Launching a Birch Bark Canoe and Ojibwe Culture


Part of the professor/student crew that helped hand build the canoe. That’s me there holding the canoe’s bow (front)!

Throughout this past spring, my Native American Life class and I helped hand-build a ten foot birch bark canoe. Our professor, a member of the native Ojibwe tribe, collected the frame wood, basswood strips, and birch bark necessary from local Massachusetts forests, carried them to a workshop at the University of Massachusetts, and, over many months, the canoe was hand-built there by dozens of students. My class and I enjoyed the unique experience of lacing birch bark to the frame using basswood strips and a criss-cross pattern.

Once the frame was screwed together, the birch bark laced between us and the water, and the lacing holes covered with an impermeable plastic resin, Amherst community members and students drove and portaged the canoe to a bank of Puffers Pond, a local lake. A few minutes and pictures later, the canoe was floating effortlessly across the water.

I think the building of the birch bark canoe was worthwhile not because it required the extraordinary endurance of a long term adventure, but because of the unique materials, people, and history involved. The birch bark, basswood, and many other materials were not only harvested in local forests, but they are the same materials that many natives used centuries ago to create their own birch bark canoes–a distinct advantage that many colonials eventually adopted to traverse American waterways (their large ocean vessels were unfit to travel through relatively narrow streams). Unfortunately, birch bark canoes are rarely built anymore precisely because of colonial-native interaction, particularly imperialism and suppression of native culture. In fact, this was one of the first if not the first birch bark canoe build an American University has undertaken. It was powerful to learn about native transportation, and even more powerful to paddle the canoe through the water that has not witnessed one in at least a century.

This build was also worthwhile because of the knowledge, skill, cultural awareness, and language translation required for me to even help build the canoe. These pre-requisites provided me much more satisfaction than the research and money necessary to purchase a pre-made canoe. This does not necessarily mean that pre-made canoes are inferior to their hand-made equivalent. It simply means that a hand-built item likely provides a greater understanding of what was built, why it was built, how it was built, how it can be improved, and a strong sense of pride.

Another factor I found interesting is that natural materials were not exclusively used to build the canoe. For example, birch bark canoes were traditionally water-sealed using poplar sap instead of plastic resin, and the frame was traditionally laced together with basswood strips instead of metal screws. I do not think this lack of one-hundred percent natural and traditionally used materials makes the canoe build any less meaningful. Instead,  I think using a combination of historically used materials and modern materials can make for a more structurally robust birch bark canoe, while still symbolizing the continuing history of Ojibwe natives.

Birch bark canoe bow overlooking Massachusetts pine forests--beautiful.

Birch bark canoe bow overlooking Massachusetts pine forests. Beautiful.


Financial Security or a Life of Adventure–Why not Both!

The video above is a Tedx talk delivered by Alastair Humphreys, an adventurer, writer, and public speaker who cycled the world for four years on less than £7,000, walked across India and the Empty Quarter Desert, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, canoed through the Yukon, and much more. The kicker: when he first pedaled away from his home in Europe he was 24 with minimal outdoor experience.

It’s truly incredible and inspiring what can be achieved with a tolerance for uncertainty, a willingness to break societal expectations, and courage over one’s fears.


Alastair Humphreys, the man who quit nine to five work for, in his case, long adventures; he enjoys eating nourishing food, meeting interesting people, and seeing breath-taking views from across the world.

The type of month to multiple year adventures Humphrey has undertaken are one of the major activities I’d like to fill my life with. There is something holding me back, however–and I think this is a factor that tends to hold many other people from realizing their own goals, whatever they may be.


For me, it’s money not for the sake of purchasing consumer items, but for the sake of purchasing my freedom from nine to five employment. Let me explain. By living simply, I do not need lots of money to live well. About $7,000 a year fulfills my needs for housing, transportation, food, and other expenses. By saving and investing the difference between my expenses and the income I’d gain from an average American nine to five job–or any other source of income–my investments can, over an accumulation period of five to ten years, provide $7000 a year of passive income. The point when annual passive income from investments match or surpass yearly expenses is called financial independence. Reaching this point would not only mean that I would no longer be required to work for income, but that I can embark on long-term, low-cost adventures without being too concerned about funding or financial security.

At this point in my 21 year old life, however, a part of me wants to eschew the ten years of employment required to amass the capital necessary to achieve financial independence. I’d prefer to begin travelling now, starting this summer. Another part  of me wants the financial security before the long term travelling. It’s been a tough choice for me over the past few months.

Thankfully adventures and financial security are not necessarily mutually exclusive; it’s possible to both have adventures and accumulate capital for financial independence. Enter micro-adventures.

Micro-adventures are short one or two day adventures that can be undertaken even while the majority of one’s time is spent in employment, or another activity that takes up the majority of your time. An example of a micro-adventure can be an evening camping after a Friday spent behind a desk, or a cross-city walk, or riding a train and climbing the nearest mountain over a weekend.

Although I am interested by the idea of micro-adventures, I do not think they are necessarily easy to fit into nine to five life. For one, after a day of work, the amount of willpower required to initiate an adventure might be too high. Also, a series of micro-adventures seem harder to consistently initiate rather than one long term expedition. One of the hardest hurdles for me to overcome is initiating an activity, or creating the system for that activity; It is much easier for me to continue an activity, or simply use a system I’ve already created. Comparing micro-adventures to expeditions, I think it might require great willpower to repeatedly ready and haul equipment to the adventure site, then haul it back home just after one day, or even a few hours. By contrast, it might require less willpower to, for example, tie a canoe (with a rain cover) to a tree and sleep in the canoe, then wake up the next day and keep paddling. Another example would be partially emptying a touring bike’s camping contents daily for a month, as opposed emptying and storing a touring bike’s entire contents after one or two days of riding in a micro-adventure. I do not think these are prohibitive factors of micro-adventures, just factors that I’d like to account for when creating an effective system to undertake them.

In any case, I think I’m leaning toward achieving financial independence before striving for long expeditions. In the accumulation phase, I will try my best to increase my willpower and efficiency when undertaking micro-adventures. I think I’d feel more comfortable watching my investments grow passively as I’m travelling in a tent, rather than worrying about where the few thousands required for my next adventure will come from.

Although my adventures tend to be based in nature, I can also use the term loosely. Whatever path is most meaningful and growthful to you–whether starting a business, an inner-spiritual journey, growing close with friends, etc.–I think it is liberating and encouraging that simple living can allow us both the time to explore, and the financial means to do so.


A brisk spring sunrise in Deerfield, MA, seen after a Saturday micro-adventure cowboy camping under the stars. Some of the most energizing views in life can be relatively inexpensive to see.