85-year-old restores birch bark canoe

July 24, 2012 4:00:14 PM PDT
Before there were roads and highways in North America, the American Indians travelled on rivers in their birch bark canoes.

Ralph Frese, 85, owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base on Chicago's Northwest Side, is working in conjunction with a museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, to restore an old birch bark canoe.

"This canoe is probably from the late 1800's in Wisconsin? by a Wisconsin Indian," said Frese.

Using photos of canoes taken 75 years ago that are almost identical to the one he's working on now, Frese hopes to restore the old canoe back to its original condition.

"The same identical materials... That's the important thing. To restore it to museum quality," Frese said.

Frese and museum workers plan to head into the woods and strip off the birch bark, which Frese says is the perfect material for the canoe.

"It's waterproof. This is why bark canoes are not white like the birch tree. They turn the bark inside out and the yellowish inside is oily and waterproof," said Frese.

Although the bark is sewn together, water does not leak through the holes that are made by the stitching.

"They take a little resin and gum from pine trees and they mix it with a little bear grease or similar fat and it's slightly flexible and they smear it over the holes and it's water tight," said Frese.

The birch bark canoe that Frese is working is more than 100 years old, but many birch bark canoes are older.

"No one really knows but it's got to go back a thousand years. Man's ingenuity is capable of figuring out how to make something that floats."


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