MILFORD, Maine — Bill Mackowski lifted the carved lid of an ash pack basket and pulled out a well-preserved small, green book — “The School-Boy Trapper” by Pat Sedlack. The paperback, published in 1960, was protected in a cloudy zip-close bag.
“I remember when my uncle bought me this book,” he said, holding the childhood treasure. “That was the start of one of my love affairs with the outdoors.”
At 7 years old, Mackowski started using box traps to catch cottontail rabbits in his backyard in western Pennsylvania. And one day, decades later, his passion for trapping evolved into a curiosity about the tools he used every day while trapping in the Great North Woods.
Today, he keeps a gallery at his home in Milford. The building is filled with traditional ash pack baskets, fishing creels and snowshoes — the products of more than two decades of studying and reconstructing items that were once key to the survival of the native people of America.
Recently, in recognition of his work, the Maine Arts Commission named Mackowski their 2013 Traditional Arts Fellow, a title accompanied by a $13,000 grant as well as media exposure of his artistic excellence.
“He’s kind of a Renaissance man of the North Woods,” said Kathleen Mundell, traditional arts specialist at the Maine Arts Commission. “That’s one thing that the panel really likes, that he had this really broad, deep knowledge about the crafts of the northern forest.”
Each year, one Maine artist is honored with a fellowship in each of five art categories — traditional, media and performing arts, literary, visual and functional. And because of the competitiveness of the program, and to avoid conflict of interest, the fellows are selected by out-of-state jurors.
“I want people not to appreciate necessarily what I do, but to appreciate what all these old guys did who taught me how to do this,” said Mackowski, now 64 years old.
A registered Maine Guide for 40 years, Mackowski has always felt tied to the wilderness and the traditions of the northern forest, no matter what his profession, be it commercial fisherman, farmer, bush pilot or full-time trapper.
For years, he traveled to Indian Island and purchased his pack baskets from Penobscot weaver Fred Nicola to use in trapping beaver. It wasn’t until he was about 40 years old that he became interested in learning to make his own pack.
“A lot of these things just have to be taught one-on-one, and that’s another thing that I think Bill respects,” Mundell said. “He realizes that so much of this knowledge is passed on through people, that human connection is still really important.”
Mackowski made his first rough pack basket under the guidance of Willard Tilton of Passadumkeag. First, they walked down to the Penobscot River to harvest an ash tree. Tilton then led his student through each step, from pounding growth rings off the log with a 3-pound sledge hammer, to fumbling through the weaving.
“From that point on, it became an obsession,” Mackowski said. “And I started seeking out pack basket makers.”
Soon after, he made his first wooden and hide snowshoes with mentor Dick McCubrey of Orono.
“Snowshoes, in my opinion, never really got their due,” Mackowski said. “People talk about the impact the canoe had on civilization. Well, in the northern hemisphere, imagine not being able to go anywhere if the ground wasn’t bare.
Mackowski traveled throughout New England and Canada, and even into Wisconsin and Minnesota, to collect different styles of pack baskets and snowshoes from a dwindling and dispersed group of crafters that carry on the tradition. Meanwhile, he improved his basket-making skills with accomplished weavers Larry Hurd of Bangor and Jack Leadley of the Adirondacks.
“You know, I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Mackowski said. “It seemed like we just connected. They were open and forthcoming with that they knew and willing to share. There was never a formal apprenticeship agreement.”
Most of the time, Mackowski connected with native and non-native crafters through a shared love of trapping.
Each basket maker and snowshoe maker had hundreds of stories to tell, he said, so he ended up learning much more than their craft. During his travels, he enjoyed lessons in philosophy, nature, family and cultural traditions, though often these bits of knowledge were filtered through a translator. Many of the crafters spoke Innu-aimun, French or Cree.
In most villages, he found only one or two elders still creating traditional snowshoes, and few were passing on their knowledge.
“Children used to grow up in a situation where they learned almost through osmosis,” said Mackowski. “In the bush, they couldn’t even go out and go to the bathroom without snowshoes. They were always repairing and working on them.”
Nowadays, the necessity for traditional snowshoes has vanished in the presence of factory-made models and snowmobiles.
“If I was 15 years earlier, I would have never been able to contact most of them, the villages were so isolated,” he said. “And if I had been 10 years later, many of the snowshoe makers that were there would have been gone — passed away.”
Today, Mackowski houses a collection of 60-70 different pack baskets, about 200 snowshoes, and a variety of fishing creels, which also caught his attention during his travels. The majority of pieces in his collection are unsigned.
“None of this was ever an art to them. It was all functional,” he said. “It was just a tool of the trade. No self-respecting woodsman ever went into the woods without a pack basket. It carried all he needed.”
Mackowski re-creates the different snowshoes and baskets simply by examining the specimens he has collected.
Two particularly intricate snowshoes that he has learned to make originated from the 1850s — an Attikamek snowshoe from Quebec and a Penobscot snowshoe from Maine. Both designs are truly works of art; the beauty of their complicated patterns is admired even by people who know nothing about weaving.
The Penobscot snowshoe, of which only four original pairs still exist, has a webbing of three distinct yet interwoven patterns. One of these shoes was purchased by Henry David Thoreau in 1853 from native living on Indian Island.
“You almost have to be in a coma to concentrate enough to weave it,” Mackowski said. “And to think that in the middle of the bush, some woman was sitting in a tent somewhere designing and completing a piece of work like that for no other reason than to put it on a foot — to put it on her husband’s foot so he could go hunt caribou.”
Thoreau’s well-worn pair is now preserved by The Thoreau Society in Concord, Mass. The Abbe Museum, Maine State Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian each have an original pair as well. And Mackowski has re-created the snowshoe several times. The webbing itself takes him about 60 hours to complete.
In addition to artistic pieces, the Milford crafter makes functional pack baskets, fishing creels and snowshoes with simpler designs. The snowshoes have webbing of deer hide or even nylon coated in fiberglass, and over the years, they’ve been worn on the feet of Maine wardens, forest management workers, hunters, trappers and outdoor enthusiasts.
“He’s not only a really great craftsman,” Mundell said, “but he’s also done a lot of documentation work. He’s kind of like a walking encyclopedia of the knowledge of the north woods.”
To ensure the traditions are passed on, Mackowski has recently taken on two apprentices, Penobscot apprentice John Neptune and Maine Game Warden Dave Georgia, and he is also working with the University of Maine Folklife Center, to which he has submitted a dozen recordings of baske tmakers and snowshoe makers sharing their knowledge.
And along with the center’s director, Pauleena MacDougall, he recently has decided to write a book on the traditions, in the hopes that perhaps some day, a young boy will be handed the book by his uncle, and the book will start a love affair with the old ways of the Great North Woods.