Wigwam offers hands-on learning in Ballston Spa

How often these days do you find a home that can sleep six people, is made completely of natural materials, doesn't rely on fossil fuels for heat and is snug and dry to boot?

Welcome to the wigwam in the rear grounds of Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa. Built entirely by hand in 210 hours, the structure is expected to withstand the elements and be standing for about a decade to come.

It's made from elm bark, and if the bark is strong enough to protect the tree, it's good enough to protect people, said Vince Walsh, who was commissioned by Brookside to build and do education programs about Native American history in and around Saratoga County.

"In May, June and July, the bark peels off in one piece; I took a knife and peeled it down and only needed seven pieces to go around and seven pieces for the roof. One tree could build an entire wigwam," said Walsh.

Thin bark from branches is soaked in water to become supple, and then serves as lashings to weave the structure together.

"Young trees bend very easily, like young kids," said Walsh. "As you get older, it becomes more difficult."

On a recent day, as gold leaves fell from the very elms Walsh used for raw materials, students from Orenda Elementary School in the Shenendehowa school district visited Brookside for an outdoor lesson in architecture.

"They didn't have screws and nails back then," said Walsh. "But you also need it to shed rain and keep the wind off your 84 year-old grandmother's face, so you boil spruce sap and mix with wood ash to make hot glue to fill the gaps. It dries just like cement."

Walsh is owner of the Kawing Crow Awareness Center, which is a learning center focused on natural and cultural history, wilderness skills, and simple, sustainable lifestyles. Visitors can learn about water and woods, butterflies and frogs, aspens and asters and make fire by friction, weave rope from bark, track animals, camp in winter in comfort and learn about living in balance with nature. Kawing Crow is located in Greenfield Center on 60 acres of woods and wetlands.

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