Wild Northerner Magazine Winter 2018 - Page 8

HEADLINE: From land to water by hand and spirit

2ndary headline:

BY SCOTT HADDOW

Wild Northerner staff

Tom Byers pours hot water through a birch bark filter into a metal cup. Within moments, his log-cabin construction work shop is filled with the aroma of coffee. It’s the last week of October and the winds are howling and bringing in a storm. He stokes the fire in the stove in the corner and places a new log on it. Byers brings his rough, calloused hands together. He wrings them against one another a few times to warm them up.

“It’s cold today, but it will be nice in here all day,” Byers says.

It’s another fine day in the life of Byers. Everything is unfolding at its own pace. Just as it should be.

Byers sits back and leans into a wood chair and grabs a strip of cedar wood. A trickle of sunshine creeps through a window and casts a light on his face. Byers smiles as he takes a sip of his fresh-brewed coffee.

He takes out a knife and starts drawing off thin layers on the cedar strip. He is working on the final touches to his latest hand-built birch bark canoe, a 16-foot natural beauty.

Byers built his first birch bark canoe in 1994. This latest canoe is the 86th birch bark canoe Byers has constructed. Every single one of them by his own two hands and keen eyes and steadfast dedication to the ancient craft which has served First Nations people for centuries.

“I feel really lucky to have the chance to build these canoes,” Byers said. “Most of the people who buy the canoes have a role in building them and we become friends through the process. I have friends all over the world now because of building birch bark canoes. I know that is the most important thing.”

Byers, 64, grew up on a farm North of Cardinal, Ontario. Byers is Metis and Irish. On the farm, Byers built rafts as a youngster and guided them down a creek. The family didn’t have a lot of money, but Byers and his younger brother and two sisters would make the most of their days on the farm by having adventures of all kinds.

“We were feral,” Byers said with a hearty laugh.

Building the rafts planted the seeds for his eventual passion for birch bark canoes essentially were planted. Byers grew up paddling rafts and then canoes. He studied music at Cambrian College in the early 80s and dreamed of being a musician. Through the 80s, Byers worked in several different industries, including planting trees. He then became a drywaller and house painter. As the years went by, Byers never waned from his roots of building rafts. In the late 80s, Byers walked into a store in Greater Sudbury that had a birch bark canoe hanging from the rafters. The moment changed him and put him on course to become one of the most respected and genuine birch bark canoe builders in modern times.

“The spirit of that canoe spoke to me,” Byers said. “I wasn’t high or drunk. It sounds crazy. The spirit said: ‘The spirit of the forest and the spirit of man are one in a birch bark canoe. This is what can be accomplished by man when he works with nature instead of against it.’ I was in shock over the experience. It was hard for me to believe. It was one of the coolest things that ever to happen to me. I was in a daze for days. I knew what I had to do.”

Byers continued to work his “odd jobs” and then came across two items that finally put him in the driver’s seat of his own destiny - actually building a birch bark canoe. He found a book entitled: The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, at the library and it showed, in extensive detail, how to build canoes. A friend then found a video of two men in Quebec building a birch bark canoe and gave it to Byers. It was on from there for Byers as he finally constructed his first birch bark canoe in 1994 while he was living in Falconbridge.

“Finding the book was like finding a lost scroll for me,” Byers said. “From the time of that experience in the store with that canoe, I had wanted to build a birch bark canoe but had no idea where and how to begin. Now I did. The video gave me the courage to go for it and build my first canoe. I would watch the video and pause it and go out to my garage and build the canoe. I went back and forth like that for a month-and-a-half. I fucked it up. It was rough, but it was good enough for me. I had done it. I built a birch bark canoe.”

Byers sold that canoe for $500 to a man who needed it for a film. Byers built his second canoe the following year in 1995 and sold it to a man in Wisconsin, United States, for $2,500.

“I had realized I was doing what I was suppose to be doing,” Byers said. “I loved it and it just went from there.”

Byers went full time as birch bark canoe builder in 2001. He got 96 acres of prime land on the Vermillion River – a plot of land that featured a healthy population of birch trees. Byers is off-grid. All the work he does is by hand and his own will power. He uses an axe to cut down trees and harvest roots for lashings. He uses simple tools, such as the crooked knife, froe, hatchet, wood mallet, awl and shaving horse. Byers gets a lot of requests for builds that involves his clients being part of the building stages. Byers also does canoes on commission. Depending on the style and size, a canoe can take a month to two months to complete. For a 16-foot canoe, Byers needs a birch tree at least 18-inches in diameter. The best time to harvest birch bark is in July as the bark isn’t dry and peels smoothly. There are no small details skipped under Byers’ hand. He builds with meticulous passion. To finish the canoes, they get a mixture of spruce tree gum and bear fat, that Byers collects and mixes himself, to seal it up. A typical canoe consists of birch bark, more than 35 hand-split cedar ribs, 50 wafer-thin cedar sheathing, full-length gunwales and pegged caps, deck ends, birch thwarts, about 500-feet of spruce/jack pine root lacing and two quarts of spruce gum/bear fat waterproofing.

It all adds up to an authentic birch bark canoe, and no two are alike. One that would have been built the same way by First Nations people hundreds of years ago.

“I keep getting better and better at it,” Byers said. “I want the canoes to always be better. I have gotten more artistic over the years with the canoes. You need patience to do this and be resourceful. I love doing what I do. I have freedom to do it. I don’t live by expensive means. Birch bark canoe building is the ultimate bushcraft. I’m happy I can do it. I had a certain natural ability for it. I learn something new from every canoe I build. Your hands and eyes are the most important aspects to it. It is everything.”

Byers has his heart set on making 100 canoes. He is 14 away.

“I usually do three to five canoes a year, so I don’t see why I can’t reach 100,” he said. “It never occurred to me I would get to this number when I first started. I only ever wanted to build one.”

From land to water by hand and spirit

BY SCOTT HADDOW

Wild Northerner staff

Tom Byers pours hot water through a birch bark filter into a metal cup. Within moments, his log-cabin construction work shop is filled with the aroma of coffee. It’s the last week of October and the winds are howling and bringing in a storm. He stokes the fire in the stove in the corner and places a new log on it. Byers brings his rough, calloused hands together. He wrings them against one another a few times to warm them up.

“It’s cold today, but it will be nice in here all day,” Byers says.

It’s another fine day in the life of Byers. Everything is unfolding at its own pace. Just as it should be.

Byers sits back and leans into a wood chair and grabs a strip of cedar wood. A trickle of sunshine creeps through a window and casts a light on his face. Byers smiles as he takes a sip of his fresh-brewed coffee.

He takes out a knife and starts drawing off thin layers on the cedar strip. He is working on the final touches to his latest hand-built birch bark canoe, a 16-foot natural beauty.