WADENA, Minn. — Wadena-Deer Creek senior Cody Wheeler was down to the deadline to decide what his woodworking project was going to be for his shop class last winter. A last-minute decision brought him not only a passion for woodworking, but a grand champion ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.

Being an avid outdoorsman and member of the school's trap team, Wheeler decided that a gun cabinet could be useful and not too difficult. But when his dad, George Wheeler, weighed in, he quickly changed his son's mind.

"My dad was like, 'Well, why don't you build a canoe?'" Cody recalled. His dad always wanted to build one, as it was common for youth back in his day to make their own. It just never worked out for George, but it could for Cody. So began his journey of canoe building in February of his junior year.

Piece by piece of cedar strips (nearly 200 of them) began sliding in along a form that he built in the woodworking shop. He gradually formed a hull, which he first thought looked nothing like a canoe.

The glassy surface of the canoe is achieved after applying fiberglass over the cedar, along with five coats of epoxy, two coats of varnish and a sanding after most every coat.
Photo by Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools
The glassy surface of the canoe is achieved after applying fiberglass over the cedar, along with five coats of epoxy, two coats of varnish and a sanding after most every coat. Photo by Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools

"I thought, there's no way a canoe is going to come out of this," Wheeler said.

Eventually, he began to see how it would all come together. As if working with cedar wasn't enough, he pulled in white ash for the rim around the top (gunwales) and the front and back decking of the canoe. He added in walnut for some character inside the canoe. Oak was used to frame his seats, which he wrapped with 2-inch nylon webbing.

Wheeler's dad said the project brought them closer as they learned about how to build each part together.

"We talked about things, we watched videos together on how things were done," George Wheeler said. "He just learned so much, we both did."

With the pressure on, he worked tirelessly, many nights until midnight, to get the job done. His dad kept a close watch on the progress during the summer. While his dad may have helped hold a part of the canoe or assist with glue, for the most part, between fishing league, trapshooting league, wrestling, track and then football, the younger Wheeler worked daily on the project by himself.

Gaining entry

The canoe came to completion hours before the deadline he gave himself, which happened to be early August, when the canoe had to be transported to the Minnesota State Fair. Somehow Wheeler, with the help of engineer technology instructor Mike Shrode, was able to enter the State Fair without prior entry at a county fair. Wheeler said the interest in the canoe from state fair organizers was enough that they wanted to have this canoe at the event. That was even before the canoe was completed.

"I kind of got grandfathered in," Wheeler said.

Shrode said he often gets an invite from an organizer looking for unique projects from the schools. After last year's Sam Kelderman Scholarship engine build, which earned a grand champion ribbon, they asked Shrode again this year to see what else his students were up to. Along with some ribbon-winning engine builds, Shrode delivered the canoe.

The instructor thinks the school and other area schools should bring more of their work to the fair as the representation from the area seems to be lacking, compared to the actual talent.

Cody Wheeler stands next to the canoe he built at the WDC School over a six month period. It was on display Thursday, Sept. 5, at the school for the community to view.
Photo by Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools
Cody Wheeler stands next to the canoe he built at the WDC School over a six month period. It was on display Thursday, Sept. 5, at the school for the community to view. Photo by Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools

Lessons were learned with the project, which Cody said was his first time working with wood. One major upset was the gunwale, which cracked on the first go. He had made the curve too sharp and the wood couldn't handle it. After readjusting his clamps, he made it work on the next try. It also taught him important lessons on time management. Juggling sports, family, school and the canoe was at times a struggle that he worked through.

The results of the completed project wowed judges at the state fair, who honored Wheeler with the first place in non-furniture woodworking category and grand champion out of 1-27 categories. Wheeler also earned the Rockler Woodworking Scholarship grant, worth $400. He plans to attend M State in Wadena for the lineman program, but on the side, he's now got a taste for canoe building. He plans to make more if he finds there's an interest. Materials alone cost about $2,500 for the 15-foot Winnipeg-style canoe.

Cody Wheeler smiles as wide as the Mississippi as he takes his handbuilt canoe out on the water for the first time following a trip to the 2019 Minnesota State Fair.
Submitted photo
Cody Wheeler smiles as wide as the Mississippi as he takes his handbuilt canoe out on the water for the first time following a trip to the 2019 Minnesota State Fair. Submitted photo

Though Wheeler had just started his first week of school, he's already taking it easy after the whirlwind of activities this summer. When sixth-grade students saw Wheeler's project, they invited him on their annual canoe trip down the Crow Wing River, Friday, Sept. 6, just four days into the school year. He was eager to attend as it was the first major voyage, outside of a quick dip in the Crow Wing River near Motley after the state fair. He just had to be back in time for the football game later that day.

Two hours in, and two hours left to go, Wheeler said the canoe was gliding through the water wonderfully, thanks to great engineering, five layers of epoxy and smooth water. In an effort to keep the canoe safe from rocks, he and his paddle partner, Josh Tabery, decided against fishing this time.

Cody Wheeler paddles at the bow of the canoe, while paddling partner Josh Tabery steers from the stern on a trip down the Crow Wing River Friday, Sept. 6.
Photo by Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools
Cody Wheeler paddles at the bow of the canoe, while paddling partner Josh Tabery steers from the stern on a trip down the Crow Wing River Friday, Sept. 6. Photo by Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools

This would be the first of many floats to come.

"This will not be a just a one-time deal," Wheeler said. "This will be a multi-use canoe, because I don't want it to go to waste. I'm a kid that always wants to go out on the water and now I built something to go out on the water."

Wheeler said he learned the importance of doing things you don't think you're capable of during this process. He's normally an engine kind of guy, but his workshop is currently filled with woodworking tools and sawdust now covers his engines.

"I'm glad my dad pushed it upon me," Wheeler said. "Anyone that gets a chance to build one, it's worth it. It just takes your breath away."