There is No Road

There is no road to where I’m going.

I park my truck in a small unmarked pull-out off a county road in Northern Wisconsin. There is absolutely nothing that makes this stretch of road stand out. It’s no different than the miles and miles of every other road in the area. No hint that anything special is just a short hike away.

As there is no driveway, I grab my camera bag and make my way down the well-trodden footpath through the forest in the shade of leafy green trees. It’s hot. Muggy. Still. Mosquitoes make an occasional pass around my ears and a few make an ill-fated decision to land on my arm. It’s July in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and one could argue this is as in the middle of July and the Wisconsin Northwoods as you can get.

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Continuing along the path, hints of a log cabin begin to appear through the openings in the trees. Walking up, a comfortable front porch is facing you with a large overhang and a small cast iron stove sitting in the open air that says “FERD” in a barely discernible arch of all bold capital letters. An axe has been carefully set upon the weathered floorboards, a straw broom leans to the right of the doorway, and an assortment of fire-blackened pans hang on the cedar logs that make up the walls of the cabin. The bark is still on the logs and moss has been packed tightly between them as chinking.

Walking this footpath is like time travel. The scene that appears as you enter the small clearing isn’t from another place- but it is from another time. Not far away as the crow flies, someone is likely sitting in a multi-million-dollar estate along a lake watching a large screen digital TV streaming Netflix. That this place exists here at all creates an introspective dichotomy of life. For myself at least, there is a joy just in walking up to it.

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The cabin isn’t plumb level anymore. A father and son project constructed from logs harvested off the 40 acres it sits on, it’s had 40 years to settle onto the land like a comfortable old chair. It’s welcoming and charming. It makes you wish for quiet and crisp early fall mornings with a cup of steaming and fragrant coffee joining you on the wooden porch. Or conversation on cold rainy days with the rhythm of the water splashing off the metal roof and the crackling melody of a flickering dry-wood fire in the wood stove.

But today a deer fly makes a hot whizzing noise as it circles around the back of my sweaty neck.

Nearby, in the canoe shed, Ferdy Goode is at work. The canoe shed is a structure made up of natural logs and mosquito netting. The door is nothing more than a hunk of canvas that has been replaced as necessary. “Every once in a while, a bear comes right through the door and goes out the far side”, Ferdy would later explain. The roof is an assortment of materials. In some area’s large sheets of birchbark provide protection, in others weathered wooden boards, and in a large section on the south side a blue tarp creates a sort of sunroof. It keeps the rain out but lets a blue-filtered light into the structure. There is no electricity here, nothing to “turn on” for lighting- so the comforting and necessary blue-filtered light becomes a part of your memory of the place.

In the center, sitting on a bed of sand, rests a birchbark canoe in progress. There are cedar shavings from this, and years of other canoes strewn all around the dirt floor of the shed. A white plastic five-gallon bucket of water, a simple chair and table, canoe forms of various sizes hanging from the ceiling, already formed canoe ribs in neat stacks in two places, and cedar of various lengths and sizes on sets of crude racks along the wall make up the interior. Ferdy is sitting in the chair in front of the table carving a piece of cedar sheathing with a gleaming sharp left-handed crooked knife. Despite the mosquitoes that have found their way past the crude defenses, Ferdy has his shirt off to deal with the heat.

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The scent of cedar permeates the place as strongly as memories of apple pie baking in your Grandmother’s kitchen.

Satisfied with his work, Ferdy walks up to the bucket, places as much of the sheathing as will fit into the water and then- with his cupped hand- begins to scoop the water gently over the rest of the piece. The sound gurgles and swishes through the heat and the small structure. Then he takes the piece over to the canoe, kneels, and ever-so-carefully slides it under the temporary ribs and into place. As the piece of extremely thin hand-carved and just-wetted cedar slides across the last one placed it creates a pleasant squeak-rub sound. Ferdy slides it this way, then that- and then takes a long second satisfied look before lightly setting a brick to hold it in place and standing up to retrieve the next piece needing carving. This cycle repeats during the length of my visit.

“I used to use rocks to hold down the sheathing but one day I tried these bricks left over from making the chimney for the cabin,” he explains simply. “When I first started, I didn’t have anybody to show me these things. Now they seem like common sense but it took me a while to figure it all out.”

My thoughts drift back to a morning a month before when Ferdy had come over to my place to help me harvest the bark off the largest birch tree on our small property. It was a very large birch at the apex of its life, straight and branchless for some 13 feet or so- rare and just what’s needed for a canoe. There’s a short window of time in the spring where you can successfully harvest the bark from a birch tree. Try it when there isn’t an abundance of sap flowing and you will be unable to cleanly peel the bark from the tree. And a dead tree is useless for a canoe as you cannot pull the bark in one piece. Building a birchbark canoe requires some sacrifices.

Ferdy had carefully tested a small piece of bark to see if it would come off the tree cleanly before we attempted to remove the large section that would mean the tree would be unlikely to survive. Then with the help of a ladder, a simple knife, some clamps, and a few custom tools Ferdy had created over the years- we cleanly pulled a large section of bark surprisingly quickly. We carefully rolled it and set it aside for when we’d need it.

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And then we finished with a simple ceremony. Though neither of us are Native American, in respect for the process Ferdy said a few words in Ojibwa that I could not understand. But I could understand that they came forth like music spilling between the trees and floating across the forest floor like invisible smoke. As we stood next to the tree we had just harvested the sheet of bark from he explained, “There is a difference between taking things from the forest and asking for them. And it’s important to give thanks for what you have been provided.”

Spend enough time with Ferdy and you begin to realize that the beauty in the canoes comes from the respect and beauty of the process.

Sitting on the sandy floor of the canoe shed this morning is birchbark canoe number 78. He has built 77 other canoes that are scattered all around the country in the possession of lucky owners. This 17-foot canoe is made from a sheet of bark harvested from a special and hard-to-find tree a decade ago, has birds eye maple thwarts, and stunning and beautiful lines. Even unfinished, one can see it’s a masterpiece. And it’s not for sale, it was already spoken for before construction even started. These days all of his canoes are.

An ordinary visitor would be struck with the amount of work and patience on display with the construction of this canoe. For someone like myself, who has been fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time with Ferdy harvesting and splitting cedar with an axe and wedges, making crooked knives, gathering spruce root, and harvesting bark- I realize that this is his symphony. This is the culmination of the work. Behind this display are countless forest hours of slow, tedious, and careful hand work organizing the notes of today’s “music”. I find a seat on the corner upright log that serves as the cutting table to sit back and watch. Somehow, I’ve been lucky enough to get a ticket to the show.

As he moves from one end of the shed to the other, Ferdy ducks under the center beam. “When I built this place, I could walk from one side to the other without ducking. Now I have to watch my head. Over 40 years it has gotten lower!”, he explains with a smile and a bit of a bemused look on his face. It seems that, like the cabin, the canoe shed has settled into place too.

I can’t help but think that while it may be awkward for him, anybody that loves canoes and understands where they are should be bowing on the way in anyway. Much like when I visited Aldo Leopold’s shack, despite its simplicity the place has the feel of significance and authenticity. This is a place where someone reached mastery of something exceedingly difficult.

After a long pause in our conversation in which he continues to work Ferdy confesses, “It’s lonely work at times, sometimes I talk to the canoes”. He chuckles. I try, with little success, to imagine how many days he’s spent in this place alone with spruce root, birchbark, cedar, and sharpened steel. Guided by the wisdom that only uncounted hours of experience can bring.

As he kneels down on an old carpet square covering the sand bed and begins to fit another piece of sheathing Ferdy shares, “There’s not many left making bark canoes anymore. And many of those that do have moved to building on a table to eliminate all the kneeling. Some now use power tools and planers. You could run all the ribs through a DeWalt planer. Imagine every rib perfect…” His eyes seem distant and his voice trails off.

He makes his way back to the chair and table with another piece of sheathing, picks up his crooked knife, and finally says as he begins to carve, “There’s something satisfying to me doing it by hand the old way.” As he speaks, his crooked knife flashes in the dim light and chips of cedar fall off the piece to join the thousands upon thousands already on the ground from decades of work. Eventually his thoughts on the subject seem to join the shavings.

As I’m leaving, he declares, “I don’t know how many canoes I have left in me.” There’s a short pause and then he adds, “It’s a lot of work.” I nod my head in agreement to the amount of work. But still, I’m thinking and hoping the answer to how many he has left has to always be “one more”.

Walking out, with the sound of a passenger jet moving across the high blue sky, it occurs to me that the magic of this place isn’t just about birchbark canoes and leaning moss-chinked cabins. In a world of almost instant everything, here is a place where someone has chosen a different path. Not because it is difficult, but in spite of it being difficult. In a world filled with people who can’t figure out what they want to do or where they want to be- like his cabin and canoe shed- Ferdy has enjoyed 40 some years of quietly and comfortably settling into the land too.

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