It is 26 feet long, wears multicolored medallions on its front and back, and has a hole on its side. What is it? A birch bark canoe handmade in 1974 expressly for the Voyageurs National Park visitor center. The only problem is that the canoe never made it to the visitor center (though the Park Service did display it in its former headquarters building).
I don’t have all the story yet, but somehow the park’s first superintendent Myrl Brooks convinced National Geographic to pay for William Hafeman to build the canoe. Hafeman had a boat works in Bigfork, MN, and he used traditional Indian techniques in constructing the canoe. Birch bark for the skin, cedar for the ribs, sap mixed with ash to seal the canoe. The front and back are painted white with medallions in red, blue, and yellow on a black background.
Brooks was a little ahead of his time in wanting the canoe for the new park. He realized once Hafeman finished making the future display piece that the anticipated visitor center was still several years away. What to do? Brooks explored sending it to the Arch in St. Louis before the Koochiching County Museum in International Falls accepted the canoe under a long-term loan. The canoe eventually made its way to park headquarters and then in 1988 to the Rainy River Community College, also in the Falls.
The community college hung the canoe up just over people’s heads against a huge plate glass window. With time, the ties holding up the canoe shielded the areas under the ties from the sun which baked the rest of the canoe and washed out its natural color. Students maybe/probably took the canoe down at least once and tried it out on some nearby water source, evidenced by grass stuck on the canoe’s bottom, as found after a one-year inspection. Then a fight broke out in the community college’s hallway and an errant fist punched a hole in the canoe’s side.
The canoe now sits in archival storage in a specially made cradle by the park’s shop and maintenance staff. Another canoe, also made by Hafeman, takes pride of place in the Rainy River Visitor Center.
Why am I blogging about a canoe? This canoe tells us that the park, even before its official establishment in 1975 (it was authorized in 1971, but it took awhile to get key land from the state to make the park official), had a vision for its interpretation, to tell the voyageur story in a tangible lifelike way with a full-scale, traditionally made canoe. The canoe also tells us that the park wanted a big enough visitor center to display the canoe, but such a building would take lots of time and money not immediately available. And once the park had its showplace it had another canoe made to fit its central exhibit space.
There is more to learn, I am sure. I have the above information from the accession file for the 26-foot canoe, plus from talking with the park’s collections manager. How did Brooks and National Geographic end up working together in getting the canoe? Do the medallions have any special meaning? What did students think of the canoe hanging above their heads? Can you take this canoe a little further along the history trail?