Fired up, burned out

Fired up,  burned out This article was published in the October 17 issue of the Wareham Courier. It was the second in a series of articles. See video after the jump.

PLYMOUTH - When English Colonists first arrived in Massachusetts they reported seeing great canoes that carried as many as 40 men up and down the coasts. Tribes and clans used the oceans and waterways like highways for trade and communication from Canada down through the Carolinas, all on what were essentially hollowed-out logs.

At Plimoth Plantation, where the Wampanoag Homesite has been using traditional techniques to make mishoonash, the goals are a little more modest than operating a complex trade network up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

"The Wampanoag Indigenous Program has been instrumental in redeveloping and starting a resurgence in Wampanoag maritime trade and tradition and the production of our traditional vessels, these dugout canoes, using the traditional methods," Jonathan Perry, assistant manager of the program.

It isn't that the Wampanoag interpreters don't relish the possibility of building a 60-foot canoe; it's just difficult because there aren't a lot of trees around that fit the bill. To find logs for a two-man boat, the program had to travel to Freetown.

"You want tall trees, appropriate in size, with very few branches on the lower levels," Perry said.

Typically the Wampanoag would have used white pine or oak, which don't crack under the heat that will be used to carve out the inside of the boat. They would also try and find a tree along a river or the side of a lake in case the fire got out of control, and because even the smaller canoes can weigh a few hundred pounds. Once a tree had been felled, the other end of the boat would be cut out and shaped with fire. Once the rest of the bark had been pulled off, they would burn off the top part of the log and then move the hot coals to the center to help in burning out the hollow of the boat.

"We use water and we use clay to control the burn, so that you're not burning too thin or creating cracks," Perry said.

The boat maker would manage the fire so that the walls of the canoe slowly widen toward the bottom, increasing from less than an inch thick at the top to about three inches on the bottom. Making the bottom of the boat heavy helps give it stability in the water. And as the boat wicks up moisture it becomes even heavier.

The English Colonists even adopted some of the native's techniques. They discovered fire had many advantages over other tools, the biggest of which was that it didn't require as much manual labor.

"The beauty of the burning is that it reduces the wood that you need to remove to charcoal, which is easily chipped or scraped out of the boat, or just reduces even further to ash. It leaves the wood hardened and seals the wood to some degree, so that it will absorb much less, so you have no problem with it becoming waterlogged. It leaves no splinters behind. So, there's no need for finishing work and it leaves your hands free to do many other things," Perry said.

The hot coals could also be used just like any other fire, for warmth and for cooking.

The time that it takes to usher the flames to carve out a boat can vary depending on the size of the boat and the skill of the craftsman. When the coals are allowed to run 24 hours a day, the artisans at the Wampanoag Homesite have managed to finish a small canoe in as few as four-and-a-half days. But that's a lot of overtime for the program. Given the Plantation's hours of operation, the process is stretched out over several weeks because the coals have to be put out soon after they've built up a sufficient amount of heat to really start to work the wood. This has the added benefit of displaying the techniques and process to as many visitors as possible during the season.

"You can see us producing these boats, usually in the spring and in the fall, every season here at Plimoth Plantation," Perry added.

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