LAKE PLACID - For 35 years, Gary Hodgson roamed the woods and waters as a forest ranger for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Hodgson, who retired in 2000, was most well known for his work in the High Peaks, but he also spent time in the St. Regis Canoe Area covering for fellow rangers. In the 1980s and '90s, this allowed him to use one of his favorite toys - his homemade birch-bark canoe.
On Saturday, Hodgson will take out the canoe again for a talk about making birch-bark canoes at the annual AuSable River Two-Fly Challenge, a fishing contest and festival in the town of Wilmington that takes place Friday and Saturday, May 16-17. Hodgson is one of the main presenters Saturday evening at the Whiteface Mountain ski lodge.
Retired forest ranger Gary Hodgson shows off his homemade birch-bark canoe. (Photo — Mike Lynch)
Hodgson became inspired to make his first birch-bark canoe after reading "The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America," by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard Chappelle in the early 1980s.
"This whole thing of making stuff was always interesting to me," Hodgson said from his Lake Placid home Monday, May 12. "Even as a kid, I was always interested in Indian-type stuff because it was in the woods. I often wish I would have gotten ahold of the book earlier."
Hodgson said the process of building the canoe is to start with one piece of birch bark spread out on the ground. Generally speaking, you then sew on gunwales with tree roots, then lay sheathing inside. Essentially, you build it from the outside to the inside.
He said the process would probably drive a carpenter, such as a cabinet builder, nuts because they are used to working with precise measurements.
"You can't do that with this because you have to build to the bark," Hodgson said. "You can't really change the shape of the bark."
Hodgson said he has built two of these canoes and hopes to construct another. Both are solo canoes. He sold the first one after receiving an offer for it from a wealthy man who lives in the South. He built the second in the 1990s and still has it today. The boat is about 10 feet long and weighs roughly 38 pounds.
When he was working as a forest ranger, Hodgson would use the canoe for his occasional patrols in the St. Regis Canoe Area, which turned out to his advantage.
"The bark canoe was best thing going for patrolling," he said. "It really made a good conversation (starter)."
Campers often invited the ranger into their sites because they wanted to check out his boat and ask questions about it.
"It started out on a pleasant tone, rather than them being nervous with you showing up," he said. "It really was unbelievable."
One of the things that people were often surprised by is the sturdiness of the canoe.
"It's got sheathing and ribs and the bark is thick," Hodgson said. "It's not like these Kevlar things where it's just a shell. I think that's the other misconception about the bark canoe. Everyone thinks that you're going to step through the bottom of it. Well, you're not just stepping on the bark. The bark is the same thing as the canvas is on a canvas canoe. It's what keeps the water on the other side. The canoe actually has the structure in it."
The boat paddles well and is a pleasure in the water, he said. It has a natural feel.
"It paddles nice but (I also like) the soft sounds of it," he said. "You get out there in an aluminum canoe or Kevlar canoe, and you bump the paddle (and an) aluminum canoe sounds like a tin can. A Kevlar canoe, if you go over something, sounds like kids with their fingernails on a chalkboard."
With a birch bark canoe, all you hear is wood sounds when it hits a rock or the paddle hits the side.
"It's all wood and bark," he said. "It's very muffled."
Hodgson, who makes all kinds of tools and gear, also crafted three wooden paddles to use in the boat. Two are single bladed, with one made from poplar and the other from red maple. The third is a double-bladed one made out of black cherry.
Hodgson said he continues to use the canoe and is sometimes joined by one of his 13 grandchildren.
For anyone who is interested in learning more about Hodgson's canoe and wants to participate in the Two-Fly Challenge, more information is available by calling 518-946-2255 or visit online at www.ausableflyfishing.com.