When I must leave the great river
O bury me close to its wave
And let my canoe and my paddle
Be the only mark over my grave
‘Mon Canoe d’écorce’ (‘My Bark Canoe’)
I didn’t know him, but Joe Seliga represented something good and important. I shared the water with his canoes once or twice, and it was a pleasure and an honor. He passed away on Sunday at the age of 94. He went quickly and his wife was waiting for him. He left a legacy of wonderful canoes, and much more. Bon voyage.
“He loved what he was doing, and that made him young, and it made everyone else around him young,” said Jeanne Bourquin, who has built wood-canvas canoes in Ely for 21 years.
“He just lifted you up,” said Nancy Piragis of Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely. “How could a person in his 80s and 90s dance all night? He did it every year at the Mukluk Ball.”
In addition to being an excellent craftsman, Seliga loved paddling and fishing in the canoe country. He made many trips with Ely’s Dan Litchfield.
“Everywhere we went, he’d been there already,” Litchfield said. “We took my Seliga (canoe). He was in his high 70s and 80s.”
Seliga loved fishing for walleyes and lake trout but had no time for smallmouth bass, Litchfield said. He recalled the time he and Seliga were planning a trip to the Man Chain of lakes in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Seliga told Litchfield not to worry about packing a cook kit because he had one stashed in the woods up there.
“We got to the spot, and he said, ‘It’s right behind this rock,’ ” Litchfield said. “He found this old plate bent in half and said, ‘Those damn bears.’ I said, ‘Joe, when’s the last time you used that cook kit?’ He said, ‘Oh, 10, 15 years ago.’ ”
Smith, of Widjiwagan, remembers camping with Seliga on Slim Lake near Ely.
“The thing that struck me was that in the summer, he didn’t use a sleeping bag. He was from the bedroll era. He had a blanket, and if it was cold, he’d put his feet into a Duluth pack.”