Northern Wilds Magazine
Josh Tolkan recently received a grant from the State of Minnesota Arts and Culture Board to support his work in documenting historic watercrafts in Minnesota. | JOSH TOLKAN
Along the Shore Arts

Every Boat Tells a Story

Recently, I wrote about my interest in documenting the historic boats of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I recently received a grant from the State of Minnesota Arts and Culture Board to support my work documenting historic craft in Minnesota. This project was inspired by the success of the herring skiff replica that we started at North House in partnership with the Cook County Historical Society. This year I am working to tell the story of more watercraft from Minnesota’s history by documenting lines and construction details of boats built or used locally.

In documenting the boats from an architectural perspective, I am also interested in understanding unique historical values of these boats. The product of this work will be hand drawings similar to the drawing produced from my study of the old Croftville Herring Skiff, and that were used to build the replica. Additionally, I am currently learning how to model boats in an architectural drafting computer program called Rhino and will be modeling some of these boats in Rhino as well. And finally, the stories that go along with these technical drawings are necessary to place them in context and appreciate their full value.

In this broader project, I will document boats such as canoes in the collection at the Chik-Wauk Museum of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society, other Lake Superior fishing craft in the Cook County Historical Society’s collection, as well as possibly a sailboat from the Twin Cities and a river craft from the southern part of the state along the Mississippi River. In a world of mass market production where you can find Boston Whalers and Alumacrafts all over the country, my aim with all of this is to empower and inspire hobbyist builders to build boat designs from local history, and to encourage Minnesotans to desire boats designed to our unique local conditions. To this end, I encourage readers who know of an old boat they think others should know about, to reach out to me and tell me about your boat! Maybe I’ll make a nice drawing of it and help tell its story.

Speaking of boats with local history, the wood canvas canoe, a western adaptation of the native birch bark canoe, is the boat with the most local history in northern Minnesota. I have recently been doing repairs and restoration work on old wood canvas canoes, as well as other boats for clients. Boats are something that hold a lot of memories and bring a lot of joy to people. I really connect with client’s stories and enjoy hearing about what is important to them about the boat I am repairing.

One canoe I worked on recently started its restoration over 30 years ago. For various reasons it was never finished and now I was finally able to give it new life. For another client, I recently restored a Seliga canoe that Joe finished in 1988. Joe Seliga was a legendary canoe builder from Ely, having built over 600 canoes over a 60-year career. It was really a treasure to work on a Seliga, seeing the detailed work of a true master. Interestingly, this boat was the only canoe Seliga ever showed at the Minneapolis Boat Show. I heard several Seliga stories while working on that boat and it was a treat.

I am currently repairing a fishing boat for a client who takes immaculate care of and derives much joy from his trusty aluminum fishing boat. But 30 years will undoubtedly do what they will with plywood seats. So, his prideful fishing boat will shine like never before with beautiful oak seats. I love being able to have personalized intentions in each repair project. I’d love to be a part of your boats story.

And finally, speaking of that Croftville Herring Skiff; we started building that in a class filled with local Cook County residents in January of 2020. We had planned to finish it with events filled with local volunteers last summer, however the Pandemic had other plans. So, after a year and a half intermission, we will write the next chapter in the Herring Skiff’s story this coming June. I will be down on North House’s campus every Wednesday through Saturday in June finishing the Herring Skiff. Come down to check out the progress and tell me a Lake Superior story.

Josh Tolkan is a boat builder in the Artisan Development program at North House Folk School, where traditional craft is taught on the shore of Lake Superior.

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