Joe Seliga faced each day with a wholehearted smile, his good nature belying the difficult work he shouldered as both a boy and a man. Joe was born in 1911 into a big family where chores around the homestead were a way of life—and adventure abounded in the out-of-doors. Like many Ely natives, Joe toiled in the iron mines and worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet. He did this all while teaching himself the intricate craft of wood and canvas canoe building. Joe built a remarkable 619 canoes over a 67-year period, even after a devastating fire took his shop.
It all began in 1948 when Joe made four canoes for Camp Widjiwagan, a summer canoe camp for kids. The following year, the Charles L. Sommers Wilderness Canoe Base needed boats to outfit its canoe guides, and when they visited Joe in his shop and learned that he was planning a seventeen-foot canoe model designed for wilderness paddling, they ordered four boats on the spot. Sommers went on to purchase more than 120 of Joe’s canoes, but it was Camp Widjiwagan on the north arm of Burntside Lake that established the longest partnership with Joe, beginning in the 1940s and lasting nearly sixty years.
Joe visited Camp Widjiwagan each summer to repair the fleet of camp canoes. The kids would work alongside him as he told stories of the northwoods and schooled them in the art of caring for a wood and canvas canoe. The name Widjiwagan comes from the Ojibwa word for “comradeship,” and with a core mission of teaching young paddlers the proper use and care of its own fleet of canoes, it was inevitable that the camp became home to the Seliga canoe legacy. The young men and women who guided these trips carried with them Joe’s good nature and his ability to lead by example. And the kids gained experience and respect for the boats by making extended canoe camping trips into the Boundary Waters Wilderness and the waterways extending far beyond into Canada.
Joe died at the age of ninety-four, still building canoes in his small shop on Pattison Street in Ely. The form, his tools, the steam box, assorted jigs for bending wood, and his handwritten records from seven decades of canoe-making are at Camp Widjiwagan, being cared for by a new generation of Minnesotans. Today, Widjiwagan campers still learn the heritage of the wood and canvas canoe; they paddle, portage, load and unload, make small and large repairs, and even build new wooden canoes from scratch in the time-honored Seliga tradition.