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GASNO GAO Aticamec Birchbark Canoe

Gasno Gao, Circa 1930 — 1950, an Aticamek birch bark canoe —13ft.10 in. x 34 in., 72 lbs., made by Ceasar Newashish (sp?) of Manuan, Quebec, Canada. I bought it in 1976 from an Indian canoe builder who was making and selling canvas canoes in the adjacent town of St.-Michel-Des-Saints. The name means birch bark canoe in Seneca, my adopted Indian Nation.

The story goes back a long time. I have been studying American Native peoples for many years and have a large collection of artifacts, clothing and other native crafts. I also have been making and using canoes for many years. But I didn’t have an Indian canoe! I knew Henri Vallincourt and have great respect for his workmanship and knowledge of native crafts but I wanted an Indian canoe. I had several talks with him as we worked on canoe parts. I studied the literature and learned as much as I could about birch bark canoes and contemporary builders, then started my search. After the Meet at Sugar Island, Evelyn and I would head up into Canada where we had heard they were making canoes. We went up one river that flowed into the St Lawrence where people had said that they built them. Upon getting up as far north as possible, we were told "over there--farther East", but we ran out of time and had to continue the next year. We went to Quebec and asked around there without any success.

Then, in 1973, we took our most exciting trip up the Saint Maurice River. The scenery was beautiful as the road ran along the winding river a few miles south of La Tuque. Suddenly, there was a loud "BANG" from the back of the car and I stomped on the brake, thinking we had hit something. Glancing into the rear view mirror, I saw our gas tank lying in the middle of the road with gasoline pouring into the road and running into the ditch! There was not much traffic up there but about fifteen minutes later one car sped by, going north. However, as we began to think of what else we could do, a couple of elder strangers stopped, and with Evelyn’s meager French we negotiated a ride for Evelyn with them. On Wednesday late afternoon a tow truck came and took me and the car to the garage in LaTuque, took us to the restaurant to have dinner and to the motel. On Thursday morning we went to the garage and observed their putting the brazed tank back onto the suburban. There were two of them working and three sitting around watching and giving advice in a continuous babble of French. It was hilarious! They finished the repairs and sent us on our way north. They had been so hospitable and generous to us and did not charge much for all the work they had done or for transporting us!

At Point Bleue, on Lac Saint Jean, near Chambord, the Manager of the Hudson Bay Trading Post showed me on the map where the canoes were made in Manuan, on the River Matawin, back west of where we were. So it was back home for another year.

The next year, in 1974, after Sugar Island, we headed down the Saint Lawrence and then north to Joliette and then North to St.-Michel-Des-Saints, where a beautiful birch bark canoe hung from the rafters in the restaurant and we stayed for the night. Although it is a small town, they were well equipped for tourists because it was a major snow mobile center in the winter. We got our directions from the people in the motel and restaurant and headed off to Manuan. From there on, it was dirt lumber road, dodging the pot holes and washed out places and squeezing over to the side as big, loaded lumber trucks hurtled down the road past us toward town. About 30 miles up the road as we thought we were nearing our destination, we began to see Indians picking blueberries in the fields along the road. Suddenly, we almost drove into a huge washout as we came to a screeching halt! My heart sank as I thought that again we had come so close and failed to get our canoe!

I got out of the Suburban and looked down into the gully. It was impassible but I saw a small sign about six inches high and a foot long with a crude arrow on it pointing to the right. We were in a field at the time but as I turned the car, I saw faint car tracks down a slope into a patch of small trees. We followed about half a mile, crossed an old low log bridge, back up the creek and joined our original logging road where shortly we arrived at a small cluster of neat, but not fancy, one story cottages, like the old motels with separate buildings, but in the center of the village was a neat, rather small (compared to most of the big churches of the towns along the Saint Lawrence) Church!

A small man in clerical robes was working in the garden as we parked and got out of the car. "Top o’ the Marnin", he greeted us and asked if we would like to see the Church. Of course we said yes and he showed us the inside of the church. Every wall, post, and the alter were magnificently decorated with carved birch bark! We loved it! We had really finally got to the home of the canoe builders!

It turned out that he was a Jesuit Priest who had been trained in Boston! We made a generous contribution to the Church and talked about Boston for while. Then we asked about the canoe builders and found that Ceasar Newashish and his son were not there nor expected back soon. I think they were off fishing.

We returned to St.-Michel-De-Saint where we spent the night and continued on our Canadian exploration through Montreal to Ottawa. I had wanted to see the Rideau Canal and the trip down to the St. Lawrence River, seeing the magnificent, very high old locks, still in use, mostly by pleasure boats, was very much worthwhile. Continuing our trip, we proceeded to Gananoque and the ACA Encampment on Sugar Island. Another year without a birch bark!

At the national meeting of the ACA, on November 10, 1974, I was elected National Commodore, (equivalent to President). With all the administrative work, trips to meetings and National Championships, I paddled, sailed and raced, but there was not much time for exploring in 1975 and 1976.

However, as Commodore, US Representative and Olympic Official, I attended the ICF World Meeting and the Olympics with all the meetings and parties included. On July19th, I drove to Sugar Island and left my canoe for the express purpose of not having a canoe on my car at the Olympics, for fear of having someone steal it. I drove to Montreal and attended the Meeting of the ICF and the party that evening; Evelyn arrived on the airplane next day. We had a few days before the Olympics, so, on the spur of the moment, we decided to run up to Manuan just to see the place.

We drove to Manuan on Sunday, picked some berries, visited the Father and the Church and found out that Ceasar was back in Montreal, where we had started, at the Exhibition of Native Crafts! We drove back to St.-Michel-De-Saints. Before dinner, while touring the town, we visited the shop where a native made some white man’s canvas canoes which he was proud to show us and tried to sell us. Of course, we complimented him on his canoes and workmanship but we really were not interested. On our tour of the old barn and shed which was his factory, I spied a little birch bark canoe back in the corner of the shed and asked him about it. He said it was broken and he had to fix it. Knowing that it would be a long time before I got back there again, I examined the canoe and said that I would fix it. "How much?", I asked. He was very reluctant to sell it because he was afraid he was cheating me! But he said, "250 dollars American." Aside, Evelyn asked if I would be satisfied with this canoe and not be hot on the trail of another and I said, "Yes." Someone had taken one of the two original thwarts out and put in a canvas canoe seat which I wanted to replace. He said he would make an exact copy of the other thwart and install it in the canoe while we ate dinner. After dinner we went back and he had put in a beautiful thwart at no extra charge. But I gave him an extra $10 and we happily loaded our Birch Bark on our car and drove back to Montreal.

So there we were, happy about finally getting our canoe, but with a canoe on the car which we really thought might get stolen. Just what we had been trying to avoid! We drove to the Exposition Center and met Caesar Nawashish and showed him the canoe which he said he had made "Maybe 20 or 30 years ago." We admired the Exhibit and bought a little model bark canoe that they were making for the tourists, which I still have on the mantelpiece.

Back at the motel, we asked where we could store the canoe, but they had no space long enough. So, from the second floor, we put it out the window onto the first floor roof. And there, throughout the Olympics we, and everyone else, could see our canoe as we drove up to the Motel!

The story should stop there. I officiated at the Canoeing Races and we enjoyed the Olympic Games and Parties. Then we went back to Sugar Island where I performed my duties as Commodore and raced in the sailing races, winning the Cruising Class race around the Island, All Outdoor Trophy, in my Dad’s old Willetts.

Then on Monday, August 9th, we started home and heard hurricane warnings on the radio. Paying little attention, we stopped and toured the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake and ate a picnic supper. At 8:30, as it got dark, we took off for home in the rain. Warnings were more specific then. Hurricane Belle was coming up the Hudson and western New England. The rain and the wind increased and was getting pretty wild as we got to Albany. I stopped several times to tighten the canoes down. We were worried about losing our old Willetts and, especially, our new Birch Bark, which had been so difficult to get! We also stopped at a couple of Motels, which is unusual for us, but they couldn’t squeeze us in. Finally we stopped at Lee, Massachusetts in the highway service area and slept in the car resuming our driving when the storm had subsided in the morning. A wild trip!

I patched the major split in the bottom and cheated with a little epoxy. Everything else was done in the Indian Fashion as I took out a couple of ribs and re-bent them, put in a couple of thin spruce splittings to support the injured area, bound in the new thwart with split, water soaked roots and also bound a broken gunwale near the end. Then I refilled all the breaks and scratches with the "Indian Duct Tape" mixture of boiled pine pitch, rendered animal fat and charcoal.

I showed the canoe and paddles at a race in Concord, where about 398 people ignored it and two people admired and asked me questions about it. We paddled it on trips with the AMC with about the same results. No one took the opportunity to paddle a birch bark that I offered. I dressed as an Indian in an absolutely pre-Colombian costume of deerskin, with decorations of a deer hair roach, porcupine quill, native beads and body paint, with a native basket and Indian paddles, for a video recording introducing Concord’s Historical Sites. This was shown to visitors in the museum at the National Monument. Also Evelyn and I dressed in authentic costume as a squaw man and squaw of the Canadian fur trading era for a Halloween Cruise on the Concord River.

My favorite was, on important occasions, such as the equinox, to dress in the most primitive Indian attire, sneak out from a secret launching place and paddle silently up and down the River past other boats at the celebration at Egg Rock (which is the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers to form the Concord River), the Revolutionary War North Bridge and other places where people were celebrating, and then disappear. The "Spirit of Meskatequid" surveying what the white man had done to His River! ----- that got a picture on the front page of the newspaper!

I was the head of the 100th Anniversary Committee of the ACA and organized and participated in many events. On July 29, 1980, we held the 100th Anniversary National C- Class Sailing Championship at the Yacht club at Lake George. On the weekend we held a Canoe Parade and Celebration at the spot where the ACA was formed and there is a Commemorative Plaque on a rock facing the Lake. There were about 30 canoes and Evelyn and I paddled our Osprey with a large ACA Burgee, and Eric Wells paddled the Birch Bark.

Also, in celebration of the 100th Anniversary, I set up an ACA celebration with the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton and asked the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association to join us. On Saturday, August 9, 1980, we set up our ACA exhibit. The WCHA registration was right next to ours and our boats were all on the lawn together. I had the Birch Bark laid out with Beric Wells, in full Seneca Costume of the period just before the Revolutionary War, standing by to answer Questions. We had some races and other demonstrations including the traditional race between a sailing canoe and a Saint Lawrence skiff (which was first held about when the ACA started in1880). The next issue of Wooden Canoe reported on the event with no mention of the ACA at all!

The last trip I took with the canoe was with a group of about thirty people with a Conservation Organization and we were celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Journey of exploration. Of course, I had to bring an example of one of the kinds of boats they used. We stopped along the way up river for parts of the Lewis and Clark story. At lunchtime I talked very shortly about Birch Bark canoes and they all refused the offer to let them paddle it. The boats on the trip were mostly plastic canoes with two people and a few plastic kayaks. Going back down river they were in a hurry to get home for dinner, or something, and vigorously applied their meager skills to the paddles. I had to get up on one knee and paddle at, what was to me at that time, racing speed for over three miles. It is a very slow canoe with so much rocker that, paddled single handed, it spins with each stroke and I use a "C" stroke. I was tired!

In 2008, I gave" Gasno Gao" to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton NY. You may paddle it up there.

Larry Zuk
December 2010

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