When Richard Labossiere bought a large lot on Lake Winnipeg, Man., and built a main cottage and a garage with guest space, he realized there was room to feature something one of a kind. The retired wildlife officer for Environment Canada knew just who to turn to: old friend and retired Manitoba conservation officer Rod Emsland. As a hobby, Rod makes birchbark canoes by hand using all-natural materials.
He was inspired to start after reading a few old Canadian history books that referenced beautiful birchbark canoes made by First Nations people with minimal tools and materials. “It struck me that I would love to see a birchbark canoe in person,” says Rod. He didn’t know of anyone making them where he lives, so he decided to try making one himself.
Two-hundred-and-some hours later, Rod had his first canoe. “I found a documentary of a man from the Atikamekw of Manawan Native Reserve in Quebec who built canoes the old way,” he says. “Now I refer back to that video every time I make a canoe.” Rod also emailed back and forth with Métis birchbark canoe builder Tom Byers, who gave him many helpful tips along the way.
The process starts at the lumber yard where Rod buys his wood. Then he collects bark, spruce root, and gum from around his home. He laces the gunwales, creates his own gum/lard mixture, and digs through the dirt to find his own spruce root. “You do all that, and then it’s basically done,” he jokes. “It’s a lot of hard work, but they are just gorgeous to look at.”
Rod has built 11 birchbark canoes in total, the newest one sitting on his workshop table waiting for the gum to dry. Two are with Richard—who bought a second canoe to hang from the ceiling in his cottage’s great room—and a few are with friends and family. “I never made them to sell them, but people just seem interested.” Two canoes were even used as props in a short film for the Calgary International Film Festival.
Richard is so glad he is one of the very few who has the honour of owning a canoe made by his friend. “Everyone who walks into the cabin, their eyes go up to the ceiling and they say, ‘Wow! That’s beautiful.’”