A handmade boat and a purpose for life

Eye on KELOLAND

VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) – On farmland just outside of Vermillion you can find a small working shop with a unique story and an owner who hopes to pass along her passion.

What started as a wilderness canoe trip turned into a new passion for Vermillion resident Dawne Olson.

“And I was in Canada and I saw some people making a boat in a museum, it was a canoe museum, and I thought that was really neat,” Olson said. “So I bought a book and after I read the book a couple times, I thought, I just have to try it. Because I’m just passionate about canoeing and outdoor things in general.”

Though she didn’t have any prior experience and wasn’t even sure what tools to use, she persisted in making her own canoe from scratch.

“It was like, a winter long project, I started in the Fall and I finished it mid-April. And I was just hooked after that,” she said.

From there, a domino effect began for Olson.

“I didn’t really realize how much that was gonna kind of change the course of my life, so I wanted to build other things,” Olson said. “And I built a kayak and then I thought, well, you know, I see people making snowshoes and then I want to do that and then I had a friend introduce me to pine needle basket making and then I wanted to do that. Then I got to thinking, how can I do this all the time.”

In 2016, Olson quit her full-time job and dedicated herself to her new craft. That’s how Four Winds Boat Shop and Woodcraft came to be.

“Because I kind of started dabbling with helping other people and teaching them and showing them what I was doing and I thought, I really had this vision of being able to make this schoolhouse into a place that people would come and learn how to do the things that I enjoy doing,” Olson said.

Now she helps other outdoor adventurers craft their own canoes and kayaks. She also holds classes such as intro to woodworking, snowshoe making and pine needle basket making.

Denise Lewis from Madison took one of Olson’s woodworking classes but got inspired when she saw Olson’s handmade canoe. Lewis decided she wanted to make one too.

“So she just gave me the confidence to do it. And she has really deep knowledge of woodworking and every tool you could imagine, so you know, I didn’t have all the tools, I didn’t have all the space that I would need, I didn’t have the know-how. But she had all that, so I was willing to travel from Madison down to Vermillion for, I don’t know, once or twice a week for about fourteen months to finish that canoe,” Lewis said. “And I’m so glad that I did.”

Shelley Brunick of Vermillion has a similar story. She was taking a snowshoe making class with Olson when she saw the handmade kayak.

“It’s fun going out there because she, you know, I’ve taken other classes from her too and, you know, she teaches you how to use the power tools and everything and you go out there and you work and she lets you use all of her tools and everything and, you know, she teaches you how to use them and then she just lets you go and use all of these different things and, you know, she helps whenever necessary,” Brunick said.

For Olson, building her canoe was much more than just piecing wood together.

“Through the personal journey of building my own boat, was going through really kind of a difficult time and I felt like it just kind of breathed new life into me,” Olson said. “It gave me something that I could focus on that would help me, kind of sometimes get through the day.”

She hopes to give that feeling to her clients as well.

“I think that sometimes people, they just need something like that to kind of bring them back to life,” Olson said. “I think we go through different periods in our life where we just kind of feel like we’re just adrift and we don’t have a purpose and you kind of get discouraged or whatever.”

A sense of accomplishment.

“There just things that, you know, people can do with their hands, which, I think we miss a lot right now,” Olson said. “And, at the same time, it kind of gives you, kind of the moral of the story, I guess, is just the sense that you can do a project that you think is beyond you or too hard.”

And the satisfaction of that hard work hitting the water.

“I think when you put a boat in the water and you hear the quiet and the motion of the water and everything, it’s just magic for me,” Olson said.

The building that Four Winds Boat Shop is housed in also has a unique story — it’s an old country school house.

Olson’s father-in-law then bought the building and used it as a machine shop. Eventually, after a remodel, the building became Olson’s workshop. It sits on a secluded area of her and her husband’s farm just outside of Vermillion.

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