Finding The Heritage Of The Canoe-Maker

steve hartman canoe maker
From the 1960s to the '90s, CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt was "On the Road," looking for stories and people where no one else was looking. Kuralt died in 1997, and many of the people he discovered are gone as well. But the stories haven't ended. That's why we sent CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman to follow Kuralt's trail, "On the Road … Again."

Ray Bozel is one of America's last remaining birch-bark canoe builders. He's a master now, but he was just an apprentice 26 years ago when Charles Kuralt stopped by Big Fork, Minn., to interview Bozel's grandfather-in-law - a peculiar man with a hawk feather in his hat and a big nose and funny moustache that didn't come off with his glasses. What a character.

Watch Kuralt's 1982 Report
Back during his original interview, Kuralt asked that man, Bill Hafeman: "Why did you pick such a lonely place to live in the first place?"

Hafeman responded: "I wanted to live in a wild country like the Indians did. I thought, 'Now that would be a free life.'"

As Kuralt reported, Hafeman moved up there with his wife, Violet, in 1921 and built his first canoe with only a knife and an ax. Every canoe he built was a little better than the one before. He does it without nails or any hardware - with a result so beautiful it almost brings tears to your eyes.

After Kuralt's piece aired in 1982, Hafeman got so many orders it would have taken five years to fill them all. Unfortunately, he only had two years left.

It was a traffic accident. It didn't take his life, but it took an awful lot out of him.

"I remember twice after the accident when he came in the shop and he just kinda walked through and that was it," said Bill's son, Ray Bozel. "It's kind of like he just decided he was done."

And with that, the torch passed. Hafeman died a few years later at the age of 92. Today, the future lies in Bozel's two boys. They lived and breathed and slept in cedar and birch bark. Although, for that very reason, Ray says they may not want to grow old in it.

"You know - my kids got their dreams. They got to do what they gotta do," Bozel said. "I can't tell them this is going to be their life."

Hartman said he personally hopes they'll reconsider. If so, maybe someday some other reporter can go back again and check in on their story.

Until then, Hartman closed this chapter just as Kuralt did 26 years ago - with a passage from Henry Longfellow's poem, "The Song of Hiawatha."

Thus the Birch Canoe was builded
In the valley, by the river,
In the bosom of the forest;
And the forest's life was in it,
All its mystery and its magic,
All the lightness of the birch-tree,
All the toughness of the cedar,
All the larch's supple sinews;
And it floated on the river
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn,
Like a yellow water-lily.

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.