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February 2001

Lagunitas To Tomales Bay In A Tule Reed Boat

By Elena Belsky

The three-month adventure from a Suisun Bay tule reed marsh to Lagunitas School's courtyard to Heart's Desire Beach on Tomales Bay, was an inspiring and monumental experience for all that were involved. Out of this Native American style tule reed boat building project came many lessons, collaborations, connections, a photo gallery of memories, and a video documentary.

The Preparation Suisun Bay Marsh, August and September 2000.

If you really want to find out how dedicated your volunteers are, try having them harvest 8-9 foot tule reeds in two feet of very stinky swamp mud! Getting both legs stuck knee deep in what our local guide Virgil Sellers called a "hole", certainly tests one's sense of humor. (Truly, "he who laughs lastÉ" everyone eventually "found" their own hole - no one escaped the experience.) After three trips to Rush Ranch on Solano County Open Space, the Tule Team of Paul, Lee, and Jean Berensmeier (Wilderness Way), Elena Belsky, Louis Nuyens, Thalia Begun, Jerry and Sandy Grulkey and Corinne Swall (Mother Lode Musical Theater and Environmental Forum of Marin final class project) had gathered enough tule reeds necessary for the children's boat project.

After transport, the tule reeds were carefully laid out in the Lagunitas School District's courtyard to dry for about one month. During this time, small bales of cattail leaves were harvested for twisting the 80 to 100 feet of rope needed for the boat. Also, Wilderness Way (a Berensmeier Family program) began integrating tule and cattail lessons into eight Lagunitas and San Geronimo School classes. Ane Rovetta came and taught how to make cattail rope, tule reed duck decoys, and told stories at a special school assembly. The Children and the Tule Team were now familiar and comfortable working with tule reeds and cattails - we were excited, and ready to build our boat!

The Creation Lagunitas School, San Geronimo Valley, Marin County - October 19, 2000.

Charles Kennard, a professional photographer, taught himself the techniques of building tule reed boats from old descriptions, photos, and personal experience. Our boat was the fourth he had overseen, and by far the largest. Each boat is unique, and takes on its own personality, especially regarding such technicalities as body twist, bow curve, width, and final length. On Boat Building Day, the Tule Team decided we would go for the record and build a 14-foot boat. It ended up being a whopping 18 feet and approximately 150 pounds - dry!

The framing crew set up the first bundles for the main section, and placed the kiln dried and carefully bent willow poles within it for stability and bow shape. Meanwhile, other members of the Tule Team were teaching Molly Whiteley and Bonnie Nackley's fourth graders how to trim the flower buds from the ends of the tule reeds and make 35 long, small bundles of tule reeds that would be then tied together to form the main body of the boat. The children also hand-twisted enough cattail rope to span the courtyard - twice over. Once the three main sections were created, the largest, center section was turned upside-down on a worktable. The next step was to add a second and third main bundle on either side by sewing with fiber rope and the biggest needle anyone had ever seen. The boat was now securely attached by graceful, strong, spiral stitches from one end of the boat to the other. Turned rightside up, the two gunwales were then sewn to the outer edges, with the finishing touch being the children's handmade rope that wrapped around the tule bundles at either bow, securing them in place.

Many curious children and adults stopped by throughout the day to check on our progress, and by 5 pm (only nine hours later) we had finished our tule reed boat. Then the speculation began: Would it float? For how long? It seemed to have a bit of a "twist". Could we steer it? How many people would it hold? Would it soak up too much water? Ye of little faith.

The Launching Heart's Desire Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore on Tomales Bay, October 23, 2000.

OK, so transporting an 18-foot, flexible tule reed boat in a 14-foot rental van is a challenge. With a little maneuvering, careful rope tying, and a chase vehicle to make SURE nothing shifted, we made it to Heart's Desire Beach safely. On a bright and beautiful, fall day in west Marin, about 60 people gathered for the launching including the 32 children boatbuilders, two visiting classes, parents, grantors (Marin Community Foundation, Living History Center, Fair Isaac Foundation, Frank Howard Allen Realtors), news photographers, a videographer (Kitty Green), a volunteer lifeguard (John Siler and Blue Water Kayak), and a flotilla of kayaks from SF Bay Sea Kayakers (Penny Wells and friends) to ensure our safety in the water. Life vests were donned by all water going adults and children. Four of the original Tule Team bravely floated the 18-foot boat in a test run, climbed aboard, and shoved off into the blue waters of Tomales Bay. It was a breathtaking sight, the earthy colors of the landscape, tan beach, sparkling bay and blue sky, and this amazing, "ancient" tule reed boat. Onlookers cheered, hugged, and cried from the sheer beauty and exhilaration of the moment.

The tule boat really showed its "sweetness" when in the water; it rode just high enough to keep its occupants dry, straightened its "twist" out so was easy to steer, was incredibly comfortable and stable to ride in, and believe it or not, had a wonderful scent. For the next three hours, Tule Team members Paul Berensmeier and Louis Nuyens guided three children at a time in paddling back and forth across the Heart's Desire lagoon in Tomales Bay. Every child that worked on the boat got a paddling workout and a great ride! What a wonderful adventure. The school children are still talking about itÉand so are the adults.

Traditionally, Native Americans' tule boats were smaller and lasted only one season probably due to the degradation of natural materials used in construction. But with so many people's hearts involved in this special tule reed boat, Don Neubacher, Superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore, has generously given permission to temporarily store the boat in the Red Barn at the Bear Valley Visitor's Center.

This was a once in a lifetime experienceÉunless, of course, you'd like to join us in building NEXT year's tule reed boat! Fundraising and grant writing is in progress right now. Contact Wilderness Way at 488-9034 or Mother Lode Musical Theater at 461-0313 for more information.

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