NEW LONDON, Minn. – Using axes, knives, fire and brute force, sixth-generation members of the Peterson family spent one week for the past three summers turning a tall – mostly straight – basswood tree into a canoe.
Their goal was to replicate an adventure taken about 160 years ago by their ancestors who hollowed out a basswood tree to paddle across Norway Lake to fetch butter, bread and a bucket of milk from a family of new settlers who lived on the other side of the lake.
The July 2020 adventure was designed to follow the same 3-mile route across Norway Lake in a similarly-constructed log canoe.
Both trips were partially successful.
Fortunately, the good humor of Nels and Hans Peterson – brothers who left Norway in 1859 for the United States when they were 21 and 17, respectively – carried over to Kyle Peterson and his cousin Tad Hase during their Norway Lake adventure.
Both family tales included laughter.
The first story happened sometime between 1859 and 1862.
The story was written by Gabriel Stene, based on an interview with Hans Peterson. The story was published in the mid-1920s in the Willmar Tribune (now the West Central Tribune). At that time Stene wrote under the pen name “The Pioneer Kid.”
Here’s how that story goes:
“Nels and I were batching on his claim north of the lake. We had a cow and a calf at John Totland’s who lived across the lake, and we also had our bread-baking and butter-making done at the Totlands. To go around the lake meant journeying many miles.
We were fishermen from Norway, used to boats, fishing and swimming. We conceived the idea of felling a big basswood tree and cutting and hollowing out the log for a canoe.
This we did, and we could navigate well enough when the weather was fine and keeping our tongue straight in our mouths and keeping our balance carefully.
When we had the wind with us we raised an umbrella as a substitute sail and went just a flying.
One day we had the wind against us going, but were congratulating ourselves that we would have a favorable trip home.
We loaded our craft with a tub of butter, a few loaves of bread bundled up in a piece of cloth, a pail of milk and the umbrella.
When we were out in the middle of the lake the wind raised havoc with us. The water washed up into the canoe so that it sank nicely down and then turned upside down.
The wind stood straight for our shore, Nels took quick leave and struck out straight for shore. I hesitated a little to look for our floating personal property before I also made the swim for life at full speed. We soon reached the shore.
What changes of clothing could one expect to find at a bachelors’ home? We hung our clothes on some bushes and waited for them to dry.
After a while our canoe floated to shore, the bread floated by and so did the butter, the umbrella and the wooden pail, but the milk had not shown up yet.”
Nels and Hans were later joined by two more brothers and family from Norway and settled around Norway Lake – west of New London in northern Kandiyohi County – and were prominent members of the community.
Fourth-generation family member Dallen Peterson and his wife, Glennis, still live on Norway Lake where grandkids and great-grandkids spend many summer days.
That’s where Kyle Peterson, a member of the sixth generation of Petersons, talked his cousins and a brother-in-law into replicating the adventure of Hans and Nels. The cousins typically spend a week at Norway Lake during the Fourth of July and three years ago they found the perfect basswood tree on the Peterson property.
“The tree was pretty straight, pretty big and we thought it looked pretty good so we chopped it down,” said Peterson. Using axes they dropped it “right where we aimed,” he said.
They cut a 12-foot-long chunk and used hatchets and pry bars to peel off the bark leaving a “great big smooth trunk” that they started shaping with hatchets and axes.
It was not an easy assignment.
“It was mostly just blisters and sweating and some tears,” said Hase, who sunk an ax into his ankle one year. “So that was fun,” he said, with deadpan humor.
They used embers to burn out the center of the log, a process that was helped by a naturally occurring hollow spot that proved to be both good news and bad news. The hollow spot ran to the end of the log, allowing water to seep in. After several failed attempts to use natural materials to fill the hole they settled on spray foam.
The canoe was not an immediate success.
“We couldn’t quite keep our tongues straight enough and we flipped it every time we put it in,” said Peterson, making reference to Hans' navigational technique. “I think our record was about four seconds before we flipped it over,” he said.
The solution this year was to hitch an outrigger to the canoe by lashing two small tree limbs and a larger log onto one side.
“It keeps us from tilting and tipping,” Peterson said.
On July 8, Peterson and Hase climbed into the canoe for a test run close to shore. It quickly filled up with water and – while laughing and joking with each other and their grandparents who were watching on shore – they scooped water out with a plastic cup and made more adjustments to the rigging.
Satisfied, they climbed in again with their sights set for the north side of Norway Lake.
They made it through the “narrows” of the lake but didn’t quite reach the final destination.
Like Hans and Nels, winds caused problems and they turned around.
White caps on "Big Norway" brought water over the end and it was "more like riding in a submarine than a canoe," Peterson said. "But it was a lot of fun." He said they'll try again next year when the other two family members who worked on the project can have a chance to make it across the lake on a less windy day.
Peterson and Hase expressed pure admiration for their ancestors.
“I can’t imagine how they got it to work,” Peterson said. “I guess they were better canoe-builders than us.”
They’re also confident that Hans and Nels enjoyed watching the present-day adventure.
“They’re up in heaven, looking down – laughing,” Peterson said.