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Arts and Culture

Passamaquoddy Boatbuilder Fighting ‘Very Rare’ Form of Cancer

Patty Wight
David Moses Bridges with one of his birchbark baskets.

David Moses Bridges has spent his life reviving a boatbuilding tradition that was on the brink of being lost.

Bridges is Passamaquoddy and makes birchbark canoes. A new film documents the work of Bridges, who, now in his early fifties, also faces a personal battle that has made his work both more challenging and even more important.

When Bridges draws his knife across a piece of cedar, the wood that frames a birchbark canoe, he’s carving out history that dates back 3,000 years.

“I was introduced to birchbark canoe making at birth,” he says. “This is part of my family’s history, and my life.”

Sitting in a South Portland workshop, Bridges looks like he was born knowing how to carve away neatly curled shavings that expose the cedar to a perfect smoothness.

But it’s a skill he could have easily never mastered. Birchbark canoe making was a vanishing tradition by the time he learned about it from his great grandfather.

“He was part of the last generation of Wabanaki men, Passamaquoddy men, who learned how to make a canoe as a child and continued to make canoes throughout their life until it became no longer viable economically,” Bridges says. “He had to switch careers because he couldn’t take care of his family as a fishing and hunting guide and a canoe maker anymore.”

By the time Bridges was just 6 years old, he knew that he wanted to make these canoes, but he was too young. When his great grandfather died a few years later, though, he left Bridges his tools.

“Later I realized just how unique a man he was and the skills he had — how important and unique they were,” he says.

About 20 years passed before Bridges would try his hand at crafting birchbark canoes. He spent time with elders who wove baskets. He studied naval architecture at a boat school in Eastport. He took a class with a self-taught birchbark canoe maker, Steve Cayard. And he began to understand the connection between the canoe and the forest.

“Where the materials come from, when to gather them, how to gather them with minimal impact, when to peel the tree so the tree doesn’t die,” Bridges says. “There’s just so much to know.”

Bridges bushwhacks through the woods for upwards of 200 hours, swatting black flies and mosquitoes as he searches for long sheets of birch bark, digs through the dirt for spruce root lashings and scouts for straight-grained cedar.

That’s just for the materials. To make a canoe, it takes another 500 hours.

His work has been nationally recognized. He helped restore a canoe for the Smithsonian, and the late painter Andrew Wyeth bought one of his canoes. But Bridges says he is most proud of the birchbark canoe workshops he has held in indigenous communities.

In the workshop in South Portland, Bridges is preparing to make a 4-foot model canoe.

“So normally, traditionally, you’d drive stakes into the ground,” he says. “But with this — I have these wooden dowels, so I’ll put them in these holes.”

Lately, he’s had to scale down his work. Bridges has cancer. It has come back a second time.

“It’s very rare — it’s cancer in my sinus of all things,” he says. “Who ever heard of that? I had a stuffy nose, and next thing you know, it’s cancer.”

Bridges is undergoing chemotherapy to try to shrink the cancer to a size where doctors can operate. Though he lives in Bar Harbor with his wife and two young children, he’s staying with his sister in South Portland while getting treatment.

Bridges is using a friend’s workshop space so he can continue to work and take his mind off things. It helps, says Bridges, but it’s also hard to focus.

“Usually I’m in my studio, ideas are flowing,” he says. “Now it’s just trying to deal with cancer — to get it over with. And dealing with the emotional stuff that comes with it. You know, am I dead or am I alive?

“I hope I can do this for another 30 or 40 years,” Bridges says. “I hope this cancer doesn’t kick me down. I’m fighting it every day. That’s all I can say. But it’s a tough one, but I’ll be a tough one too, so, yeah.”

To help offset the personal financial toll of Bridges’ cancer, the Space Gallery in Portland is screening a special preview of a documentary about him and his work at 7 p.m. Tuesday.