By Daniel Boessel
Buzz buzz. The phone rings in my pocket. I pull it out and chuckle at the fact that even a month away from turning thirty, I still have my parents’ number saved as “Home” in my phone. “Yeah,” I answer as I always do. “What’s up?”
“Hey, Danny,” my dad says as he always does. “Just checking in. Haven’t heard from you in a while.” My phone conversations with my parents, especially my dad, are usually pretty stock. We normally fill each other in on what little we have to talk about and then let each other get back to what we were doing. This time I decide to ask about the family business.
“You got many canoe orders coming in for this summer, if it ever gets here?” I ask.
“Nope. I’ve got one that’s going to a guy in Canada, but he won’t be here to pick it up until June some time.”
My dad has been building and selling birch bark canoes worldwide from his workshop outside the small town of Bigfork, Minnesota, since before I was born. He learned from my mom’s grandfather, who—through trial and error and a few old photos he saw—taught himself so he’d have a way to get to town and back. He always used to say that you wouldn’t want to get all dressed up to go to town and then walk seven miles on muddy wagon trails. So canoes have always been a part of my life.
“Do you have any more publicity coming your way yet?” I ask, because he never seems to think or even worry about that side of business.
“Well, I’ll be going to Pierse and Isle again this summer,” Dad says. Those are living history events that hire him to come and do canoe demonstrations for one day every year where he talks about the French-American Fur Trade, how voyageurs used the canoes, and how they were built back in 1798. They are nice events, but a far cry from all the ones he used to do with sport and travel shows.
“Why won’t you let me and Jesse just build you a website, Dad? It could help bring in some extra money for you and Mom.” I ask this almost rhetorically at this point because I already know the answer will be the same as it has been every time before.
“Well, I have tried that before, and nothing ever came of it. I even tried eBay, and that didn’t work out either. We have always gotten most of our best business through word of mouth.” Which is true, but only because word of mouth is the only thing he has ever really used.
There have been a few times where a TV crew from the Twin
He did thirty-eight weeks of work in twelve weeks. That, my friends, is what we call the Boessel work ethic.
Cities came up and did a special interest piece on him, and every time the networks rerun those shows, he gets a few phone calls. But they rarely have much of a result.
As far as Dad’s first website went, it was a flop. The guy maintaining it didn’t do a good job of setting it up, or running it for that matter, and after a while my dad just let the domain name drop. This was back when personal and small business website-building was still in its infancy. I think at this point, with my writing experience and my brother’s computer design degree, we could do a lot better job of getting the family business back up on its feet. Dad still thinks it would be too much of a bother.
As the pauses between comments start getting longer, I know we have run out of relevant things to say to each other as we always do, so I simply say, “Well, if you ever need help getting materials, or if you need to build one quick, you can always give me a call. Talk to you later, Dad. Bye.”
“Talk to you later. Bye.” And he hangs up. I notice that my parents are also the only people I say goodbye to twice and chuckle again, shaking my head as I pick up my heavy black laptop and start looking up simple and free publicity ideas for my dad. He may not want the help–getting him to accept help is right up there with trying to lick my own elbow–but he should know that I am his son, and stubbornness is one of the many things he has passed on to me.
I can’t help but think back to the heyday of Hafeman Boat Works, named after my great-grandfather. I remember all the times as kids where the whole family would go with Dad when he went out in the woods to get birch bark, or cedar, or spruce roots from the swamp. For us kids it was a blast. For Mom and Dad it was probably just a lot more work and hassle to to keep us from accidentally killing ourselves while riding maple saplings to the ground and sword fighting spruce trees.
I call Mom later in the day to ask her some questions about the business. Dad is mostly making money driving skidder for her brother’s logging team now, or at least he was until a recently exploded appendix and subsequent surgeries and complications laid him up for a few weeks. He has only been getting two or three canoe orders a year for the last few years. That is nowhere near enough to live on, even with how self-sufficient they have become.
“What was Dad’s best year? I mean, I know when I was a kid, he was hard at it all summer long most years,” I tell her.
He can get materials for canoes for only two-and-a-half months in the summer, when the sap is running really well so the bark doesn’t stick to the tree. I should point out here too, for anyone who may be concerned for the health of the birch trees, he only takes off the outer, paper layer. So long as we don’t cut through the inner cambium layer, we won’t girdle the tree. Eventually the white paper layer will grow back.
She answers, “Well, when you kids were younger he had one year where he topped out at nineteen orders. He still complains that he was never able to hit an even twenty.”
“Holy Sh . . . Crap.” I still don’t swear in front of my parents if I can help it. “Did he sleep at all that summer?”
Mom only laughs and says he did actually pull a few all-nighters that year. It was worth it, though. That was also the year they were able to pay off the house early and get a new, decent car. We talk for more than an hour. Mom and I always seem to have something to talk about. She gets me up to speed on family stuff and how everybody around them is doing. I tell her about school and life outside of school. Eventually, after saying, “Well, I should probably let you go,” and launching into a new subject of discussion about three times, we finally say goodbye twice and hang up.
Nineteen freaking canoes in one summer!? I still can’t get over it an hour later. When anyone comes to the shop, which is open to the public, they inevitably end up asking how long it takes him to build “one of these things,” and his answer has always been, “About eighty hours start to finish. That’s gathering all the materials, getting everything ready, and building it. If everything is ready, I can usually build one in twenty-four working hours.” And usually the visitors’ jaws drop.
To save you the trouble of doing the math, that summer my dad put in about 1,520 hours of work in one summer. Or, since eighty hours is the same as two average weeks at a normal full-time job, he did thirty-eight weeks of work in twelve weeks. That, my friends, is what we call the Boessel work ethic.
A few years back, he had fourteen canoe orders one summer. I had recently gotten fired and was about to be kicked out of my apartment for not paying my half of rent, so Mom and Dad offered me my old room, home-cooked food, and ten dollars an hour for helping Dad finish his orders on time. This would turn out to be one of the best summers I have had to date. No bills, great food, good money, and I more or less made my own hours. Dad would get up early—and I’m talking old man early, so around 4 or 5 a.m.—go out to the shop after breakfast and start working. That left me free to join him whenever I woke up.
When he had plans to go out in the woods for materials, he would let me know the night before so I could set my alarm and not “sleep half the day away,” as he called it. Those were good mornings. We loaded up one of the work canoes (yes, we have work canoes) on the truck and headed for a nearby lake where he had been getting bark for a few years. It wasn’t until we pushed off from shore that the full scope of the purity of nature would hit me. The crisp but not too cold morning air was thick with fog that did its best to hide the evergreen and poplar shoreline. The water was perfectly calm, reflecting the world and doubling the still beauty of our silent lake. Even our canoe, being almost wholly from nature itself, slid silent through the water. A loon call pierced the stillness as a haunting greeting, welcoming us back to our place of labor and joy.
I always loved going to get materials with Dad as a kid. As an adult it was different. Yes, I now have a much deeper appreciation for my surroundings, but I also have a back strong enough for Dad to put to some use. It was about a mile hike into the woods from the spot where we parked the canoe to where Dad wanted to check for good bark. We don’t peel—and never have peeled—birch along the side of the road. It’s an annoyance that we often get blamed for, but most of the trees I’ve seen on the roadside wouldn’t be good enough for any part of the canoe, anyway.
The terrain we hiked through was densely populated with hardwood, so the canopy was nice and high, letting pale green shafts of light into our musty brown world. It was all hilly country, requiring constant walking up, down, or across the face of one hill or another. Every single time I have been out there with Dad, he commented on how he would love to do some hunting in those hills one day.
After the walk, we spent another hour or so gathering enough bark for one and a half canoes. Then for the fun part: the return trip. It was not so relaxing or awe inspiring as
People that see his work often call it art, and it would be a shame if this skill was lost to the ages.
the trip into the woods. With three large rolls of bark stuffed with smaller ones strapped to an awkward metal pack frame on my back, I carried an extra fifty pounds as I trekked over the mile of rough country. It was midday, hot and humid. We stopped a few times on the return trip to catch our breath and drink some water, but we eventually made it back to the lake and our own canoe, and then back to the warm and welcoming scent of freshly split cedar that always inhabits the shop.
I had a lot of amazing experiences that summer with Dad. I put in a lot of hard work as well. I got to drink with him for the first time, because Grandpa Hafeman always said that when you put the last rib in the canoe, called the “whiskey rib,” you take a shot of whiskey to celebrate being almost done. We finished all the orders, and met a bunch of people as they came to pick up their canoes, or just stopped in out of curiosity.
At the end of the summer Dad gave me the best pieces of bark we collected all year. He had been saving them for me. They were beautiful. The bright and dark oranges that nature painted across them blended and changed like wisps of smoke. The last canoe I built that summer I built alone out of those pieces.
I guess Dad helped a little with getting the angles right for my custom ends. He helped sew up the blanket, or body of the canoe, and helped put in ribs. He split the cedar so I didn’t waste all his good stuff trying to master the art of hand splitting it down to an eighth of an inch for some pieces. But I really felt like he handed me the reigns and let me do the bulk of the work and decision making myself. After all of my screw-ups in life, I felt that my dad was proud of me for the first time in a long time that summer.
I did not get paid for building that canoe. I kept it.
As I sit on the couch after getting home from school, I cannot help but wonder if Dad is still as proud of me now as he was that summer. I’ve had several personal and legal struggles since then, but I have also graduated from community college and am in the last semester of getting two bachelor’s degrees. He is my dad, so I assume that, despite my troubles and flaws, he is still proud of the man I have become.
I have even been back “Home,” as my phone calls it, a few times since to help Dad with a few orders he needed to get done quickly. He doesn’t have as much time to work on them now that he has a “real” job. My total count is up to nineteen canoes that I’ve built.
I also cannot help but mourn the decline in my father’s business over the years. His usual excuse is the economy. A kind of shotgun excuse that many people seem to use, but still probably an accurate one. People just don’t have the money to drop three thousand dollars on a sixteen-foot canoe. Yes, they are beautiful, they handle amazingly, and they are much lighter than most of their modern counterparts, but it is still too big of an investment for your average person to make on a nonessential item. I know that if I had to pay for my canoe I would not own it.
He still gets some orders for his smaller five-foot scale-models that people buy to decorate their homes or cabins, but even those sales have dropped over the years. I just hope that someday we can breathe some life back into the business. People that see his work often call it art, and it would be a shame if this skill was lost to the ages. I have talked to my brother on multiple occasions about taking over the business after Dad can’t do it anymore. That would still require having orders to fill, but then again, if we can upgrade the publicity with modern technology, that getting those orders might be possible, too.
I still bring my canoe with me to the living history event I do in Deer River, Minnesota every August. I still get it out on the river by Mom and Dad’s at least once a year. It is just something that I can’t imagine not being in my life.
Daniel Boessel graduated from BSU in the spring of 2015 with a BA in English and a BFA in creative and professional writing. He hopes to pursue a career in writing both personal nonfiction and fantasy fiction. Getting to travel would be a nice bonus for him, too.