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Time stands still at Old Wadena

Ray Boessel, Jr., shares details of his process in shaping the wood needed to form his traditional birch bark canoes Sunday, Aug. 12 at the Old Wadena Redezvous. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal1 / 4
Artists create 2-foot square barn quilts as a part of the chautauqua at the Old Wadena Rendezvous Saturday and Sunday at Old Wadena County Park. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal2 / 4
Ray Boessel, Jr., of Hafeman Boat Works, works a knife down the center of a piece of white cedar Sunday, Aug. 12 at the Old Wadena Rendezvous. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal3 / 4
Ray Boessel, Jr., hammers a blade into a slab of white cedar Sunday at the Old Wadena Redezvous in the Old Wadena County Park. Boessel has been building custom canoes since 1981. Michael Johnson?pioneer Journal4 / 4

Lessons have been learned for centuries at a site tucked along the Crow Wing River north of Staples known as Old Wadena.

Possibly more lessons were learned than ever before during this year's Old Wadena Rendezvous, which featured Chautauqua workshops. A Chautauqua is any of various traveling shows and local assemblies that flourished in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that provided popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, and plays, and that were modeled after activities at the Chautauqua Institution of western New York.

Between the mouths of the Leaf and the Partridge Rivers, in 1783, the fur traders built the Crow Wing's first trading post on the at this site. At that time, it's likely you'd have seen a variety of canoes leaving lines in the water along those banks.

The same was true last weekend at the annual event as canoe builders were on site with their water craft, explaining their construction. Along with them were, flute players, puppet makers, painters, fur traders and other artisans ready to share their traditional arts.

That included canoe builder and story teller Ray Boessel, Jr., of Hafeman Boat Works in Big Fork. Sitting on a deer skin under a large canvas Boessel, dressed in period clothing, shared how he learned the craft of building birch bark canoes from his wife's grandfather in the 1980s. He's since built over 380 canoes.

Crowds started to gather as Boessel grabbed a 4 and 1-half foot piece of white cedar and began cutting the wood down the center, first putting a thick metal knife in the center and pounding it in with a wooden mallet. He then worked a butcher knife into the top of the heart wood, then slowly pulled the wood apart by hand. The handiwork yielded smooth strips of cedar just the right size to form the interior of the canoe that served as a support for the birch bark.

While the outer side of the birch bark is waterproof, it's the inner portion that faces out on the canoe so that the canoe can soak up water and keep it from drying out. A dry canoe is one that breaks easily if run into a rock. While the bark soaks up the water it does not pass through the inner layer, which keeps the inside of canoe dry.

Boessel explained how the birch bark had to be sewn together using spruce roots then covered with a mixture that contained pine pitch and bear grease. The bear grease helped keep the sealant flexible in the cold winter months.

Boessel explained his process of gathering bear grease, which included inserting a grease spigot into the tail of a bear cub still fast asleep in the den. Of course, Boessel had a bear hide on hand with the spigot still attached to show those doubting spectators. That particular bear had a spigot that was too large, which led the bear to lose too much grease and freeze over the winter, he said. The story left some laughing as they continued on through the various encampments scattered throughout the county park.

"You've got to prove everything, people are skeptics," he said. "You can believe every word I say. Everyone is as true as the one before it."

Some lessons learned were more helpful than others.

As Boessel continued to share with others, the sound of wooden flutes, fiddles and the up and down movement of the water pump could be heard loud and clear throughout the site. The smell of fry bread and fresh air was inviting. Closing your eyes to the cars parked near the road, it was not hard at all to slip back into a simpler time in Minnesota's history.

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