The Monument

The artist and his wife with finished clay sculpture before shipping it to the foundry to be cast in bronze.

The bronze sculpture consists of a birch bark canoe and three human figures:

  • Man portaging a birch bark canoe from Lake Michigan
  • Woman, carrying their belongings
  • an Elder showing the way, literally and figuratively

Each figure is approximately ten-feet high, with the canoe reaching 20 feet in length. The birch bark canoe itself is at the center of focus as it is held aloft upon the shoulders of the portageur. Its significance to the monument reflects its significance to the Native Americans who crafted this beautiful light-weight vessel and used it to travel the waterways of the upper Great Lakes.

A 1/8th scale maquette (working model) was completed in 2013 and two casts in bronze were produced for local display. The remainder of the edition of 25 will be sold to individual fine art collectors. These small sculptures are available directly from the artist. From the maquette, full scale enlargements were produced in rigid foam, then clay was applied to the foam figures, and details sculpted in the clay. Much of this work was completed in a studio space donated in downtown Manitowoc by Steve Schinan. Once the sculpting was completed, molds were made and shipped to a fine art foundry in Oregon for bronze casting. After assembly, welding, and patina were done, the figures were shipped to the site for installation. Cast in bronze, the sculpture group weighs over three tons, with a patina customized to highlight the details of native clothing and canoe construction.

A volunteer board sought private funding and guided the overall project.

Sculptor’s Notes

Sculptor’s Remarks on the Spirit of the Rivers Monument

R.T. Wallen

There are backstories for some features of the monument that might be of interest.


The monument suggests that the young couple has just portaged their canoe from Lake Michigan, so the fact that she is carrying her shoes evolves naturally from that event.   She avoided getting them soaked while wading ashore. However, I had another inspiration for the woman carrying her moccasins.  It comes from a six-year-old Nez Perce girl in the Wallowa Valley, Oregon in 1877, long ago and far from Wisconsin.

In that year the Nez Perce people were driven from their ancestral homeland and reservation by the U.S. Army.  One band, under famed, peace-loving Chief Joseph, started its retreat from their summer lodge site at a park-like place called Iwetemlaykin near present-day Joseph, Oregon.  They were embarking on a twelve-hundred-mile journey to try to reach the safety of Canada. One little girl didn’t know about that or about the hardships and battles they would experience.   She didn’t understand the politics of their situation.  She didn’t know that gold had been discovered in the region and that their reservation had been eliminated. But the little girl was worried.  She had a new pair of moccasins. The people had to cross the river that flowed near their summer lodgings ,and she didn’t want to get her moccasins wet, so she carried them across.  A lifetime later she told the story to her grandson, Horace Axtell, recalling the quietude of their departure from Iwetemlaykin. “The only sounds were those of the horses and cattle as we left.”

The story is recorded in a sidebar on an Oregon State Park marker near the site.

The bronze figures of this monument were cast at Parks Bronze, a fine-art foundry about six miles from Iwetemlaykin.  I made frequent visits to the site and walked the trails many times and was moved while sculpting this piece to embed the moccasin story, even knowing it would not be visible to people viewing the work.

A view of the Wallawa Valley, Oregon

A view of the Wallawa Valley, Oregon

Decoration on Clothing

I have tried to simulate porcupine quillwork on the sleeves of the Tribal Elder and on the Woman’s moccasins. Decorative patterns and iconic figures made of porcupine quills were appliqued to clothing, scabbards, bags, head bands, and other items using a number of techniques. This ancient art preceded the introduction of glass beads by Europeans.  Quillwork is still done, but has largely been replaced by glass beadwork. Beautiful, finely executed examples of quillwork survive and testify to the skill and patience of the women who practiced the art.

The rows of zig-zag pattern depicted in the monument resulted from folding quills back and forth between two lines, a quarter to half inch apart.  Each fold was affixed to the line on the hide or deer skin with a loop of sinew. The pattern of elongate triangles results from folding the quills back and forth between these guidelines. Porcupine quills are two to three inches long.  Each enabled three or four folds creating about a half inch of row length.  Clearly the Elder portrayed in the sculpture had a skilled and patient woman tending his clothing.

Canoe rigging

The special rigging for carrying a canoe long distances was taught to me by Algonquin people from Mattawa, Ontario, when I worked as a guide at a canoe base on Lake Temagami. In the particular case of this monument, sited only a few steps from the Lake Michigan shore, such rigging would have been unnecessary.   Even so, I wanted to preserve the rigging in bronze while I had the chance.   For longer carries or for frequent short carries, the rigging shown here offers a way to relieve the discomfort of the weight of the canoe from one’s shoulders while on the move, thus minimizing the inconvenience and time loss of setting the canoe on the ground for rest stops. As a young man, I once used this rigging to carry a heavy wood and canvas canoe over a four-mile portage without once dismounting it.

By rigging the tumpline and the paddles in a certain way, a person can change where the weight of the canoe rests, whether on the shoulders or on the head.   Here is how it works:  the tumpline passes over the portageur’s head and under the paddle on either side.  Each end of the tumpline is tied to the outer edges of the canoe’s center thwart (crosspiece).  Paddles are loosely tied, blade ends to the center thwart and handle ends to the forward thwart.  Two loops, permanently tied to the center thwart, allow the paddle blade ends to be quickly inserted or withdrawn, while the handle ends can be quickly and loosely tied or untied at the forward thwart, using bits of rope or leather that are permanently tied there.  The tumpline is permanently tied to the center thwart and, when not being used for portaging, simply hangs there.  The length of the portion of the tumpline that passes over the portageur’s head is critical, and may require some experimentation when first tied to get it right.  However, once the best length is achieved, the tumpline will not have to be re-tied and can remain in place for an entire season.

The paddle blade ends rest on the portaguer’s shoulders, the most comfortable position when the canoe is being carried.  When the weight of the canoe becomes uncomfortable on the shoulders, the portageur can jiggle each paddle forward.  This causes the tumpline to pass under wider parts of the paddles’ blades, thus shortening the loop that passes over the portageur’s head, lifting the weight off the shoulders and onto the neck and head, relieving the shoulders.  A couple rolls of the shoulders restores circulation, whereupon the paddles are jiggled backwards and the weight is transferred back onto the shoulders. Intermediate positions of the paddles allow the weight to be shared between shoulders and neck.   The portageur positions and repositions the weight while traveling, avoiding the inconvenience and work of frequent dismounts and re-mounts of the canoe on a portage.   When I was portaging my heavy canoe, I usually stuffed a shirt or some other item toward the stern of the canoe to make it slightly stern heavy.  Hooking an ax to the forward thwart, handle within reach, kept the canoe horizontal.   When I needed to see ahead or when the route was uphill,  I lifted the ax to raise the bow.

These days, with exceedingly light canoes of the market, the rigging portrayed in the monument may be of historical rather than practical interest.

Sculptor portaging his canoe along a steep trail in Ontario.

Sculptor portaging his canoe along a steep trail in Ontario.

Elder’s Staff

Another feature of the monument inviting comment is the staff held in the tribal elder’s left hand.   This bronze staff simulates the trunk of a diamond willow sapling.  Diamond willow is not a species of tree. The term is used to designate a willow with a fungal infection that produces diamond-shaped depressions or cankers in the trunk.  When the bark of such a tree is stripped away, the light yellowish color of the wood contrasts with the more deeply penetrating reddish colored diamonds.    Such pieces of wood served as trade pieces when made into staffs or decorative items.

A glance at the top of the staff on the monument reveals its practical function in helping to support the bronze canoe.

Elder’s Gesture

People have asked me to add a story that I’ve told several times to groups in my studio, the story behind the gesture of the Tribal Elder as he indicates a place for the young couple to place their canoe.   In 1965 I worked as a field biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and was stationed on Little Diomede Island, in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.  Once, while part of a group of Inupiat Eskimo hunters, I was crossing the Bering Strait in a skin boat from Diomede Island to the Alaska mainland. Foggy, snowy weather limited our visibility, and ice pans drifting north on the current obstructed our passage.  Some of these pans were a mile or two long and half as wide. It proved easier and faster to drag our oomiak  (skin boat) and equipment across them than to go around them,  even encumbered with the sectioned parts of the two walruses we were transporting to a village.  In the course of our travel we had repeatedly drifted north on these ice floes.  The coast of Alaska was out of sight in the fog.  It might have been ten or twenty miles distant. The direction to the place we wanted to land, the point of the jutting Seward Peninsula, got lost in the work of paddling interrupted by the effort of crossing moving ice and by hunting on the way.

Each time we launched our boat after crossing an ice pan, the young men would turn for guidance to the elder in our party, a man whose name was Koyuktuq (Arctic fox).  Koyuktuq would note the wind direction and float his paddle on the surface for a moment or two, and then, elbow crooked at his waist, point his palm in the direction we should go. After many long hours of crossing, and still in heavy fog, we made landfall within a few hundred yards of our destination village. I tried to work the form of Koyuktuq’s gesture into the monument.   His gesture was cast in bronze but only in the maquette, or study model.   It did not survive to the larger monument, due partly to considerations of composition and partly for the need to provide additional support for the canoe with the Elder’s staff.  Instead, in the monument, the Elder gestures with an outstretched arm, opening the composition but losing the gesture of another Tribal Elder who guided us across a faraway sea by dead reckoning, many years ago.

Koyuktuq, left, Bering Strait, Alaska

Koyuktuq, left, Bering Strait, Alaska

Dragging a walrus skin across an ice pan.  Diomede Island, 1965

Dragging a walrus skin across an ice pan. Diomede Island, 1965

Woman’s Tumpline

Tumplines of leather or of plant fibers may be of different lengths up to about 18 feet, their length adding to their versatility.  The same tumpline, for example, may be employed in portaging a canoe or used to carry any number of items: hides, furs, bundles of household items, or firewood.   The woman in the monument is using a plaited tumpline to carry two loads.  The lower bundle simulates indeterminate contents wrapped in a hide.  School kids visiting the studio often asked, “What’s in there?” to which I would reply, “I don’t know.  What do YOU think is in there?”  That always prompted speculative second looks at the bundle and plenty of suggestions about its contents.

Originally, a larger, upper bundle was similar in form.  At the last minute, with sculpting all but completed and only a day or two remaining before the scheduled arrival of foundry master Steve Parks to cut up the clay sculpture for transport to the foundry, I decided to turn this amorphous upper bundle into a roll of birch bark.  This change accomplished two things:  (1) it transformed a somewhat meaningless, lumpy second bundle into a form that would relate to the featured birch bark canoe in texture, spirit and purpose and might prompt questions  and speculations about the young couples’ journey and (2) by transforming the upper bundle into a slightly longer roll of birch bark, one end of the roll reaches under the gunwale of the canoe and helps support it, adding strength to the structure.