Ken Weeks owned a 900-square-foot apartment in Manhattan's Alphabet City in 1999, but he was ready to party like it was 1799. Weeks worked at the Metropolitan Opera, which specializes in spectacle, as a scenic artist and designer, but he had a growing hankering to build a birchbark canoe.
One of the Met's singers said, "There's a place in Brooklin, Maine called Wooden Boat. They'll teach you how to build your canoe."
So, Weeks went north, took that class, built his first birchbark canoe, and never went back, selling his apartment and buying 40 acres on the Maine coast.
Weeks said, "My place was on 7th Street between C and D Avenues. If I'd kept it, I'd be a millionaire today, but I'm much richer living the Maine lifestyle."
Weeks has built five birchbark canoes solo, the longest 20 feet, 9 inches and the shortest 2 feet. The two-footer is in a museum and made exactly as a full-sized birchbark canoe. He's also built 12-20 other birchbark canoes with others.
For Weeks, there's no such thing as a ‘New York minute’ building birchbark canoes in Maine.
"You have to be patient looking for the materials. You have to get modern pacing out of your head and take the necessary time."
Eighty percent of the time building a birchbark canoe is spent walking through the woods and looking, for these canoes are made out of the forest. There's red spruce roots for the lacing, white pine pitch and red spruce pitch to seal the seams, birchbark for the hull, and so on. The miles and months Weeks has walked in the woods have all led to a seeming oxymoron: a colossal canoe.
Weeks is building a birchbark canoe that'll carry about three dozen people or four tons. It'll be 42 feet long, have a 5-foot-9-inch beam, and 3-feet, 9 inches of depth. It's impossible to say, but it might be the biggest birchbark canoe ever built. It'll take eight miles of spruce root, all boiled, split, and peeled, to attach the inner and outer gunnels.
The canoe is being built on a ridge near the idyllic town of Blue Hill. The ridge is an anomaly in Maine, the most forested of the 50 states. Maine has more trees today than it did 100 years ago, but the ridge is an exception, a place of pasture and sunny days, rather than light filtered by white pines, red spruces, and red maples.
"Birchbark canoes hate sun. It melts the pitch that seals the seams."
So, Weeks is building in an old barn, lighted by solar panels. The barn is impossible to miss, for the side facing the road is painted with the great canoe being built. Weeks painted the mural with an artists friend, Nancy Winters, and upon completion, local attitudes about Weeks’s ambition shifted.
"People thought it was folly at first,” he said. “Now I hear, 'It's such a cool idea.'"
Weeks wants locals and the not-so-local alike to participate.
"Birchbark canoes were traditionally built by groups because they're labor intensive. People come and stay for a day, a week, a month, however long they want. They can sleep in my Civil War tent, a teepee, or the shed if you want to come, build, and stay a spell. (If you want to spend a day, week, or month walking the woods for roots and bark or building the colossal canoe, you can reach Weeks at okwks2000 at yahoo.com.)."
Weeks thinks the project won't just appeal to experienced paddlers and builders like himself.
"Millennials want genuine, authentic experiences. They're sick and tired of things like fiberglass, fake birchbark canoes."
Join Weeks and you might find yourself diluting red spruce or white pine pitch with lard & beeswax, making it more malleable, and then boiling it and squeezing it through cheesecloth. You might walk the woods with a long-handled hook, to extract red spruce roots as thick as your thumb twenty feet from their trunk, and then untangle them from the underground thicket of other roots. You might make the wooden pegs that connect the gunnels. Or you might produce some of the rolls of birchbark, which are about as thick and flexible as linoleum.
"I peel bark off both live and dead trees. I peel during the summer months when it's above 57 degrees and away from salt water as salt air makes the bark brittle."
You might even see the signs of those who preceded you in making a birchbark canoe.
"I saw a tree that was peeled more than a hundred years ago. It had white bark at the ground, then a horizontal scar, then regular, dark, furrowed bark like you'd see on an ash or elm, then another scar with white bark above it. That was a tree once used for a birchbark canoe."
Building the canoe is just the beginning.
"This boat will be used. I'll charter it and give historical lectures on the positive, symbiotic relationships between the Blue Hill natives and the Europeans between 1680 and 1795. I want to share the good things that were happening between the largely Irish and English settlers and the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, the Micmac, and Maliseet, and Abenaki."
One of those positive exchanges was the Europeans recognizing the superior technology of the birchbark canoes, which were light and nimble compared to their boats and perfect for Maine's swift and twisty rivers. Weeks's great canoe will be dedicated to David Moses Bridges, a Passamaquoddy birchbark canoe maker and if all goes according to his grand plans, will have three musicians, a chef, eight crew members, and 16-20 passengers.
"We could also do bird watching or watercolor groups."
The hull hasn't even been formed ("You have to cut darts into a rectangle of birchbark to form it into the elliptical form of a canoe" he states), but people are already pinging and ringing Weeks.
"I have four couples wanting to wed in it and have already gotten requests from folks in Chicago, Brooklyn, and on the Missouri River. I'm looking forward to taking it on the road."
Weeks even wants to take it to Manhattan, portaging it across the island for the sheer joy and audacity of it, but Weeks professes profound purpose in building birchbark canoes.
"I build my canoes to be heirlooms, but working heirlooms. I want them to be paddled, to become silent stewards of the shorelines of our waterways. They're so persuasive because the view from a birchbark canoe is visually eloquent. You can't not care."
And it ain't just the view.
"When someone first paddles a birchbark canoe, they think they're going to drown,” Weeks says. “Forty-five minutes later, I can't get them out of the canoe. They love the smells of the forest while they're on the water, the scents of canoe's spruce, cedar, and birch and when they do exit, they walk away entranced."