Teacher donates time to help kids build canoes

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MERRILL, Wis. (AP) - Prairie River Middle School teacher Mark Pugh didn’t know what to expect last school year when he started hanging posters around the school, inviting students to participate in a wooden canoe-making workshop.

For the past several summers, Pugh, a technical-education instructor at the school, has been trekking to Brooklin, Maine, to attend courses at the WoodenBoat School, a prestigious program that teaches niche skills related to the art of wooden boat-building and repair. While taking courses, Pugh came down with the wooden-boat bug, a peculiar malady that transforms an otherwise normal person into a special kind of watercraft obsessive.

“I kind of went out there on a whim,” Pugh, 54, told Daily Herald Media (http://wdhne.ws/1ust8za). “And I found that I really, really like wooden boats.”

The wooden-boat bug is infectious, and Pugh decided that maybe students could catch it, too. So he decided to set up an informal after-school activity, in which he would donate his time and expertise to middle-schoolers who also might be susceptible. He offered space in the school’s large wood shop, and all he asked was that students pay for their own materials and be willing to learn and work.

Pugh started it in the 2012-13 school year. Four boys signed up; three finished their canoes last May. One student, Justin Tousignant, 14, now a freshman at Merrill High School, got a late start and still is working on his boat after school, between golf and football and other teen activities.

Chrissy Doering, 13, an eighth-grader at the school, likes to work with wood and tools, so she signed up earlier this school year. Doering’s family doesn’t have storage room for a wood canoe, so she’s building a canoe-shaped wooden shelf for her mother.

“That’s a complicated project,” Pugh said. “She’s learning a lot of the same things the boys did.”

Tousignant thinks he might pursue a career in the medical field, but he plans to spend plenty of time on the water, too, as he gets older.

“I like fishing and going around with boats,” Tousignant said. “I thought it would be cool to build one.”

Pugh uses the most simple, least-expensive canoe-building plans he could find. “The designer calls them ‘Six-Hour Canoes,’” Pugh said. “We’ve found that they take a lot longer than that.”

Pugh estimates that Tousignant likely has spent about 70 hours on his canoe and now is nearing the end of the project. He was rounding out the sharp edges on his craft recently, using a small block plane that once was used by Pugh’s grandfather - a treasured heirloom for someone who works with wood.

“Take care of that,” Pugh advised the teen.

It’s appropriate that Pugh would lend out his grandfather’s plane. One reason the canoes take so long to build is that they require detail-oriented woodworking, much of it with hand tools used by carpenters and boatwrights for generations.

“The block plane is your friend,” Pugh said.

Pugh is teaching the students the practical skills they need to build a boat, including using hand and power tools and making precise measurements. But the deeper lessons they learn come from the simple tedium of much of the work, Pugh said.

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