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LAURENTIAN SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE – Building Birch Bark Canoes the Old-Fashioned Way!

By Robert Einboden

LAL is the acronym for Laurentian Architecture Laurentienne, the dream and vision of a world class architect. While “engineers” may have one way to solve structural problems, “architects” have four in each pocket. Architects are the artists, the dreamers and visionaries who give concrete and living expression to the shapes and forms around us. Thus the mission and the need for Laurentian University’s School of Architecture in downtown Sudbury.

Good stuff happens there! Join me for a day in class to see what they are up to.

As three professors and 32 students drifted in to the open workshop space, a sense of good feeling and shared goals filled the room. Class started with “Circle Talk” where each person present spoke a sentence or two of their participation so far and their expectations for the current day. It was obvious from the beginning that there were no slackers in the group. Hardly anyone ever misses classes in this course. Each was keen to contribute and to learn. And how could it be any other way? Together they were building a birch bark canoe, learning the steps, doing the work, putting it together, tying the spruce knots, fitting the pieces and tapping in the wooden pegs!

This was an end-of-day photo. Photos were mostly impossible with everyone crowding around each step of the process. This day (their Day 13) they installed the cross thwarts and almost all of the midsection gunwale spruce root ties - visible in the photo.

There is method to the madness. These are the world’s future designers and they are learning how things go together. And coincidentally, birch bark canoes are technically complex and interesting. There is nothing “backwoods” about their construction. Modern synthetic canoes build a solid form and apply finishing materials to the inside and the outside. But the old birch bark method inserts the solid parts (ribs, planks, thwarts, gunwales) inside the flow of the natural bark foundation according to its dictates. The concept is completely reversed. Thus the learning involved and the opportunity to grasp another “architectural” or “structural” method. It is almost otherworldly from our modernistic point of view. But the results are exquisite and at the same time uniquely functional and adaptable.

While everyone had smart phones, there was lots of chatter and groups easily formed and disbanded, chatting, sketching, checking details, writing. They were learning how to slow down, look and see, grasp the shapes and relationships, hammer-twist-cut-push-and-pull, then visually record the steps with pencil and paper. Certainly, a photo record was part of the process, but the pencil drawings were a course requirement, forcing the mind to think out the spatial relations and work out the physical steps.

Manually sketching the steps with pencil and paper! Here is a sample of student notes and drawings. This page shows how to figure out how many cedar slats will be needed by laying them out loosely crosswise from end to end atop the form of the new canoe. And then how to split cedar, by tying it first then splitting it equally multiple times into 16 fingers, to create a flexible but solid end piece.

There is lots of character in the canoe that they were putting together - all the spruce ties looked a little different from all the others - each tie was a first attempt of each different participant! Rarely did any one student get to tie two or three - everyone got a piece of the action whenever possible.

Thirty-two students were getting ready to install 32 ribs. Everyone was busy with something. Some were watching over the steaming water bath that was soaking the ribs and more roots. A typical canoe needs 500 feet of spruce roots. Others were trying to figure out how to shape and cut the ribs. A pail full of spruce gum clumps was waiting for another day.

The three professors leading the experience were uniquely different too. One was super enthusiastic in teaching and demonstrating the procedures, another was laid back and thoughtfully able to teach, discuss and organize, while the third was the key resource for the “old” ways, having already built a number of these canoes. Each one clearly enjoyed collaborating in the work. Indeed they were a little embarrassed that they were actually “getting paid to have this much fun!” Two of the professors have a vested interest in not letting any defects pass undetected - they are planning to take this actual canoe on a trip next summer. No missing pegs or improperly tied knots allowed! A broken spruce root? No problem! There was an adept spruce root splicer on hand to help you out! Lead by this able trio, everywhere in the room conversation and participation flowed easily between languages, genders and cultures.

The Mattawa connection? One of the professors lives in Papineau-Cameron. And, for Mattawa students: Architecture anyone!? LAL, and Sudbury, awaits you! Terry Galvin is that founding director and visionary leader of what happens on this campus. He dropped in during the day and mingled with the crowd to see how things were going. If you are interested in learning more, google the school to see some of the history and current projects. He is an encouraging presence and a willing listener ever available to lend a hand.

A most enchanting day! It all ended much too soon.