Robert Brault opened the gate to his small backyard during a recent visit as a round-bodied sheep dog bounded ahead of him, dragging along its hind legs, which couldn’t quite keep up with the rest its body.
“She’s an old girl,” Brault said. Clouds of steam wafted out of his mouth with the words. Temperatures that day were in the mid-30s, but he wore only a sweatshirt that said “Wisconsin Canoe” and a pair of blue jeans for warmth. He did, however, have his woolly beard, a cascade of curly hair that reached from his chin to his chest. He hasn’t shaved it since 1983.
Brault walked across the yard and opened the hatch on a one-car garage. Inside was Brault’s current work in progress, and the latest example of an art he’s practice for more than 25 years: his third hand-fashioned canoe.
Brault’s love of the outdoors began much earlier, as a child growing up in Green Bay, Wis.
“I remember, in first grade, riding the bus into school and realizing I liked it much better where there was grass and trees,” he said. “I felt very lucky to have grown up in a place like that rather than in a place covered in pavement.”
The Winona State University English professor had first gone canoeing when he was 8, but he was hooked during a college trip to the Boundary Waters with a biology class.
“Although I’m an English professor, my best experiences have been in science classes and the outdoors,” Brault said.
The canoes he’s built so far, including the one he has yet to finish, tell different stories of his lasting love for adventures in nature.
Canoe 1: Vingilot
In 1987, while planning an upcoming trip to White Bear Lake, Brault first decided to build his own canoe.
He had never built a canoe, and had no idea how.
“I bought some books,” he said.
He took and discarded suggestions from three different volumes, forming his own method based on his research. The books also gave him an unexpected extra bit of motivation: He was reading one during downtime at school one day when a fellow faculty member noticed — and scoffed.
“He said, ‘You’ll never do that,’” Brault said. “So of course, I had to.”
He finished the canoe in just 30 days and called it the “Vingilot,” after a figure from Tolkien mythology. The boat weighed in at 64 pounds, a heavy-duty, glass-covered torpedo that still hangs today from the ceiling of his garage.
Even while building that first canoe, he said, “I was thinking about what to do for the next one.”
Canoe 2: Bill Mason
Brault’s next canoe was a sleeker, lighter model, 17.5 feet long and 47 pounds. It took him most of a decade to complete, and he worked on it out of three different garages. He named it the “Bill Mason” after the renowned Canadian filmmaker and naturalist.
“It’s the perfect wilderness adventure canoe,” he said. “The way it rode waves, it was like magic.”
He took the canoe with him last summer when he brought four WSU students with him to the Boundary Waters. For Brault, the trip was a perfect way to pass along the passion once given to him.
“A professor turned me onto wilderness excursions,” he said. “Now it’s my turn to do the same thing.”
WSU student Marcia Ratliff, one of the four to take the trip, carried the Bill Mason on her back through the northern woods. She had seen Brault’s bearded countenance around the English building on campus and was aware of his eccentric reputation — and even more eccentric facial hair.
“He’s exciting and crazy,” she said. “In a good way.”
And that was before they got out into the woods.
Out in the wilderness, Brault was in his element. Ratliff recalled him once waking the students in the middle of the night, excited to report that he had heard wolves. He took them to look at the stars, pointing out constellations. On the way up to the Boundary Waters, he stopped the convoy to do some cliff-jumping into a river.
“He went more than anyone else,” Ratliff said. “He was the first to jump —and the last.”
After a week in the Boundary Waters, it was time to return home. But the trip might have just been the beginning for some of the students Brault inspired.
“I would love to use (what I learned) to go with other people who have never been, lead people like he did,” Ratliff said. “It’s just you in the wilderness. It’s like being a kid again.”
Canoe 3: Ozawindib
“It’s an experiment,” he said during the recent visit, gesturing to the pattern of dark cedar bowing with the sides of the canoe. The craft, which Brault named “Ozawindib” after an Ojibwa warrior, was a long way from completion. Clamps studded the edges, holding the final strip in place. The project has been several years in the making and will likely take several more.
These days, Brault’s 16-year-old son, Walker, helps him work on the canoe.
“It’s pretty much a two-man job,” he said. Once Walker graduates, Brault said, he will have his pick: taking one of the three canoes, or building one of his own with his father.
In the meantime, Brault is already planning his next project: Canoe 4, a solo canoe.