DELTA, Alaska - Now is the time of year when sitting around a campfire feels good, even when there’s still a lingering nip in the air. Last weekend my daughter and I cut some small burls from trees on our property and started a fire that would keep us warm while we peeled them. This is the time of year when the bark pulls off easily, exposing the beautiful golden color and texture of the wood underneath.
If you’ve ever tried to peel a burl in the middle of summer or when it has been cut and dried, you can appreciate springtime. This is when sap is running through the trees as they wake up and subsequently loosen their grip on the dense bark. I’ve had my eye on some big burls behind the house for several years, but decided to start with the smaller ones after being inspired by a picture of a wooden cup I came across.
It’s called a kuksa, a traditional wooden cup made by the indigenous people of Lapland. Apparently these cups are quite common with people who backpack in the northern Nordic lands of Sweden, Finland or Norway. It is said to be bad luck to buy one. You have to make it yourself or be given one as a gift. Traditionally it is made from a birch burl and can take on any characteristic that the carver desires. Usually it includes a handle with a hole or two in it for your fingers and a loop of leather on the handle for hanging from your pack or belt or what have you.
Exploring some forums online, I discovered people are very passionate about kuksas. If treated well, they are supposed to last a lifetime and take on the characteristic of an old friend, reminding you of the places you’ve been. They can be cleaned with a simple rinse and hung to dry. Kuksas are said to hold heat very well, and of course, they just look cool.
I was using my small 2 1/2-inch knife for peeling, being careful not to gouge or nick the wood. The inner bark was so soft I could scratch it with my fingernail. I read that if you need to soften the burl you’re working with, you can boil it in saltwater to soften it for carving. This is also supposed to help cure it to prevent later cracking and splitting when it dries.
I’ve had to purchase some new tools for this endeavor, including a tiny little adz and a crooked knife. These tools will help me gouge and shape my cup and, I hope, future bowls or spoons.
This is also the time of year when peeling diamond willow is an easier task. So if you know where to find some spruce burls or diamond willow, now’s the time to get at it. Get a campfire going, pull up a chair, and enjoy the task of carving a bowl, spoon, cup, walking stick or whatever you set your mind to. Send me a picture of past or present projects if you’d like to share your successes.
We could all use some inspiration!
Brookelyn Bellinger is an independent filmmaker and author of the book “The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin’.” Send your questions to brookelynbellinger