Having a boat seems almost a birthright in the Land of 10,000 lakes, but not everyone is born with access to that rich heritage. Sometimes a kid can get himself into trouble before he learns how to navigate.
That's why Urban Boatbuilders, a St. Paul youth-service agency that builds handmade wooden boats and instills character into the inner-city kids who learn how to make them, has an important mission. We may already have 900,000 boats in Minnesota, but we can use a few more, especially ones built from scratch by kids learning how to paddle straight.
At 1 p.m. this Thursday, two artfully designed handmade canoes will be launched on Como Lake in St. Paul. They were built by a group of young men whose bumpy lives have been straightened out a bit by a hands-on exercise that brings the reality of old wisdoms vividly to mind. Such as the saying about how we are all in the same boat.
The young boat-builders started making 17-foot skin-covered canoes (the "skins" are 9-ounce nylon fabric fortified with coats of polyurethane) last week at the Como Pavilion. They are apprentices for Urban Boatbuilders (www. urbanboatbuilders.org), a nonprofit based in St. Paul's Midway Shopping Center that has turned out about 300 handmade canoes over the years and that partners with schools, at-risk youths and the juvenile-court system.
Many of the best boat-builders come out of Boys Totem Town, a Ramsey County correctional facility for delinquent boys. Recent Totem Town resident Joe Miller, 18, was admiring the work he had helped complete, using heavy nylon twine to lash the longitudinal strips to the canoe ribs. Covered with tattoos and wearing a rosary around his neck and a baseball cap set on his head at a streetwise angle, Miller did not look the part of a savvy North Woods guide. But he has worked hard to get to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, where he and his fellow canoe-builders will take their new canoes in August to test their building skills, and their bonding ones, too.
Miller landed in Totem Town on a charge of criminal damage to property, something he says happened during a fight. Now, instead of breaking things, he is making things. When he saw Urban Boatbuilders teaching Totem Town kids how to build a canoe, he started taking shop classes and asking for a chance to be hired (at $7 an hour) as an apprentice. Today, he's afraid of water, but ready to paddle on his own.
"This keeps me out of trouble and gives me a positive feeling," Miller said. "A feeling of accomplishment. I told these guys I'd do anything I had to do to be part of this."
"These guys" refers to Phil Winger, 35, the program manager for Urban Boatbuilders, and instructor Brian Thorkildson, 30. After 15 years of building boats behind the scenes, Urban Boatbuilders has brought its program into the open this summer, launching a flotilla of boats on Lake Phalen a few weeks ago, and getting set for Thursday's launch of the new canoes being built at Lake Como.
"We wanted to take the program out into the public so the community can witness these kids doing something positive and inspiring," says Winger. "We are teaching them four things: craftsmanship, teamwork, perseverance and responsibility. If they forget everything else, it won't matter as long as they take away those elements."
Winger and Thorkildson bring their experience to the effort, but don't have all the answers. In boat-building, as in life, you have to figure out some things for yourself.
"These guys like it when they realize that we don't know everything," Thorkildson says. "It gives them a sense of satisfaction when they figure things out themselves. That's when they tell their friends that 'I can't run with you today; I have to work on my boat.' There's something that feels good about having a little success every day."
One thing that may not be obvious is how unusual it is for these kids to work together with kids of other colors or cultures. On the streets, neighborhoods and colors are separated by turf wars, gang allegiances and grudges. In a canoe, you have to all pull together or you don't get where you want to go.
"Hmong, white, African-American," says Mike Shypulski, a juvenile-corrections officer who works as a group leader at Totem Town and goes on canoe trips with his young charges in the canoes they build. "They get on the river and they have to learn how to work together and get along together. It's pretty neat to see."
As the work wound down the other day, a muscular kid named Cody challenged Winger, the project manager, to an arm-wrestling match, with Winger to be tossed into the weedy waters of Como Lake if he lost.
Winger did not want to get wet, and he did not lose. The big kid's arm quickly got pinned to the table. But he wasn't disappointed. He grinned. This was a new game here. Even if you lost, you were still on the same team.
And in the same canoe.
Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.