When the Patuxent Indians -- who ruled Northern Maryland before European settlers landed there in the 17th century -- needed a canoe, they started a peat fire at the base of a big tree.
George Surgent, who is building an Indian dugout canoe at the Calvert Marine Museum on Solomons, decided to skip that step. Although he cut down the tall, three-foot-thick tulip poplar with a chain saw, he's doing the rest of the work pretty much the way the Indians did it. This weekend, as part of Patuxent River Appreciation Days at the museum, Surgent and some Sea Scouts will start a small fire inside the canoe and scrape it out the way the Indians did -- with oyster shells.
"At first, the Indians probably just floated on logs," conjectured Surgent, stopping his work, which is funded by a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to explain the project to visitors. "Then they realized they could get more protection and stability by hollowing it out."
So that the Sea Scouts will be able to finish the canoe during the festival weekend, Surgent has been doing the basic shaping in advance, using hand tools.
"I'm a boatbuilder by profession, but I've never worked with an adze or a broad ax before," he said, chipping away at the inside of the log. "To qualify for the grant, we have to be preserving the old boatbuilding skills. Next I'll be using an adze. This was my great-grandfather's. He used it for hewing timber for barns."
The first step in the project was to find a tree with enough girth to make a log canoe.
"There were only about a dozen trees in the county suitable for the project," said Surgent, "and two were on a farm in Dunkirk. One had been struck by lightning, so we didn't have to cut down a living tree."
The tree, about 35 feet high, was then cut into two sections -- each of which weighed about 3,000 pounds -- and trucked to the museum grounds. One section is now being transformed into a dugout canoe and the other will be used to make the more streamlined kind of canoe the colonists used circa 1610.
"I'm going to do this one differently," explained Surgent, taking a seat on the untouched part of the felled poplar. "First I'll shape the outside, so it will look like a boat full of wood. Then I'll put wooden pegs in and when I hit those I'll know I'm at the right thickness. The Indians didn't shape the outside of the canoe, and they didn't measure thickness. They made the bottoms thick for ballast -- maybe partly because it was hard to dig out too much with oyster shells. But basically the Indians relied on a thick bottom and a low center of gravity for stability. The European canoes were lighter. They achieved stability by shaping the hull. The colonists had tools.The Indians were still in the flint age."
Surgent's log canoe, which he's building according to plans derived from old books in the museum's library, will be a one-log vessel. When the colonists needed bigger boats, they pieced together two or three logs.
"Most of the log canoes still on the bay -- the kind that race every year at St. Michaels -- are two-or three-log canoes," said Surgent, leading visitors to the museum boat shed to see examples of this genre. "Another way the colonists made boats bigger was by stretching wood. They'd get some rocks real hot and put them in the boat with water and then stretch. We were toying with the idea of doing that, but we're afraid it might split the wood."
For Surgent, who wanted to build wooden boats for a living but instead builds fiberglass boats with wood decking, the log-canoe project is a dream come true. He grew up on the Great Lakes, and when he graduated from the University of Michigan art school he came east in search of a career in boatbuilding.
"I wanted to use my hands," he explained. "Building boats is like making ceramics. My wife and I rode from Boston to Florida, but nobody was interested in an overeducated art student. Everybody thought I was too old to start in boatbuilding -- I was 23."
Finally, an Annapolis boatbuilder took Surgent on as an apprentice, and now Surgent has his own business in Calvert County, though he makes most of his money from repair work. But, through the grant program, he will work every Thursday and Saturday for the next six months or so building very basic wooden boats.
During the festival weekend, Surgent and the Sea Scouts plan to carry the canoe to the water, launch it and take it for a ride.
"It will take four people to move it to the water," said Surgent, eyeing the boat's thick bottom. "Compared to a log not hollowed out, this is a luxury liner. But these canoes are notoriously tippy. Sometimes the Indians would go out to meet the colonists' ships in these and take them in. I read a letter written by a colonist once that said the ride in the canoe was scarier than crossing the whole Atlantic."