This past Saturday, we were blessed with a beautiful Spring day in Virginia. We rounded up the rugrats and headed to our favorite local park – Pocahontas State Park! It would be our one year old’s first time in the ol backpack and he seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. There is something certainly magical and calming about the beauty of the forest. Have you ever noticed that after spending time in the forest, you just generally feel better? Well there’s a good amount of published medical literature regarding the biophysiological changes that happen after spending time in the forest. This area of research has been picking up steam in the past several decades in several countries, linking it to positive effects on your immune system, heart rate, blood pressure, and mood. The Japanese have actually come up with a term called: Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing). Studies demonstrate that spending time in the forest (not necessarily exercising), is linked to improve natural immunity cell function, blood pressure, sleep, anti-anxiety and more benefits that we have still not come to understand as of yet.
In many countries where preventative and primary care is strongly developed, many physicians actually prescribe their patients “time in the forest”. The positive effects of shinrin-yoku “forest bathing” seemed to last for several weeks after the time in the forest. There is certainly something primordial about reconnecting with the earth by spending time in the forest. Have you ever stared at a tree, it’s trunk and it’s branches and wondered how this shape came to be? This branching shape is ubiquitous to everything that is life. In the human body for instance, the blood vessels that course through our lungs (pulmonary artery tree) and through our eyes (the retinal vasculature) share the same branching shapes. The rivers that flow through our land are another example. This arterial network throughout the earth and life is truly amazing.
For our children, they are truly in their element in the woods. Chasing the sounds of the bull frogs, the woodpeckers, the wind through the trees, watching them marvel at everything is a joy. Pocahontas also has a pretty amazing nature center, where children can learn about rocks, live animals (snakes and snapping turtles), furs, campsites, camp gear, and loads more. We also visited the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) museum for the first time. They all had a blast. I’m hoping the effects of shinrin-yoku linger till our next trip back outdoors. I wish everyone good health and be safe when exploring.
Time to get to business. We needed to replicate the heart of this canoe…..the stem. This is the curved edge of the boat, made from solid wood that extends from the keel below to the gunwale of the canoe. Structurally it is a critical piece, that provides strength, and unites the port and starboard planks. It is also tapered to provide the aerodynamic shape of the canoe, allowing the boat to cut through the water. We are starting at the stern, where most of the work lies ahead of us.
In many instances, the entire stem does not need to be replaced. The rotted section (usually the top) can be cut off and a new piece can be scarfed in. In our case, the whole thing seemed pretty worn out, so I decided to construct a new one. We used white ash (Fraxinus americana) to create this. I went to our local Woodcraft store to select the board that I needed. It was critical to find a board that had very straight grain, either quarter sawn or rift sawn. Having the grain run straight will reduce the chance of fracturing during the wood bending process. This piece was ripped on the bandsaw and then soaked in a creek for 5 days.
In order to bend the piece of wood, you will have to create a jig (or a form) to bend the wood over. The jig does not have to be pretty, but it has to be functional and accurate. I constructed ours using lumber from a pallet. I glued these pieces together and let it dry. I would use the original stem to create the outline for this jig. It is important to note that the radius of curvature for the jig will actually be tighter than the original stem. This is because we have to account for spring-back, once the piece of wood is removed from the jig.
After the 5 days of soaking in a creek, I fired up our wood steaming box and steamed the piece of ash for 1 hour. Once the wood is removed from the steamer, you have 60 seconds to bend it onto the form before it loses it’s elasticity as it cools. This part can be a pretty harrowing experience if you’ve never steam bent – I’ve never steamed bent anything. I was very fortunate to have the first attempt succeed. For any critical part of canoe building, I often practice the motions before I actually do it. All the clamps were at the ready, my path was clear, I made sure I had enough ceiling clearance etc. I ran through the steps with a mock piece of scrap wood. I also used a piece of steel strapping to help reduce the chance of fracture.
After a week in the jig, I removed the stem from the form and began to notch out the slots for the ribs using a dove tail saw, a coping saw and chisel. This is where we spent alot of time, measuring angles of tapers to get it just right. I used a block plane to get it to the right thickness and then a spokeshave for the beveling.
In the meantime, I steam bent some pieces of ash for the 2 inwales that would need replacing. I created another small jig for these as well. I cut them roughly to size and then used a block plane and spokeshave to get it to the proper dimensions. Ash is very satisfying to work with. These pieces will need to be scarfed into place and glued together using System Three T-88 epoxy. The length of the scarf joint is approximately 4 inches to allow for as much surface area contact as possible.
One of the ribs in the stern end also needed complete replacing so we soaked some eastern white cedar boards in the creek for 5 days and then stem bent these for 20 minutes prior to bending them on the form. This step is fun because a jig does not need to be created. We have an intact hull to bend it over! As with any steam bending step, you have to account for springback once the wood is removed from the form. So in order to replace the rib that you want to fix, you actually will use the rib form adjacent to it (with a steeper angle) to bend over. These worked out well thank goodness.
So everything right now is just dry fitted and held together by clamps, the next step will be to fit the stem in place, glue in the inwales and get the ribs and planking changed at the stern. Progress! Spring has been absolutely beautiful as well and we are taking full advantage of that! Wishing everyone good health.
In the shenandoah valley, autumn rain falls on our cabin. Sitting inside, I got a great view of all the different oak leaves falling. I shot this leaf with my telephoto lens. No tree represents Virginia better than the white oak.
We’ve been eyeing a dying chestnut oak tree on the side of our house for some time now. The size of it’s base is formidable and stands as a reminder of its once splendor. Over the years, the base of the tree had been hollowing out and it was time to bring it down, especially as the rains and winds approach. The kids watched in awe, as the tree surgeons dismantled this once magnificent tree. They asked me several questions: how old was it? why did it die? how long will it take for a new tree to grow here?
So, to help answer their questions, we decided to raise some oak trees from the beginning. This was the perfect time of year for it – the time when the soft thuds of acorns hitting the ground could be heard echoing between the trees. The kids gathered acorns of 3 varieties, white oak, chestnut oak and red oak. After conducting a float test to see which ones were viable, they twisted off the caps and planted them in jars with soil. It could take anywhere from 4-6 weeks for the acorns to germinate, depending on the species. Somer species of oak will not germinate unless exposed to cooler temperatures such as the red oak acorn. We will keep these in the refrigerator to simulate the ideal physiologic environment.
In the mean time, we got to work trying out a cross cut saw. I recently purchased a Lynx 4′ cross cut saw for simple tasks around the property that would not require a chain saw. Safer and also a whole lot of fun. We cut a cross sectional cookie slab, and the kids got to work counting the rings…..104 in total! This tree had been around for more than a century. We applied a generous coating of pentacryl (a wood stabilizer to it) and will let it dry for another season.
So while we wait for the acorns to germinate, the kids have learned a lot about oak trees, and their livespans and how like all things can be susceptible to disease. An adult tree could provide enough oxygen for 2 adult lifetimes. With the felling of this tree, we hope to raise several more in its place. Time will tell! Stay safe and healthy out there everyone.
With the final weeks of summer upon us, I’m glad to say that we’ve finally broken ground on canoe rebuilding. I’ve been delving into the depths of wood canvas canoe construction books, YouTube videos, discussions forums and phone calls, to figure out the next steps. Of course, we spent a lot of times outdoors as well. It’s been a pretty mild summer in Virginia thank goodness.
We spent a good amount of time, first doing some careful demolition. Removing one piece at a time to get to the guts of the canoe. The outwales were rotted for the most part, these came off pretty easily. What was left of the stem bands and the keel were removed next. I was just amazed that overall, the wood seemed to hold up well, despite being stored in the Virginia elements uncovered for several years.
The keel proved to be rather tricky to remove because the heads of the screws were corroded. Once upon a time, they were flat heads. Using a utility knife to carefully score out the old slot and then a few gentle raps on the head with a hammer loosened it enough to get purchases with a screw driver. Another approach would have been to use a Dremel tool to basically create a new slot in the screw head.
After numerous trips to lumberyards, Facebook marketplace searches, I made the decision to purchase my lumber already milled from a canoe builder. When it comes to Old Town Wood Canvas canoes, why not go straight to the source. Island Falls Canoe in Atkinson, Maine is run by legendary canoe builder Jerry Stelmok. He wrote the book: The Wood and Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide to its History, Construction, Restoration and Maintenance (1987). I had a few pleasant discussions with him on the phone and after a few weeks, our supplies arrived! It was like Christmas, boxes of white cedar planking, ribs, new thwarts, tacks, bolts, canvas and much more. We also had to acquire some new tools as well as a clinching iron, purchased from Northwood Canoe Co.
One of the issues I ran into, that I haven’t really come across in any of the discussion forums or videos, is the fact that probably 80% of the canoe plank tacks were so severely corroded that they were literally falling off the canoe. When the canoe was first constructed, eastern white cedar was used to plank the canoe. These are thin 5/32″ thick boards that were steamed and tacked onto the ribs to create the shape of the hull. After 90 years, most of these were literally popping right off! As a result, the planking unstable. To preserve the shape of the hull, I started removing these corroded tacks and placed a few tacks to stabilize the hull, until they can be addressed properly. I did NOT fully clinch these tacks.
Clinching basically means that these specialty tacks (designed with a taper) are hammered into the plank and into the rib. A large piece of iron (the clinching iron) is held against the rib on the other end where the tack would exit. As the tack is exiting the rib, the tack hits the clinching iron and it curls upon itself back into the rib. The problem with working with nearly 100 year old white cedar, is the risk of splitting the planking. So to prevent this, I wetted the planks with water and then steamed it using a fabric steamer. Some people use irons. This softens the wood, making it less brittle, and less prone to splitting. The thwarts and seats were relatively easy to take out, once again, corrosion left very little to work with for the nut sand bolts. I ended up cutting several of the bolts to get the seats out.
My son got to work cutting out the old cane, and we stripped the old finish and got to sanding. The seats seemed to still be in decent shape and we worked on bringing them back to their old glamor. We were actually working on the seats while we waited for the lumber to arrive from Maine.
Once the hull was decently stabilized, we were now looking at taking out the stern, stem of the canoe . This is especially difficult to do, because the canoe was essentially built around the stem. This area of the canoe is especially prone to rot. In many scenarios, only one section of the stem would need to be replaced (perhaps 1/3 or 1/4 of the stem). There are different ways to scarf the new stem into the old, however, gauging from the amount of rot, I knew I needed a whole new stem. This is the part I’m working on currently.
It is becoming more apparent to me that there is no cookie cutter way to restore/rebuild a wood canvas canoe. I found this interesting posted on the “Wooden Canoe Heritage Association” YouTube channel. It details the restoration of an “Old Town Ruston” wood canvas canoe. Through watching these videos, I gather different types and tricks to help with my restoration.
The weather has been getting milder and we spent many grand days outdoors. My daughter was able to go on her first canoe trip and I do believe she is hooked. She is asking for her own paddle like her brother’s. We will probably have to carve one of those as well one day. Alas, fall is approaching and we are ready for more! Stay safe and healthy everyone!
I never would have suspected that the bottom of our dogwood tree would the site of a turtle nest. It is actually a high traffic area for the kids so I’m not sure when a female would have found the time to dig a nest and lay her eggs. Nevertheless, life somehow found a way.
My son was the first to notice a small hatching, crawl out of the soft dirt. Behind it, the earth seemed to start to crack and cave, as others behind it began to stir. There were remnants of leathery egg shells and tracks out of the hole. I was amazed at how mobile these little guys were right out of the gate. My suspicion is that they are Eastern Box Turtles however I will need to investigate closer. The kids got a huge kick out of it, and they were mostly amazed that the eggs were here the whole time. The nest must have been deep enough for the soil to blunt the impact, because this was a heavily trodded area. It was an inspiring thing to see.
As a father of 3 little children, I find that I appreciate the Virginia state parks more and more each year. Before kids, I loved trekking, camping and canoeing in wilderness areas, far from civilization. Although this can still certainly be done with kids, mine are still a little too young. For now, they are absolutely loving the state parks and all of their amenities, such as pools, bathrooms and showers. The trails are always well kept and the parking lots allow for easy transport of the munchkins.
We’ve had a few chilly mornings lately, signifying the near arrival of autumn and the school year. I wanted to get outside with them before they started school. The weather forecast was set for a high of 87F and sunny, it was our chance to explore Bear Creek Lake State Park in Cumberland, Virginia. The drive was easy, less than 1 hour from Richmond and the empty lake on a Wednesday was perfect.
The park is a modest 329 acres, but the beach lake access and boat ramp with playgrounds was perfect. As true Canucks, these guys overheat easily, so we were stoked about the ample shade provided by the towering oaks and tulip poplars. The beach area was well kept with canoes, kayaks and paddle boats for rent. The spent their day swimming and playing in the sand. These little guys played their hearts out as the final days of summer approach. School is around the corner!
8/6/2022 – It’s been 6 years since I’ve stepped foot in St. Mary’s Wilderness, located in the vast and spectacular George Washington National Forest. I’ve hiked and camped here before in the Spring and Fall however I’ve never hiked through in the heart of summer – for good reason. The trail on this hike is generally poorly maintained because it is a designated wilderness area. Pink ribbons tied to branches outline the trail and most easily visible during spring and winter when the trees are bare. I wanted to take my son and my brother to this area to beat the summer heat and swim in the cold spring waters and to get to the St. Mary’s waterfall – where there are deep pools and cliff jumping.
We arrived on Saturday morning at approximately 10:00am. The parking lot was full but we had no trouble finding parking on the side of the roads. The directions to the trail are very straight forward and the road is well maintained. The summer heat brought numerous visitors, all with towels and bathing suits ready to dip in the ice cold spring waters. The lush green vegetation blanketed everything including parts of the trail.
I realized early into the hike that we were not going to make it to the waterfall. There was heavy rain the days prior and everything was wet and it took plenty of time to navigate with my son. So we decided to just take it slow and enjoy the hike. He’s currently into mushroom identification, and he spent a good amount of time combing the forest floor. The butterflies were also in full force, so he marveled at the sight of dozens of them near the stream. He made hiking sticks with his trusty laplander folding saw. I let him pick one of the deeper pools to swim in as promised before the trip. He was thrilled at the idea of swimming in ice cold spring water.
After a much needed swim and some lunch. We slowly made our way back to the car. As we left, my son reassured me that we were coming back to get to the falls next time. He had an awesome time in St. Mary’s Wilderness.