Sandra Kehoe

Basketmaker & Willow Artist

Birch Bark Basketry at the North House Folk School

The next leg of my June 18' basketry journey lead me to the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota.  

I had signed up for a birch bark class months ago.  In fact it was the first class I officially signed up for in hopes of taking this summer.  I didn't how how I was going to get there, but I knew I had to get in the class because I didn't think it would be available very long, and boy was I right.  

Dennis Chilcote teaches a class in birch bark harvesting and basket making that has been running for several years, and it fills up super fast.  I put my name on the registry and hoped I would find a way to get to this school somehow.

As it turns out, this class was a few days from when I would be in Iowa for the willow gathering. In my head I thought....Iowa...Minnesota...they are sort of close...right?! Well it made sense to me, there was no way I would drive all the way to Iowa, go back home and then drive to Minnesota a week later.  So I decided to smash it all together and go on an amazing road trip for two weeks.  

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Since I would arrive to Grand Marais ahead of schedule I decided to sneak in a two day cheese making course.  If you know about me, or read my bio you will notice that I interned for a summer with a dairy farmer who made raw milk cheese.  I helped milk the cows and make cheese for a summer I'll never forget.  So since I had some experience, here was a chance for me to indulge in a little scandinavian cheese making.

It was a super fun class, and most of the cheeses we made are still curing in my wine cooler, ready and waiting for a Christmas cheese board that will surely impress! 

There was also time for my boyfriend and I to do a little sight seeing, and boy did we visit as many places as we could.  A quick search found all the desirable beach stops on lake superior and we visited them all.  I even had some time to take my kayak out on a random lake we happened upon, and most importantly on lake superior in the harbor where the school resides.  You can see the shot I took of the school from the bow of my Oru.  The orange building is where our cheese class took place.  Without a doubt it was the most amazing classroom I ever stepped foot in.

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I have never visited the Midwest, if that is what Minnesota is considered? The climate and scenery made me fall in love instantly.  The lupines were in full bloom and the shoreline was unlike anything I have ever seen.  I got totally engrossed in the rocks and wasn't satisfied until I had a bag full of large basalt stones for my massage therapy needs, and several small agates that felt like finding diamonds. 

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We visited so many beaches and had the most gorgeous weather.  The water was crystal clear like on a tropical island, but the stones, pine and birch trees lining the shores created a super special scene.  You might hear people talking about this lake as if it were heaven on earth, and I'd be one to fall in line to agree.  

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For five days I became acquainted with this beautiful spot, and then it was time for the main event.  Learning how to harvest birch bark with Dennis is an experience I will never be able to forget.  It was fun, yet difficult and it felt like finally being part of the whole process of making a basket from start to finish.  Mosquito infested, bushwhacking, soaking wet and rainy forrest for several hours; gathering unwieldy rolls of wet bark, and I would pay to do it all again!    

Dennis was self taught from a very young age.  He developed his own patterns, tools and methods for creating the most beautiful folded birch berry baskets I have ever seen.  People swoon just looking at his work.  He is a master craftsman and I was honored to be learning from such a talented and sweet man.  His subtle jokes and odd sayings were all part of the charm.  You could tell he loved his craft and gladly shared all he knew with us as a class.    

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Most people always ask if stripping the bark harms the trees that we were taking them from.  If done in the correct way, removing the bark will not harm the tree and it will continue to grow the rest of it's life.  Another comforting or sad fact is that we were gathering our bark from an area that was designated for logging.  Dennis received special permission to gather bark on this land because all the trees in this certain area would be cut down eventually anyway. 

The finished product is a basket I will always treasure as a very special part of my collection.  One that tells a story of an unforgettable journey that I took with someone I love. 

After that it was time to return home, but there were many more basket making classes to be had this summer.  Stay tuned ;)  

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