It was, Victoria Gonzalez admitted, her first time in a canoe, despite being of the ripe old age of 9 and living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
But what made this paddle even more special for the Duluth girl is that she helped build the canoe she was paddling in.
Gonzalez was part of a summer camp program held by Duluth Folk School in cooperation with Men as Peacemakers, the Boys and Girls Club of Duluth and St. Paul-based Urban Boatbuilders. In all, some 30 kids, ages 9-17, helped build the boat over two weeks in July, working in four-hour shifts as they steamed the wooden ribs into shape, lashed the pieces together and stretched out the waterproof nylon to make the shell.
“It was a lot of work,” Gonzalez said, noting she helped, on various days, measuring, sawing, sanding and lashing. “But it was fun.”
Gonzalez was the first summer camp participant on Tuesday morning to paddle in the canoe, which the incoming fourth grader deemed quite seaworthy. Gonzalez was in the bow while Erika LeMay, youth programming director for Duluth Folk School, handled the stern.
The two picked up the boat to launch it as if it were a big feather.
“It’s amazing how light these are,” LeMay noted, adding the 15-foot canoe weighed about 35 pounds. “But it's remarkably strong.”
The duo paddled out from the Munger Landing in Duluth’s Smithville neighborhood and tooled around the St. Louis River estuary for a bit.
“Her Ojibwe name … translates to 'Little Otter Woman.' She loves the water,” said Victoria’s mom, LaVonne Bellinger.
The ribs are ash, steamed hot so they could be bent into the skeleton shape of the canoe. The gunnels are pine and the seat, decking and yoke are cherry. The ballistic nylon cloth is waterproofed so it shouldn’t leak. And it didn’t.
The canoe kit was designed by Urban Boat Builders, a group founded in 1995 to help get city kids not only working cooperatively and learning some old-school craftsmanship skills, but also doing it with an outdoor focus, offering participants a chance to not only build something with their own hands, and build character, but also use the fruits of their labor to have fun outdoors.
Urban Boat Builders even sent up an instructor to help teach LeMay and others how to get started, and how to pass that knowledge on to the kids.
“This is something our kids would never get to do if it weren’t for this program,’’ said Serrano Robinson, program coordinator for the Men as Peacemakers group of kids who helped build the canoe.
While the handmade canoe might look fragile “day by day, as you saw this come together, you realize they are actually very strong,’’ Robinson said.
“It was a fun summertime project. But, most importantly, it was good for them to try something new,’’ he said. “But it’s also good that this focused on the lakes and outdoors. We live in Duluth and the state with 10,000 lakes. But a lot of our kids never get out of town to do something like paddle a canoe.”
Other summer camp activities — free for the kids thanks to grants from the Duluth Superior Community Foundation and the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation — included sessions sewing packs at Frost River, making soap, fusing glass and making jewelry.
LeMay said the Duluth Folk School, founded in Lincoln Park in 2015, is moving to expand its youth programming while still retaining its adult education offerings.
“Despite all of our (outdoor) opportunities in Duluth we still see this huge need to get more kids more experiences outdoors,” LeMay said, adding that the folk school will be conducting a fall youth canoe building class using the same Urban Boatbuilders kit. “We’re expanding, not changing.”
For more information, go to duluthfolkschool.com.