By CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM – At 90 years old, Bob Belyea won’t go out in a canoe alone anymore, but he’s still making canoes, carving birds and generally satisfying his passion for the outdoors and woodworking.
“You’ve got to have something to do,” Belyea said, drawing on the wisdom of long experience.
As you walk around his house and yard in Potsdam, you see he has done a lot. Everywhere are award-winning decoys and other bird carvings, and collectibles of several varieties: old glass power line insulators, bottles, horns and antlers, fishing flies, powder horns, arrowheads, 5,000-year-old stone canoe gouges, and bonsai trees. He said he has “dug a lot of bottles, bought a lot, and sold a lot.”
There are canoes being built in two workshops and another, of birch bark, hanging over the entrance to a cabin out back.
“It took four years to find a piece of bark large enough for that canoe,” he said.
As for the cabin, he said he “always wanted a cabin in the woods, but I didn’t have the woods, so I built one here.” It is a comfortable retreat with a rustic porch railing and the face of an old man carved into a stump in front.
He was born in Massena in 1922. His father was an optician who moved the practice to Potsdam when Bob was about 10. After he graduated from Potsdam High School, Belyea went into the Army Air Force during World War II and trained and qualified as a fighter pilot, but by then the military was looking at invasion of Japan and needed more bomber pilots. “So I was a co-pilot in B-24s, B-17s and B-25s. They needed those B-25s in the Pacific to get ready to invade Japan. It was all over before I flew any bombing missions,” he said.
He came back to Potsdam after the war and worked at the Racquette River Paper Company, eventually running the coating division for fancy coated papers. When the plant was sold, he moved to Vanness Hardware Stores as a store manager, overseeing six or seven stores around the North Country. He was also helping a carpenter at Vanness, “and I decided I liked that better than traveling to a different store every day.”
Eventually he signed on at what was then called Canton ATC, the agricultural and technical college, now SUNY Canton. He was a technician there for 15 years, helping with the building program.
“You can’t teach a guy to build a house just by building dog houses and storage sheds,” he said, so he eventually helped start their program of instruction in building modular homes.
“I wasn’t an instructor or a professor. I drew up plans and got financing for the modular program. I had the first two houses sold before we started them.”
He retired from there in 1975.
All the while he was developing championship skill at carving duck decoys, starting in the late 1950s. He won a Canadian national competition in 1968, a best-in-show in the amateur division at the U.S. national decoy show in Salisbury, Md., in 1971, “and then I quit. Then I started doing canoes.” He might still go once a year to a show in Clayton, to see old associates and what’s new in decoys, “but all the old guys are dead now.”
But since then he’s been building canoes, about one a year. Aside from the birch-bark canoe project, he has built about 30, three or four of them 17 feet long, some 15-footers, and “these are all 13 feet,” he said, pointing to one in his shop, which is tidy. He has made them from eastern white cedar trimmed with aromatic red cedar, western red cedar trimmed with curly maple – “or tiger maple, whatever you want to call it – and paddles, too.”
He has hunted and fished all his life. “Like every other idiot, I used to go to Canada all the time fishing,” he said. He and some buddies used to go to a park north of Ottawa, “and one year we looked at a map to see what road goes the farthest north.” They drove up to a miles-long lake in the middle of nowhere.
His favorite local angling spot is on Carry Reservoir, along the Raquette in Colton, “but I’ve only been a couple of times in the last few years.”
And he’s still carving little birds like nuthatches, shaping them, then carving or burning detail into the wood, and painting them up.
He has a canoe on display at Willow Tree Florist on Rt. 11 in Potsdam. “I’m hoping somebody sees them. I like to sell them, get them out, but they’re not cheap.”
His wife, Shirley –their 68th wedding anniversary is this August– was never one for the outdoor life. “I would go with him way back, but I got out of it as soon as I could.” But she said she always understood the importance of his hobbies (“I call them hobbies because they were never meant to make money”) and encouraged him in them.
“He has so many hobbies, they are his whole life. He goes from one hobby to another. He has a list a mile long. He’ll have to live to be 150 to get them all done,” Shirley said.