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Voyageur Days

History center celebrates a bygone era in the U.P.

May 25, 2012
By JOHANNA BOYLE - Journal Ishpeming Bureau , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - The design of a canoe hasn't changed a lot over the past three thousand years. But the materials sure have.

Visitors to the Marquette Regional History Center this week are getting the chance to see the building of a birchbark canoe, made using traditional Native American methods, right in the museum's main lobby. The weeklong building event culminates Saturday with Voyageur Days, a day of demonstrations and activities that explores the lives of early residents of the Upper Peninsula.

"To me, it's an amazing process. You don't have a pattern to go by," said Jan Zender. "This is where canoes came from. There's nothing new in the design world, just the materials."

Zender, along with his wife, Rochelle Dale, and daughter Kalil Zender, all of Big Bay, are fur trade artisans who are spending the week working on the canoe. The family lives off the grid, producing art native to the Great Lakes region in the 1700 and 1800s. Zender's canoes and other historically-accurate items have been shown in museums across the country, including the Smithsonian.

The canoe-building demonstration also serves as an attraction for a larger exhibit on the history of canoes, which is at the museum until September. The exhibit explores the origins of canoes and their use by travelers and includes examples of different types of canoes from the National Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.

Using traditional methods and materials, from spruce roots used for stitching to the traditional metal tools, Zender and Dale have been hard at work shaping the canoe right in the lobby of the museum. The process usually takes a month, and visitors to the museum can now see the nearly-finished product, which will be fully usable when done.

"The hardest part is finding good birchbark," Zender said. "It takes big trees. It has to be a solid, stiff piece of bark."

Although the family does get some tips from local logging companies who might be cutting a stand of birch, Zender said much of their material is found by walking through the woods, including the cedar that forms the structure of the canoe and the spruce roots for the stitching.

"It was a family project," Zender said. "The women did most of the sewing. Children dug the roots."

The canoe, which measures around 15 feet, began its life as a long piece of birchbark. After shaping and stitching, it now has a canoe shape, but must still be sealed with a pitch made from oil, charcoal and spruce pitch to make the seams waterproof.

"I think philosophically it makes you aware of your natural resources and care of your natural resources," Zender said. "You don't have to kill the trees to do it. A great deal of Indian art is conscientious art."

Throughout the week his family has been at work on the canoe, Zender said there had been a steady stream of school groups and community visitors coming to check out the process.

When finished, the canoe will weigh about 60 pounds and will be more buoyant than today's commercial canoes because of the material it is made from.

Pioneer Days runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Marquette Regional History Center, Saturday, and is free with regular admission to the museum.

Besides the canoe building, visitors can also have the chance to participate in a fur trading activity, which area elementary school students have been enjoying for the past several weeks. The fur trading activity runs at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Saturday will also find a host of Native American artisans, selling their crafts and giving demonstrations.

Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is



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