Saturday, 2 May 2015

Making Willow Plant Supports at North House Folk School

I had flown up to Thunder Bay to see Alex's new apartment and accompany her on her drive down to southern Ontario. We decided to cross the border into Minnesota and take a course at North House Folk School in Grand Marais. The workshop was part of their Sustainability Symposium, with a focus this year, on harvesting sustainably from the boreal forest.
Leaving Thunder Bay south along the north shore of Lake Superior
We set the alarm for 6:10 with the intention of leaving by 7 to arrive at NHFS for 9AM. Everything went according to plan until we arrived, only a few minutes late, to find out we were, in fact, almost an hour early. Minnesota is in the Central Time Zone! Alex used the extra time well to borrow a socket wrench and attach the topper for her pickup truck more securely. I checked out the school's bookstore and where we could eat our dinner.
The campus of North House Folk School
The school's bookstore
At 9, local time, we met Emily, our instructor, and the other four women who were taking the course. We also got a look at what we were hoping to have built by the end of the day.
Emily's willow plant structure
Emily had brought willow branches harvested in the fall and now dry which we would be using for the supports for our structure.
Dried willow for the vertical supports
First on the agenda was a drive twelve miles out of town to harvest the whips we would be weaving amongst the supports. Everyone loaded their harvested whips into the back of Alex's truck.
Emily, second from left, explaining how to recognize willow
Alex harvesting willow whips
We all piled our willow harvest into the back of Alex's truck
It had turned into a beautiful day, sunny and a good ten degrees warmer away from Lake Superior. So we stopped at Bull Bay Lake on the way back into town.
Alex and I on the shore of Big Bull Lake
Both Alex and I were absolutely ravenous once we got back to the school. We inhaled the chicken salad sandwiches we had brought. And so headed next door to a smoked fish cafe for a delicious bowl of smoked trout chowder and a Turtle brownie on the deck in the sun.
Smoked Trout chowder on the deck overlooking Grand Marais harbour
The hard work began in the afternoon. Emily provided us each with a box which would act as a substitute for soil. Into this base we put sixteen of the dried willow supports in a circle. Then it was time to start weaving the freshly harvested and pliable willow in and out of the supports. This, for me at least, was incredibly challenging.
Step 1 was pushing the vertical supports into the boxes
Emily keeps a vigilant eye on us
After securing the 16 vertical supports it's time to make the base which is woven from the willow we had harvested
A couple hours later we each had a willow plant support which needed the finishing touches; trimming loose ends with secateurs and securing the top with willow "twine".  Each structure was unique; the variations indicated by the angle of the weaving, the colours of the willow and, undoubtedly, the skill of the artisan.
Alex is loving the process and making great headway
Emily explains a finer detail to Joan
Hard at work and some time for quiet contemplation - or perhaps simply exhaustion?
Alex is thrilled with her finished product
I,  too,  am thrilled. But more just because I am finished! 
The willow plant supports ready for the drive home
We finished the day at The Angry Trout, apparently the "destination restaurant" in town. Dinner was shared whitefish fritters, a salad with grilled fresh whitefish and maple syrup cheesecake and Quaker lemon tart. Delicious!

We stopped at a lookout over Lake Superior close to the border. A veiled full moon hung over the scene.
Looking over the forest down to shore of Lake Superior just before sunset

There had been a certain amount of discussion at the workshop about whether we would have trouble bringing a wood product over the border. We had all concluded probably not since it wasn't firewood and the willow was just stems. But we were all wrong. The customs officer was clearly torn - our creations were undoubtedly a wood product. But Alex had engaged him in conversation as soon as we pulled up to the booth. He was familiar with the North House Folk School - and The Angry Trout - and  seemed reluctant to disappoint us by confiscating the fruits of our labour. So, in a tone of consternation he warned us never to repeat this unlawful action - and sent us on our merry way.

Happy to be back on Canadian soil

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