded like many lakes and many miles. First a close one, probably just down the hill from our tent, followed quickly by a return call further away, then another further still. So far, and in such orderly fashion, that I thought maybe it was nothing more than than the echo of one loon. Only an occasional variation in the distant calls, sometimes a lone, wolf-like sob, or a closer, frantic call in territorial defense, would let me know that we were indeed hearing many different loons.

After a slow, stunning sunrise, we swam for a shower, then broke camp and hit the road. A few miles West of Cascade Lake, 170 veered Southwest, paralleling Lake Superior about 25 miles inland. We crossed the Temperance River on multiple occasions, did some off-roading for shits and giggles, and checked out a few more rustic campgrounds. First at Toohey Lake, then Four Mile Lake, followed by Harriet Lake and Hogback Lake. We settled on Harriet Lake for our second night. Once cleared by fire and then again by an 1800s homesteader for farmland, the scene was quite a bit different than our first night. The once-farmland had turned to a swathe of prairie in the middle of a sprawling sea of conifers. Our site was spacious and came with a spectacular view of Harriet Lake, plus a portage trail to shore. Oh, how I wish my cedar strip canoe was complete! The lake was small, a real gem. Hugged by hills on all sides, the blue waters whipped every which way as the wind couldn’t make up its mind. Even at the tail end of August, the deciduous trees had a clear tinge of yellow. As always, Labor Day was the gateway to Autumn, and we felt ready. After setting up camp and preparing firewood, we drove a few miles down to Hogback Lake where we hiked a sizable loop with the dogs. Easily the most enjoyable hike I have done in Minnesota. The semi-maintained trails zig and zag on ridges between 5 shallow trout lakes. The hills made us work, and we were excited to see bear sign, though no actual black bears.

By the time we made it back to our little slice of heaven at Harriet Lake, we could tell it was going to rain overnight. So, we enjoyed the evening while we could. A picture-perfect bonfire overlooking the lake during dinner was a treat. Later, a lightening storm moved in from the Northeast, while the moon rose to the east and Northern stars and satellites played overhead, even if briefly. Shortly after midnight, the skies opened and it rained incessantly. It fell so hard that by first light the dogs were sleeping in puddles in the tent, and we were soaked to the core. At 5:45, we hastily broke camp in a dark, spitting rain while being devoured by mosquitoes, and began the journey home. 170 had turned to 172, which ended in the town of Isabella. From there, we drove Southeast to Finland, and then down the long hill to Highway 61. By late morning, we were back in Minneapolis under perfectly blue skies, airing out the sleeping bags and feeling like we had succeeded in our journey.

 

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