By David Horst email@example.com
|Master canoe builder Jim Suffield.|
I’m standing in the pouring rain in the parking lot of the Waupaca Fleet Farm with two buddies from my Fox River adventures, when the one with the ponytail lights up a smudge pot and starts waving the sweet, aromatic smoke it is emitting under two 25-foot wooden canoes we’ve hauled back from the Rhinelander area.
It’s times like these that I realize I have amassed a pretty novel collection of friends.
The guy with the smudge pot is Glen Gorsuch of Neshkoro. He is part-owner of a voyageur canoe larger than either of these and a French fur trader in his re-enactor character. He wants to bless the canoes as they enter their new life, in the traditions of Native Americans.
The guy who provided the boat trailer and cobbled together a way to carry the two big canoes is Dave Peck of Appleton, an enthusiast of wooden boats of any kind.
|Suffield's carvings decorate |
We rub a pinch of tobacco on each boat. Glen swirls the smoke, giving thanks to the trees that provided the wood, the men who built the canoes and the paddlers who enjoyed them through the years. Both have been plying the waters for more than 30 years.
The new life for these boats, I promised Jim Suffield, the master boat rehabilitator who sold them to us, will be to carry smiling children on the Fox River.
Our mission was on behalf of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway. The nonprofit river advocacy group will offer rides to people young and old who want to get out on the Fox River in an interesting way.
Add Suffield to the list of interesting characters I’ve encountered. Let me sum up my dealings with Jim. On our first visit, he gave each of us a gift of a jar of bear grease.
“Eat it on your pancakes or polish your furniture with it,” he instructed.
“Suff” is a re-enactor — one of those guys who spend weekends dressed in historic garb deep in the character of people of another time. Suffield formerly also was a major supplier of teepee poles. He clearly is of another time.
In the time Suffield occupies, there is pleasure in crafting things just right, not “just in time.” His trademark is to carve a beaver tail pattern into the ends of the gunnels. He may also carve a fleur-de-lis or other pattern into the wood. It does nothing to improve the performance of the canoe, but it says something about the affection the carver has for it.
He lives on Squaw Lake near Rhinelander, His fascination with boats was sparked while growing up near the banks of the Illinois River.
“I found a place where I could keep an old boat,” he recalled. “In the summer time, my dad could drop me off and pick me up at supper time. I was just playing on that river all day long and I had all kinds of fun. The only thing you had to watch was the barge traffic.”
He graduated from sailing boats to building them by the influence of an older skilled craftsman, a guy like the man he became.
“There was a guy up north here, an older fellow, he built a bark canoe and I was fascinated by it. I said, ‘I can do this.’ I did a bunch of research on it.”
Suffield has trouble finding young people with the passion he had. Holding thumb and forefinger half an inch apart, he said, “For about that much time, they’re interested.”
The wider of the two 25-foot-long canoes Suffield built himself from ash, cedar and maple. He still has the form he used to shape it 35 years ago. The other was made by Old Town and renovated by Suffield. They were typically used at Boy Scout camps.
The wood of the boats is covered with canvas and coated with a combination of linseed oil, deck paint and silica dust. He paints the canvas in various tones of brown, yellow and red to simulate bark.
He knows these boats from bow to stern. He paddled the one he built everywhere from the Yukon to the Gulf of Mexico. While he denies that working on wooden boats is a spiritual thing, he speaks of the boats as if they are living things.
“The wood is alive and you’ve got to keep feeding it, feeding it oil. It loses oil through oxidation.”
He uses linseed oil to keep the wood of his boats from drying out and to give them the right color. No varnish for him.
Giving these boats up would seem to be difficult, but Suffield is oak-strong in his resolve.
“A man’s got to know his limitations. I can’t handle this anymore,” he said.
But the hunch in his shoulders as he walks away from the trailer that will carry the canoes away seems not to be from age. It reads more like loss, the loss of a love from his youth.