I started my latest kayak by strapping on a pair of snowshoes and heading for the shore of the Mississippi. I’ve got a spot not so far from my house where I harvest willow branches. I turn them into ribs for an Alaskan-style kayak — a baidarka to the Russians who once colonized Alaska, or a iqyax̂ to the native speakers.
It was one of those cold, clear mornings that made up this winter. Some crows squawking in the trees. Rabbit tracks in the snow. Noise from the trains on the far bank. There wasn’t anyone else around.
I had a big red backpack and a pruning shears. The idea here is to clip straight willow shoots that are about thirty inches long. Ideally the shoots are a half-inch thick. This being nature, you end up making a lot of compromises and mistakes. Some of the branches are dead, though it’s not always so easy to tell when you’re cutting them. Dead shoots break rather than bend. Some are too spindly on one end, or too thick. But you try to convince yourself that they might work anyway. My policy is to harvest double the number of shoots I need. I cut about eighty and hope that will be enough.
I trim the bark off with a sharp knife. I’ve already drilled quarter inch holes in the gunwales, so all that remains (I say all advisedly) is to bend the shoots into something like a U-shape and stick each end into a gunwale.
Like so many things that are easier said than done, this is fraught with challenges. Some shoots break. Others take on weird shapes. I cut some too long, others too short. I’m trying to get a fair line for the chines to follow, but this is further evidence that in this world perfection is an unobtainable goal. Inevitably the chines wander a bit over ribs that are not-so-accurately set.
I’m telling myself that’s part of the charm. The wandering line is what separates the hand of man from the work of the machine. You’re welcome to use this line yourself next time you’re painting the trim, sewing a seam, or doing anything where your achievements bump up against Platonic ideals. It helps, a little.