The city’s sewage ‘trash’ becomes a Huntington man’s floating ‘treasure’

Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

When people think of recycling materials, they don’t usually think of the most humble of items as potential works of beauty; yet, one Huntington resident, Kirk Strass, did just that with some wood being thrown away at his place of work.

He took old wood “flights” made of clear heart redwood that had been used to churn up the “stuff” Huntington residents flushed down their toilets and built himself a canoe.

Strass worked at the City of Huntington Water Pollution Control Plant – otherwise known as the sewage plant – where he retired as superintendent of wastewater after 37 years of service.

“The flights were in these tanks, and what these flights would do – they were in our primary tanks. This is where the sewage first comes in,” he explains. “Your grease floats to the top and the heavier stuff settles to the bottom. These flights were on chains and on rails, and they would slowly move down the tank and would scrape the floatables off the top. They cycled down to the bottom and they would drag the sludge back to a hopper, where we would pump the sludge off.”

After no longer needed to explain anything additional about the process, Strass said the wooden flights were replaced with plastic parts. When he realized they were made of redwood, he asked to take them home rather than to the landfill.

The wood wound up being stockpiled at his place about 20 years, after being “in service” for 20 years prior to that.

It’s not the first time Strass has built a canoe. He fabricated one in 1987, which he no longer owns. But he still yearned to take another trip to Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1,090,000-acre wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota near the Canadian border. He had made a group trip there in the past, but wanted to take a solo journey this time around. To do the trip, he needed something light he could manage to carry himself in order to portage between lakes.

“My aluminum canoes are too heavy for me to carry anymore. I’m getting too old,” Strass says, with a grin. “Instead of renting canoes, I thought I’d just build me another one, which I’d been wanting to do for years.”

It was evident that the disenfranchised flights were soon to be repurposed. They were ready and waiting.

“Redwood has a natural oil in it, which repels water and keeps it from rotting,” he adds. “All I had to do was plane off about a quarter inch, and it just looked brand-new on the inside.”

Strass then cut the 3 foot by 8 foot by 16 foot planks down to strips that were three-fourths of an inch wide and one-fourth of an inch thick.

It took Strass about 100 hours of work – without any help – to fabricate the canoe, using a “cove and bead” or rounded seam technique to allow the strips to bend into the shape he wanted. As part of the process, he glued the wood together then placed a clear fiberglass cloth over the canoe’s exterior. Finally, he put epoxy resin over the fiberglass, called “wetting out.”

“Then you sand it, varnish it, and you have to trim it out,” he says. “Then you pop it off the mold, flip it over and do the insides.”

He used walnut and red oak as accent trim along the canoe’s sides; the outwales and stems are made of cherry wood. He fashioned inwales, thwarts and two seats in the vessel out of walnut. He harvested the additional wood himself from his property.

When Strass was finished, the redwood canoe weighed 63 pounds, a bit heavier than he wanted but far less than a 90-pound aluminum canoe. Called the “Chestnut Prospector” model, it measures 16 feet long, 34 inches wide and 14 inches deep. He’s already launched it into the water three times.

Strass used plans that were found in a canoeing magazine to build his canoe. He says it really doesn’t take anything special; anyone can do it if they want to.

“I’ve just enjoyed woodworking for years – anything with my hands – and you learn from your mistakes. I can make sawdust with the best of them,” he jokes. “But you just learn from your mistakes. A lot of your mistakes you can hide, and you just learn how to do it. … My advice is if you want to do something just dive in and do it!”

Strass plans to take the canoe on the Boundary Waters trip sometime in late summer. Along with the vessel Strass plans to portage about 45 pounds in provisions during the week-long journey.

“I’ve always wanted to do it solo, and this is going to be the year I’m going to do it,” he adds. “Just go out there and listen to the wolves howl, and the bears grunt and beavers slapping their tails on the water. Just out there listening to nature.”