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Traditional craft launched in Lake Bemidji

Jerry Fruetel, builder of a colorful cedar-and-canvas canoe, prepares for its maiden voyage on Lake Bemidji with his father, Harold Fruetel of Bemidji. At 91, Harold said Thursday was the first time he had paddled a canoe. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

A christening with sparkling wine and a few practice strokes around the Diamond Point Park Lake Bemidji boat landing culminated a project Jerry Fruetel started 18 years ago.

"It's a traditional cedar-canvas canoe," he said of the sleek green, red and yellow craft he launched with family members Thursday. "This is how they made canoes in the 1900s. It's really the same structure as a birch bark canoe."

Fruetel secured the original materials to build the traditional cedar-and-canvas canoe in 1992. He carried 12-foot cedar planks home from Maine on an airline.

He built the mold he needed to steam and bend the canoe ribs to shape, learned to weave rattan for the cane seats, carved the thwarts and yoke from Minnesota ash wood and annealed the brass bow and stern fittings. In honor of the United States-Canada connection with the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, he also inlaid a cherry wood maple leaf image in the stern deck and an eagle on the bow. The canoe measures 17.5 feet and is an Atkinson Traveler model.

Fruetel, who grew up in Bemidji, summers with his wife, Roz Johnson, in a cabin on Clearwater Lake. He said he began the serious construction of the canoe in the last couple of years renting shop space in Taylor's Falls north of their Twin Cities home. He said the actual construction time came to about 500 hours, and materials cost was about $400.

"He kept this whole project a surprise," said Johnson. "He wouldn't show me the final design, but he'd come home with red and green spots. My worst fear was that it was going to be red and green polka dotted."

The body of the canoe up to the water line is red with a green section above the water line and a red pattern of triangles on a yellow background just below the gunwales.

Now that Fruetel has the mold for shaping the ribs, he said he plans to make 10 more canoes.

"My idea is to donate them to nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity so they can use them for fundraisers," he said.

Meanwhile the red-and-green canoe has dates with the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota.

"It's made to be used," Fruetel said.