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Canoe maker living legacy in town of Ely

If you're a dog, you can watch my house. If you're a minister, pray for me. This is a northwoods philosophy that Joe Seliga of Ely, Minn., lives by. Joe was (I'll explain 'was' in a minute) a quiet man who lives in a comfortable home on the edge ...

If you're a dog, you can watch my house. If you're a minister, pray for me. This is a northwoods philosophy that Joe Seliga of Ely, Minn., lives by.

Joe was (I'll explain 'was' in a minute) a quiet man who lives in a comfortable home on the edge of this northwoods community. He spends his time enjoying the solitude of the area. The solitude is more pronounced today, since he lost his wife of 68 years about four years ago. But Joe keeps busy. And people who know Joe try to keep him busier than he really wants to be these days.

Joe is famous. He didn't plan it that way. He didn't welcome attention early on and didn't much appreciate people fawning over him and his work. It is his work that people talk about the most. That is until they get to know Joe personally and then they talk about what a great guy he is and how they love to hear his northwoods stories.

As Joe tells the story, all this attention happened as a result of an accident, literally, back in 1934. It seems that Joe and his father had taken their canoe out to a stream for a day of fishing. When they came upon a boiling rapids, Joe and his dad pulled up to the bank and Joe stepped out to take a look at the water and try to determine how they should portage around it.

As Joe carried their gear overland, he heard the crunching of wood against rocks. When he ran to the shore he found his dad holding on to the capsized canoe that had been smashed against the rocks. The pair hauled the canoe back home and laid it along a building.

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Joe really liked that 18-foot, canvass-covered canoe. Joe studied the problem for a while and then thought he would try his hand at repairing the canoe. He cut some wood from cedar trees around his home, fashioned a device to bend the 21 canoe ribs to fit the shapes he needed and slowly put the once-destroyed canoe back into perfect shape.

His neighbors in Ely noticed Joe's self-taught expertise and encouraged him to repair their canoes and even build a canoe from scratch. He did. And, his life changed. Orders started coming in ... they still are.

Each canoe that Joe builds takes between six weeks to two months to complete. Everything is hand fashioned and every brass nail is put in place one at a time. Joe has made some design changes to his canoes over the years. He thinks his design is much sleeker and handles much better and, obviously, so do his customers who line up to place an order.

Joe sold his first canoe in about 1937 for $40. He is building Nos. 664 and 665 at this time.

Joe met Nora Kroger and they married in 1932. Nora helped Joe fashion wood spines, stretch canvas and ... as Joe tells it ... "has pounded more brass nails than any woman on earth."

This past winter, Ely celebrated its annual winter festival called the Mukluk Ball. Joe was named the grand marshal. Being a quiet and reserved man, Joe had to ponder the honor for a while before he shyly accepted it and hesitantly agreed to attend the ball.

However, he made clear that he did not and would not dance at the event. That vow became invalid within the first half hour when a lady grabbed Joe by the arm and drug him to the middle of the dance floor.

As soon as one female released her grip on the grand marshal another lady-in-waiting would latch on to Joe and glide him across the room to the next and the next.

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Astonished by the number of ladies willing to place their feet in the path of a man who has not danced, Joe soon flashed a smile that lighted the ballroom and did not leave the floor until he had danced with every lady at the ball. As Joe remembers it, "they had to carry me off the floor."

Joe -- 93 years young -- blossomed that night at the Mukluk Ball.

Four years earlier on Oct. 28, 2000, Nora passed away. Nora and Joe had just finished building a canoe. Joe was torn about what to do with this last canoe. What would Nora do if the role was reversed?

Joe decided to give the canoe to the YMCA Camp Widjiwagen on Burntside Lake near Ely. Camp Widjiwagen had ordered the first Seliga canoe back in 1948 and now has 45 Seliga canoes at the camp. It was a good choice.

The Nora/Joe canoe is on display at the camp and has been named "Nora's Canoe." Joe has been honored and revered as a master canoe maker for some 70 years, but Nora's Canoe is his crown accomplishment.

Johnson, who works with the Minnesota Office of Tourism in St. Paul, can be reached at (651) 297-3488 or via e-mail at curt.johnson@state.mn.us

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