Wooden Boat Show: North House Folk School
It’s not summer in Grand Marais, MN until the wooden canoes, kayaks, sailboats and row boats appear in the harbor. Once those boats appear, it’s time to celebrate at the North House Folk School’s annual Wooden Boat Show and Summer Solstice Festival. But if kayaks and canoes are the centerpieces of the weekend, a sampling of northern arts and craft will make you plan to come back. Whether you try your hand at woodworking, metalworking or weaving, you’re sure to find a unique getaway that will make you want to return for a weekend or a week.
Heritage and Art: Experiencing Northern Craft
Sparks dance as metal crashes on metal with a loud ring, again and again. Slowly a flat handle emerges. It’s put back into the fire, to be pulled out again and bent.
“We can get up to 2,500 degrees, but steel tends to burn at 2,300 or 2,400,” said Robert, a blacksmith instructor at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais as he pointed to the large forge, one of several that had been installed in the new timber frame blacksmith shop. “Now the bowl is starting to take on heat. I’ll take a piece that I’ve pre-bent and we’ll melt these two together. We don’t want the plate to burn before the cup heats up, so we need to heat it slowly.”
The demonstration was one of many taking place at the North House during its Wooden Boat Show and Summer Solstice festival, an annual event held each June to celebrate the beginning of summer, showcase handmade wooden boats and allow guests to sample some of the more than 350 courses developed by the North House.
“North House is open year round and offers classes in traditional northern crafts, from timber framing to oar making, from photography and boat building to weaving and wood fire bread baking,” said Greg Wright, executive director. “Our course work tells the story of the north.”
Many of those crafts are showcased during the Wooden Boat Festival, along with more than two dozen handmade boats, including kayaks and canoes, paddle boats and sail boats. Visitors can view the boats, meet the builders and even try a few of the boats available for paddling in the Grand Marais Harbor. If you find an owner willing to part with his meticulously made craft, you may even be able to take one home after the weekend – for the right price, of course.
“I keep one to use myself at my cabin, but I sell these so I can build another one,” said Jim of his wooden row boat painted white with handmade oars. “I’ve always liked small wooden boats. I started re-doing canoes, but I wanted to build something. Once I found this design, I started making it. I look at this boat and think, the next one I’m going to do, I’ll do the back seat differently or I’ll do the oars differently. I always have different things I want to do. So that’s why I make a boat with the intention of selling them, so I can do it again.”
Some boats may be finished just in time for its builder to start anew. Others may be years-long labors of love.
“It took me three years, but I mainly worked during the weekend, especially in the winter,” said Mike Trutwin of Lakeville, MN, of his handmade sea kayak. “I’ve incorporated lots of details like custom carbon fiber knobs. Inside and out is a thin layer of fiberglass. This is a first build project for me. I dove in and learned as I worked.”
Those inspired to build their own boat can take a course at North House in cedar strip or birch bark canoe building.
“In the spring and summer, birch bark canoe building is popular. Classes are scheduled that time of year because it’s the best time to harvest the bark. When the rush of sap comes and the first fireflies of the year are seen at dusk, the birch is ready to come off the trees,” said Wright, but hands-on classes go beyond boat building. “Participants can build their own timber frame sauna. During the course, they cut and shape all the pieces. Afterward, they disassemble it, put it on a trailer, take it home, and reassemble it like a Lincoln Logs project.”
The school has developed more than 350 different classes and about 100 are offered annually, while others are offered semiannually. Courses are taught by more than 130 teachers from around the state, region and country, and even some international instructors. Classes provide hands-on instruction with an average of just five students, and they range from two and a half days to two weeks. Most average two to three days.
“We’ve had instructors from Canada, Scandinavia, Maine and California. We find instructors with the most experience. When we teach Inuit soapstone carving, we work with Inuit instructors who have carved for many years,” said Wright.
Walking through the school ground it’s easy to imagine the near endless hands-on opportunities while hearing the clinking of the blacksmith shop and the swooshing of wood being sanded, and smelling the smoky smell of baking bread in a wood fired oven.
“Coming through hot!” said Sarah, a wood-fired baking instructor as she set a fresh loaf on the counter. She stuck a thermometer into the bread.
“The interior temperature of the loaf of bread should be at least 190, ideally 200 degrees,” she explained. “A dull hallow sound also indicates that the bread is done. You just tap the bottom of the bread. In this oven we can do that, but at home when your bread’s in a pan that’s not so easy.” She said, tapping with a thud, thud thud.
The weekend is filled with numerous demonstrations like this and hourly lectures on topics like sailing on Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, canoe building, and boat building. Other festival highlights include a community dance, chowder feast, community brunch, tool auction and solstice pageant performed by local puppet artists Good Harbor Hill Players.
“The weekend celebrates the long-awaited summer and our community,” said Wright. “It also provides a taste of the many experiences you can have here. We hope people come to enjoy the festival, and come back to learn a new skill or craft that’s part of our northern heritage, skills that would be hard to learn anywhere else.”
If You Go:
The Wooden Boat Show and Summer Solstice Festival takes place annually in mid-June at the North House Folk School grounds on the Grand Marais Harbor. A full weekend of activities includes hands-on demonstrations, lectures, a community dance, a tool auction, a community chowder festival hosted by 10 local restaurants, and of course, the wooden boat display.
North House is located on the western edge of the harbor, near the Angry Trout Café and Dockside Fish Market. Take Hwy 61 north and continue on to Grand Marais.
While You’re There:
Stay for the weekend in Grand Marais, MN – or longer – to enjoy all there is to do in and around town. Hike the Superior Hiking Trail. Visit a nearby state park, like Cascade River State Park. Dine in one of many restaurants in town or enjoy a piece pie at The Pie Place in the Harbor Inn. Visit the many galleries and outfitters in town. Or take a drive a bit further north to visit the Grand Portage National Monument, a restored historic site celebrating early voyageurs that lived and traded on the North Shore.
Find something new℠.