Erik Simula embodies leadership by nature — natural leadership qualities conducted in the natural world. It began with his Finnish upbringing on a small family farm near Duluth. His exposure to hunting, fishing and camping nurtured a passion for the outdoors. Simula said by the time he was 6 he knew wilderness adventure would be his livelihood.

Before his senior year in high school, he guided canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. At 17, he won a national leadership award that landed him in the Oval Office advocating the merits of youth exploration to President Ronald Reagan. He later served as a park ranger and canoe-builder at the Grand Portage National Monument. Today, he operates outdoor education services and training from his home in Finland near Minnesota’s North Shore.

Among his numerous outdoor skills, he is renowned for constructing birchbark canoes. He and his wife, Dawn, were recently featured on the Discovery Science Channel’s “How It’s Made” where they showcased their expertise in canoe-building and harvesting wild rice.

For Simula, though, building community seems as much of his spirit as building canoes. He shares his knowledge of traditional travel, crafts and culture with local schools, national parks and private organizations. He offers birchbark canoe-building courses at North House Folk School in Grand Marais. Throughout last summer, he conducted a free canoe-building project open to the public on the front lawn of the Ely Folk School.

Simula, 51, recently spoke about how nature, culture and community impact his life. Here are edited excerpts:

On building birchbark canoes

I had a deep hunger for birchbark canoe-building at the age of 21. A lot of it was self-taught and wherever I could find a canoe hanging I’d ask questions, see who built it, and think through why it was built a certain way. My initial interest would certainly be from the artistry of Native Americans. Their canoes were very well-crafted with extremely pleasing visual lines. Every tribe took great pride in their own tribal design, and the canoes were extremely seaworthy. There’s something about the energy within the materials and through the crafting process that’s a spiritual experience. If the materials are hand-harvested, traditional tools are used, and you honor the spirit of the trees, bark, roots, pitch and bear grease, that translates into an enhanced experience when handling, paddling or even seeing a birchbark canoe.

On canoes building community

The value in sharing traditional birchbark canoe-building, such as the summerlong community project at the Ely Folk School, goes beyond learning skills. It goes toward deeper meanings of native cultural appreciation, environmental connectedness, ingenuity, power, sustainability and wisdom. Doing it as a free public program allowed people to come and go as they please and there was no financial twist to the deal. That’s huge as far as setting an atmosphere of comfort and just being open to talking about native cultural ways. We had a core group of about 12 to 20. But when you count all the people that actually helped work on the canoe, it’s probably more like 60 to 100. There were youth groups that came and visitors off the street would help out for a night.

On the appeal of guiding

It’s sharing the experiences with other people. It’s kind of a sustainable employment. You’re utilizing the natural resources locally without damaging them. It represents skills that I think a lot of people are instinctively curious about. As I guide, inevitably, my clients and I talk about these subjects of life and our role in life. I think the exposure to nature, especially under conditions of traditional travel and traditional craft, help connect people at a closer level to traditional cultural ways.

On living with the seasons

Each season I look forward to different activities. Birchbark canoes are traditionally made in summer when you can access the materials. Come fall, my main focus is on wild rice harvesting, whitefish-netting and deer hunting. I’ve done more gardening, and planted an orchard. So I harvest apples and press cider in fall. That’s more of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle and I do both. Dog sledding is part of a greater annual cycle that I’ve lived most of my life. In late fall and early winter, I make snowshoes, and build or maintain dog sleds to support my winter-guiding activities.


Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at