Building a Wannigan: In the Hudson’s Bay Tradition

If you have spent some time canoeing up north, you might have run into paddlers lugging around a heavy wooden box along for the ride. Oddly enough, the paddlers hoisted this box on their back, with a thick leather strap banded across their forehead to support the weight. Inside this mysterious box were plenty of camping treasures: pots, pans, lights, games, matches and more. This traditional piece of canoe gear is known as the wannigan. It is a wooden box or chest that is used to store cookware, food and goods on a canoe or snowsledding trip.

The tumpline that is used these boxes are just as interesting. These are usually thick and durable straps of leather that serve as harness for these large boxes and ultimately make “tumping” possible. For over 200 years, wannigans have been on canoe trips and voyages. Their use can be tracked as far back as several hundred years by the hardy voyageurs (french canadian fur trappers). For them however, this was not a recreational camping box, but functional storage device that they hoisted through hundreds of miles of boreal forest, day in and day out.

The wannigan can make even the most remote of places feel like home.

 

Today, I am pleased to know that the spirit of the wannigan is still out there, alive and well in all parts of canada and the northern USA. There are certain camps in Ontario that continue to use traditional equipment such as wannigans on their canoe trips. Camp Keewaydin is a fine example. At these camps, children hoist these heavy boxes with them through Canadian boreal lands as they make their way through expeditions on their own. There are those that feel that the wannigan is impractical or just downright unnecessary in the age of waterproof plastic bins. Love them or hate them, I believe that wannigans help remind us to exercise a little bit more caution on canoe trips. They remind us of the history of canoeing in Canada and serve as an important link to our past.

I’ve always wanted to build one to for the family and to keep traditional way of canoe camping alive. More importantly, I wanted something to build and share lasting memories for the kids.

Step 1: The design

Hudson’s Bay Company stripes on the famous HBC Point Blanket

The most important part of designing your wannigan is building one that actually fits your canoe! Since most canoe hulls are pretty close in size, the dimensions of all wannigans are relatively similar. Most wannigans are simple box designs, although there are some out there that are actually curved to the hull of the canoe.

Most wannigans are stained after their completion in a wood stain of one’s choice. I decided I wanted to create on in a more artisan fashion. In keeping with the tradition of this old piece of gear and the history of canoeing in Canada, I decided to paint this wannigan in the tradition of the Hudson’s Bay company. Known as one of the greatest companies in the world, this British company played an integral role in shaping the landscape of Canada and the fur trade. I always thought the classic Hudson’s Bay color scheme looked pretty cool. Basically plain white, with stripes of indigo, yellow, red and green, in that order. This color scheme and pattern was originally used on the Hudson’s Bay “Point Blanket”. This wool blanket was sold during the 1700 and 1800s and an item frequently traded with amongst First Nations people. The “point” system was a series of black lines at the corner of each blanket along the selvage. The number of lines would indicate how large the blanket was when it was unfolded. The pattern and design is seen today on numerous Hudson’s Bay Company goods, such as mugs, clothes, towels, canoes and even stuff animals.

If you are interested in learning more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, here are two great links.

 

Most wannigans have a lid that is flush with the sides, making the outline an even box. My brother created a wannigan in this style and we noticed that on trips with heavy rainfall, the wannigan actually started collecting water inside. To combat this problem, he cleverly sewed a Hudson Bay flag skirt for the wannigan which eventually worked to keep things dry. I decided in my design that I wanted to avoid this problem all together. I was going to make a lid that was slightly larger than the dimensions of my main compartment.

Duluth waxed canvas canoe packs and wannigan with skirt.

Creating a lid with a lip, would also allow me to wood burn a chessboard on the under surface to play during rainy day under the tarp or by campfire at night. The lip, would work to naturally keep the chess pieces from falling off the sides.

Step 2: The frame

I wanted to create a wannigan that did not have any metal screws. This one is held together by it’s joints as well as occasional wooden pegs and of course wood glue. The the large sides are from plywood and the ends are pine. While constructing the box, it certainly helps to invest in several large clamps at the ready. I subsequently applied several layers of colonial maple wood stain on the wannigan.

Finishing the lid

 

Step 4: The fiberglass.

While some May consider this next step to be unnecessary, I knew it would add many benefits. Yes, I’m talking about adding a layer of fiberglass on the inside of the wannigan. This layer would not only strengthen the box, but would also make the inside waterproof – also making spills infinitely easier to clean. I’ve never worked with fiberglass or epoxy resin for that matter and this proved to be the most challenging step. One thing I learned was to mix small batches! In larger quantities I found that the epoxy and resin once mixed generated a lot of heat and solidified very quickly. It is of utmost importance to mix as accurate ratios as instructed as possible. This is a messy business so make sure you’re protected and working in a well ventilated area.

Step 4: Wood-burning

This was one of my favorite parts of the project. With the help of my brother, we tracked down several hudson bay logos on the internet. I was looking for one that was actually NOT as finely detailed because that would prove to be much more difficult to burn. Once you are satisfied with your design, print the logo out in “reverse”. From there, I used the hot pen and a flat surface to heat the paper and ink onto the wood. This would allow just enough ink transfer onto the wood so you can burn your design into it. I noticed that woodburning is not as easy on a softwood such as pine. Woodburning the cheeseboard also proved to be quite laborious however still enjoyable.

 

Step 4: The painting

This hbc canoe, and it’s contrast of wood and paint was where I got my inspiration for this wannigan design

 

This process actually took the longest. To ensure that the white was actually as “white” as it could be with clean stripes, I had to make some careful preparations. First off, it is critical to use a primer before the paint to soak up any stain. I gave this layer of primer a full 24 hours to dry, I wanted to prevent any peeling of paint because I was going to be using a lot of paint tape. After it was completely dried, I applied 3 coats of white paint, latex, and water based. Once this layer was completely dried I carefully taped the areas that would be striped. To make sure that the colored stripes would NOT BLEED ONTO the white paint, I actually painted OVER the taped margins with white paint to fill any possible micro gaps and for capillary action to soak up any potential paint. This is a CRITICAL STEP.

Step 5: The finish

Choosing the finish was actually more difficult than I thought. Typically, for any stained wood surface, you have a variety of options. For something that is going to brave the elements, you want it to be UV protected as well as water resistant. For such purposes, marine spar varnish (an oil base) is usually preferred. I realized that my project was different than just stained wood…I was working with stained wood as well as carefully painted pattern with a mostly white background. The pure white color posed an issue. Most spar varnishes will actually YELLOW the white.

I had to search for quite some time before I was able to find the finish that would NOT stain the white. It was a water based spar varnish that particularly says: “no yellowing”, make sure you look for that statement, because there are plenty of water based varnishes that will actually YELLOW your project. Believe me, you do not want to sand and re apply the finish. Another method is to have a sample test piece of wood that you can test the finish on. The water based varnish dries very quickly so you have to work relatively fast. Once the coat is totally dry, usually in about 3 hours, VERY gently run a 400 grit sandpaper over the surface to remove any bumps that may have developed. You ARE NOT sanding at this point, it is a VERY gentle grazing with the sandpaper. I ended up applying 5 coats of water based varnish to the wannigan.

Step 6: The tumpline

Another piece of traditional canoe wear, is the tumpline. Classically this Is a piece of leather strap that is tied to the canoe or waningan to assist in carrying and distributing the weight. The broad band of leather is placed over the forehead and the load is rested on the upper back. It sounds like an unusual way to carry loads but it actually works to help ease weight from the shoulders.

you can virtually use any type of rope for the tumpline but I wanted this thing to last the years and also to be crafted in the traditional sense. I purchased a leather tumpline from “Pole and Paddle” for $85. A bit pricey but worth it in terms of quality.

Conclusion:

As with most projects, the construction of this wannigan, turned out to be a much larger task than expected! I certainly don’t consider myself a woodworker but I tackled this project to also learn more about the craft. I was happy that I got my first experience with epoxy resin and fiber glass. I also have a much larger respect for the construction of a level and even box! I also got to try wood burning for the first time. All of these skills will come in handy in the future for bigger projects. At the end of the day, I was certainly glad that I built it. Although large, difficult to carry and heavy…….a canoe trip just wouldn’t be the same without this treasure chest. When you are out in the middle of boreal forest, with the water lapping on the sides of your canoe, and the distant calls of the loon fill the air, it brings me great satisfaction to know that I have a trusty kitchen with me, filled with tools, games and memories.

As I stare at this untouched wannigan, I wonder where this box will take us? How many seasons will it last? How many lakes will it see? how many portages shall it endure? and what adventures lie ahead? Only time will tell….

Lure of the North – short film by Goh Iromoto

In Ontario, when the lakes have frozen and the forests become silent, there are still plenty of outdoor endeavors to pursue. One such activity I’ve never had the chance to experience, is hot tent winter camping. I found this cool short film about a couple who embark on an expedition in the Ontario wilderness in the heart of winter. The company “Lure of the North” organizes such trips for those that are interested. A quick browse on their website shows pricing anywhere from $400 to $3200 dollars CAD.

I’ve been a big fan of Goh and his work. He is a cinematographer based out of Toronto, Ontario. His works revolve mostly around the natural world, and he has done much to help the canoe culture in Ontario. I particular like the way he captures certain sounds to immerse one in the environment. His shots and framing are always stunning to me.

“In the remote wilderness of Ontario, Canada, two travellers endure the repetitive mental hardship of cold winter tripping. This short film captures the experiences and emotions of their expedition. It’s tough. It’s tiring. It’s lonesome. Yet it’s a beautiful and meditative love affair as you persevere one snowshoe step at a time.”

Torres Del Paine National Park and Patagonia Camp

 

In March 2017, we took a trip to the southern most tip of South America to explore Chilean Patagonia. This was over 2 years ago, but I finally found some time to put together a video! It was filmed on my sony a6000 which I purchased in 2015, it amazes me how well this camera has held up over the years.  It’s not 4K video, but the colors and image quality are still awesome in my opinion. It has been on a lot of trips in all types of weather conditions and survived. It is also a tiny camera so you can actually use it when the moment calls. Enjoy!

40 years later, a family revisits their epic canoe trip

I found this cool short video of a family’s canoe journey on the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska. It was featured in National Geographic’s Showcase Spotlight. Pretty amazing trip! Would you ever go on a trip like this with family?


“In 1974, filmmaker Nate Dappen’s 20-year-old parents and uncle Andy built their own canoes to travel up the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska. The voyage took them all the way to Ketchikan and became an epic journey that would later be retold to Nate and his brother. Determined to reinvigorate the legend, Nate convinced his father, uncle, and brother to embark on another trip. In the summer of 2017, the Dappens renovated those original canoes and continued their expedition on to Juneau.”

“Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.

Know of a great short film that should be part of our Showcase? Email sfs@natgeo.com to submit a video for consideration. See more from National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase at http://documentary.com Get More National Geographic: Official Site: http://bit.ly/NatGeoOfficialSite Facebook: http://bit.ly/FBNatGeo Twitter: http://bit.ly/NatGeoTwitter Instagram: http://bit.ly/NatGeoInsta

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Sevierville, Tennessee

I normally wouldn’t log this trip as an expedition, but with a 19 month with us, it sure felt that way. My friend was getting married in Nasheville and he suggested that I head out a week early to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as the surrounding Gaitlinburg area before the wedding. Gaitlinburg is listed at 6 hours and 41 minutes from Richmond, and I have always been looking for an excuse to go to the smokies. We felt like the distance might have been quite a stretch for our 19 month old son, but he has always been quite a good lil traveler so we decided to brave the roads instead of the airplane. He had never travelled such a distance by car before and I had no idea how he would tolerate it. So we ended up allotting a 12 hour travel window for us with scheduled 2 hour breaks in between so he could run and stretch his legs.

Roanoake River

Departure: 6:30am. The first leg of the trip went very well. We were able to get in 2.5 hours before our first stop in the town of Roanoake, Virginia. We stopped at Greenhill Park, and it was the absolute perfect pit stop. For a toddler, this park was like an oasis. It had it all, a playground, picnic tables, shaded areas, and even the roanoake river coursed through the park for fishing and cooling off. The bend of river that traveled through the park was very clear and shallow. It was perfect to wade and search for fish and crayfish. Our son loved this spot a little too much and as expected, it was a battle to get him back into the car…fortunately, the weather was merciful and by mid-day it was still surprisingly comfortable.

cabin views

Soon enough we were on 81 south again, as the interstate rolled gently through the hills towards Tennessee. We covered a couple of hours before we stopped again in Bristol, VA/Tennesee for lunch. We finally finished the leg to our cabin at about 4:30pm (a total travel time of 10 hours) 2 hours ahead of schedule! We actually stayed just outside Gaitlinburg in a town called Sevierville, Tennessee (population 16,716). We were all excited to stretch our legs, jump on the bed a few times, and get outside and take in some of the beautiful views. It did not take us long to get settled into our new home for the next 5 days and 4 nights. Our son instantly fell in love with the place and of course the air hockey table. We all rested easily that night, in a cabin up in the clouds after a long day of travel – we were pretty worn out.

The next morning, we woke up early to head into the national park. The drive was a short and easy 20 minutes into the park. Out of all 60 national parks in the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited park with more than 11.6 million visitors in 2016. This is likely due to the fact that it is one of the few parks on the east coast and it is also free admission. I was surprised to see the level of commercialization of the surrounding area. The town of Gaitlinburg is essentially one big tourist trap, with everything from “Ripley’s Believe it or not” to go carting! I personally found this to be off-putting but many people seemed to love it. I guess I always imagined the national parks as one of the few special places on earth protected to bring us closer to the outdoors. They are meant to inspire future generations to learn about the environment and the importance of different ecosystems. Instead, in Gaitlinburg, there are endless shops and stores that sell meaningless t-shirts and merchandise… all of which will likely end up in a landfill within a couple of months. While, Gaitlinburg can be very entertaining for children, it feels out of place so close to a national park.

The ascent up to Laurel Falls.

The park itself is very nice and actually very similar to Shenandoah National Park. We chose our hikes carefully…..something feasible with a 27lb 19 month old on your back. We arrived early in the park and were fortunate enough to get a parking spot at Laurel Falls. It was an easy one with only 314ft elevation gain over 2.4 miles. Our son particularly liked the Sugarlands visitor center where he finally got to meet a black bear (the goal of his trip). He even posed next to it for some pictures. He always seems to enjoy visitor centers at parks, whether they be state or national. They offer a quick run through of the key faun and flora in the park. We later head into Gaitlinburg to tour the town and find some dinner.

Now that we knew what we were up against, we wanted to rise early and get to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. It is located in the heart of the park at an altitude of 6643 ft. Fortunately with a child, the parking lot brings you within one mile of the observation deck, where you make a steep ascent to be amongst the clouds. The temperature at this altitude was 52 degrees farenheit, a stark contrast from the 82 degree weather back at our cabin! Visibility fluctuates rapidly at this altitude as well, and we hunkered down in our CRV until the sun started to show. Interestingly, at this altitude, there was an information cabin and gift shop. We bought a sweater and a stuffed bear and hung around the parking lot until the sun came out. We caught our break when we caught a glimpse of Fontana Lake on the North Carolina side over a mile away. The climb up is steep with numerous benches along the way for visitors to take breaks. The landscape is pretty amazing with the distinct douglas fir trees that painted the horizon. The clouds moved fluidly over the mountains and created an ocean of moving shadows over the mountain range.

Up in the clouds

We would spend the next few days at the cabin, relaxing and taking in the surrounding views and listening to the sounds of the mountain range. We did occasional trips back out to Sevierville for supplies and food, but the pickings were slim. Of course, a trip to Tennessee would be incomplete without a visit to a local distillery for some bourbon. We picked up a couple of bottles from the King’s Family distillery as gifts for friends and family back home. All in all, our lil toddler loved the trip. The Great Smokies itself is a beautiful park. Perhaps one day, we might return to take on the most popular and strenuous hikes like Mt Leconte or Andrews bald, but I seriously doubt that we would be back in this area with so many more National Parks left to visit. I was surprised at how well he did in the car, and this gives me hope for future trips.

Humpback Rocks – Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 5.8

The Blue Ridge Parkway spans a total of 469 miles, weaving though the scenic mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Millions of visitors flock to the parkway, especially in the fall time, to experience the rich geology, wildlife, history and tradition of this special parkway. Spanning over two states, the blue ridge parkway is divided into four sections: Ridge, Plateau, Highlands, and Pisgah. The Ridge Region (northernmost region) is the region I’ve naturally explored the most by proximity.

A short 1.5 hour drive from Richmond, VA, Humpback Rocks is an easy day trip.

 

It begins in Afton, Virginia at the southern end of Skyline Drive where Shenandoah National Park ends. It runs through the beautiful George Washington and Jefferson National forests and is known for its beautiful rolling pastures and waterways. At milepost 5.8, is Humpback Rock, one of the most popular hikes in the ridge region. It is probably the best bang for your buck hike in the region, a short (but very steep 1.0 mile hike) will take you to the top of the rock formations for a breath taking view of the blue ridge. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has been focusing of late on physician wellness and health” during residency. As a way to combat, burnout and fatigue, they are encouraging residency programs across the country to embark on retreats to discuss difficult topics and to better connect with one another. April 27, 2019 – A short 1.5 hour drive and we were away from the hospital and into the mountains. It was a chilly spring day and the skies were clear. It still amazes me, how nature has the ability to recharge and kickstart that internal engine…..further emphasizing the importance of keeping these special areas preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Before the hike
The crew on top of a mountain

Spring on the Chesapeake Bay

April is one of the best times of the year to get out on the water in Virginia. The weather is cool, the bugs are not out yet, and it doesn’t feel like a tropical rainforest. We used this opportunity to head east to where the mouth of the piankatank river opens to the mighty Chesapeake Bay. We brought out the ol prospector to hit the salty waters. This was our son’s first time at the beach also sitting in a canoe. He’s still a little too young to get out on the water but he was certainly excited to to get inside the canoe. The blue crabs don’t seem to be out and about yet, but we are getting the pots ready for May. It may also be possible to raise some oysters in these waters as well.This particularly area looks promising for all sorts of fishing. We spent the day, helping my father in law extend his deck, fishing and paddling. Although we didn’t catch anything, it was great to be outdoors, feel the breeze, warm in the sun and hunch over a small fire on the beach.

Chesapeake Bay

I was able to finally take my drone out for its first flight. My in-laws got me a Parrot Anafi drone for christmas, and 4 months later I was able to take it out of the box and take it for a test flight. I don’t know much about drones, but this thing is awesome. It shoots in 4k and would help take movie making to a whole new level. Hopefully I’ll be able to take it some canoe trips in the near future up north. I’m planning to take 2.5 months off at the end of my residency to spend more time with the family and go on some trips. With only 2 more months of training left to go, I find it hard to focus because of the prospect of finally finishing.

The trouble now is deciding where to go with an 18 month old. He’s too young for a backcountry canoe trip although I’ve heard of people tripping with toddlers. One potential is trekking out to Utah to visit the major 5 national parks. Another option is somewhere in western canada for a couple of weeks. Whatever we come up with, I’ll be excited to be away from the hospital. Let the countdown begin….

His first beach fire with his uncle.

New beginnings on the Chesapeake Bay

We explored the lands of my father’s cottage at the opening of the Chesapeake Bay. It has always been his dream to build a cottage and a retreat for all of his kids and grandkids to enjoy. Our quick survey of the land was promising; the area was teeming with wildlife. From herons, egrets and hawks to oysters and of course the Chesapeake blue crab. Back in the 1600s, the blue crab was a crucial source of food for Native Americans and European settlers in the Chesapeake Bay area. Today, this crustacean is an icon of the Chesapeake Bay region and their success in these waters have allowed numerous restaurants and businesses to thrive in the Virginia and Maryland. I don’t know much about trapping crabs, but it’s time to get out there and learn. Maybe even learn to raise some oysters along the way….

An early snow

December 9, 2018 – We were hit with an early and unexpected snowstorm, accumulating over 13 inches in Richmond, Virginia. This is certainly an early start to the snow season for us and much heavier than in the past. After a review of the Richmond weather records dating back to 1897, the heaviest snow that occurred earlier than Dec 10 was 7.3 inches on Nov 6-7, 1953. The record for December snowstorm for Richmond was 17.2 inches on Dec 22-23, 1908. Stay safe out there.