Support the Timberjay by making a donation.

Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ojibwe birch bark canoe hits the water

Keith Vandervort
Posted 8/10/22

ELY – The “Burntside,” a 20-foot traditional Ojibwe –style canoe, hit the water for the first time off Semer’s Park last Sunday, the culmination of three summers of …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Ojibwe birch bark canoe hits the water


ELY – The “Burntside,” a 20-foot traditional Ojibwe –style canoe, hit the water for the first time off Semer’s Park last Sunday, the culmination of three summers of dedicated work for the Ely Folk School’s (EFS) birch bark canoe project.
Master birch bark canoe builder Erik Simula, a Finnish-American outdoor educator, has overseen the project the previous three summers. Because of COVID-19 the canoe was stored in the EFS garage for more than a year.
“We worked hard on this project and this canoe is finally seeing its day to greet the water,” he said to a small group of volunteers and onlookers Sunday afternoon before the maiden voyage.
“Our goal this year was to complete and paddle our 20-foot canoe at the conclusion of this fourth year of construction,” he said. “It has been a long time coming but this is such an honor to see this through.”
The first class of 2022 was held in early June and work began in earnest to finish the project, offering participants handcrafting skills and more as they learned, in traditional detail, the many aspects of creating a remarkable watercraft. The canoe project classes met outside on the lawn by the Folk School, at 209 E Sheridan St., each Sunday, weather permitting. Community members and visitors were encouraged to stop by and watch and ask questions while the class was working on the canoe.
Simula noted that a good portion of the canoe was completed back in 2019 before the project was halted in 2020 and resumed last year.
“We had some lashing to do on the ends and we needed to add a few more ribs and some other work on the gunwales,” he said. “Learning the process of building a birch bark canoe gives people today an understanding of the history, culture, art and craft that is embedded in the canoe.”
Simula said the new watercraft was given the name “Burntside” after the popular Ely-area lake and because of the ancient paddling tradition connected with the body of water.
The watercraft is on display in the EFS building. Nearly a dozen volunteers gathered Sunday to carefully transport the canoe to Semer’s Park. Simula instructed them on how to lift and carry the canoe so as not to damage it. They lifted it onto Simula’s mini-van for the trip to the water. EFS board member Paul Schurke wondered if a 20-foot birch bark canoe was ever transported on the top of a “soccer mom van” before.
The watercraft was transported safely to the shore of Shagawa Lake. Before hitting the water, Simula fired up his camping stove and heated a can of pine pitch while crew members carefully inspected the hull for any cracks or holes that may have developed in transport.
“There is a tremendous amount of flex in the hull, and we want to make sure the canoe is as water tight as possible,” Simula said. “There will always be a small amount of water that will seep in through these natural materials.”
The crew walked the canoe into the water and worked on partially submerging it to wet down all of the components, inside and out.
The first crew of seven donned life jackets and grabbed hand-crafted traditional paddles, launched from the shore and embarked on a short excursion to the sound of applause and cheering as a light sprinkle of rain fell from the sky.
Perhaps another birch bark canoe project will be in the works. Students completed a smaller 13-foot Ojibwe-style canoe under Simula’s guidance during his first summer at the EFS in 2017.
Simula is also the executive director of the Minnesota Canoe Museum here in Ely, and continues to promote its growth and exposure. With extensive teaching experience at Voyageur Outward Bound School, Minnesota North College- Vermilion Campus, and the North House Folk School, Simula said he enjoys giving back to the community.
He lives in Finland, Minn., and spent most of his 50-something years in the northeast part of the state. “Canoeing has always been a big part of my life,” he said. “This community has great people and I’m glad to be a part of it. Ely has always been a special place for me.”
For more information, go to


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here