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80-year-old Hawick, Minn., man paddles canoes made by his own hands

David "Duke" Hassinger crafts cedar-strip canoes in a shop he built at his home on the south shore of Long Lake near Hawick. The joy is watching the creation take shape. "You don't really have a full grasp of what it's going to look like until it's done,'' he said. He's currently building a larger tandem that will be able to carry two paddlers and all of their gear on wilderness trips. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)1 / 2
Living on Long Lake near Hawick makes it easy for David "Duke" Hassinger to enjoy his love for paddling. He often launches his solo canoe in a small bay and paddles the quiet waters. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)2 / 2

HAWICK -- There are two different kinds of people who craft their own cedar strip canoes, according to David "Duke" Hassinger.

"Some people like to have the ones they can hang on the garage wall to show to their neighbors and friends,'' said Hassinger. "I want it to be pretty too, but I want it for utilitarian purposes. I love to paddle.''

At age 80, paddle and craft he does.

A tandem canoe designed to carry paddlers and gear for an extended wilderness trek is taking shape in his shop on the south shore of Long Lake near Hawick today. It will be the seventh cedar strip canoe he's crafted over the last 11 years or so.

He learned how to build cedar strip canoes during a weekend class offered at the Lac qui Parle State Park. He crafted and christened his first, a solo canoe, "Voyageur I'' in the year 2000. It remains his favorite.

All of his canoes are meant to carry paddlers over wilderness waters. Hassinger makes at least one trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year. He goes sometimes as part of a trio of paddling buddies.

Other times, he goes solo.

"I like the solitude,'' said Hassinger. He confessed that there is a downside to his solo treks. "I am a poor cook.''

That shortcoming aside, Hassinger knows his way in the wilderness.

He grew up in Minneapolis and married a Minneapolis girl, and convinced his new bride to try farming along the Minnesota River Valley between Morgan and Franklin.

Six years later the banker called with a message: "Young man, you're not going to make it.''

With two young children in tow, Duke and Gloria Hassinger moved back to Minneapolis so that he could take up the study of agricultural economics. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota.

They packed up the camper and the family of four headed to Alaska.

Hassinger took a five-year assignment in the small village of Aniak. It is located on the Kuskokwim River more than 300 miles northwest of Anchorage. It had no road connections to the outside.

"It was a great life,'' said Hassinger.

When his contract with the University ended, he free-lanced. Hassinger and a native friend built a cabin over 100 miles to the north and trapped marten in the winter.

He worked for a Japanese travel agency and guided fishermen in a 30-foot, wooden boat built by native craftsmen. He also worked for a native corporation and helped the local people establish gardens and a small potato growing operation.

With help from his sons and native youths, he felled spruce trees and rafted them down the river to a sawmill. He used the cut logs to build the family home.

Another time, he tried his own 180-mile run on the Aniak river in what the locals call a "rat boat.'' It's a narrow craft built of poles and intended mainly for hunting muskrats. It proved no match for the rough rapids and rocks of the upper river. Stranded, he had to be rescued.

About 20 years ago, Duke and Gloria Hassinger returned to Minnesota, landing eventually in the home they built on Long Lake.

It was learning to build a cedar strip canoe at Lac qui Parle State Park that changed everything.

"From then on I just caught on fire,'' said Hassinger. "I liked the looks of 'em. I liked to build 'em, to paddle them.''

He built a shop where he can escape and work on the canoes as he sees fit. The joy is in watching the creation take shape, he said. "You don't really have a full grasp of what it's going to look like until it's done.''

He keeps two of his canoes at hand, ready for excursions on Long Lake, trips to the Boundary Waters or wherever his heart may desire.

He appreciates the self-sufficiency of paddling a craft of his own make, the quiet on the water, and the opportunity to see fish and wildlife and enjoy the scenery.

Most of all he just loves to paddle. "It's a good way to work out your frustrations,'' he said. "Get out there and take a good, long paddle and work hard, paddle hard. When you come back your mind is usually cleared up.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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