Dear Papa, I’m Writing To You On Birch Bark

By Steve Gotcher | June 18, 2020

  • Birch bark Letters from Erika Gotcher. (Jenny Peek/ WPR)

Birch bark Letters from Erika Gotcher. (Jenny Peek/ WPR)

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When WPR producer Steve Gotcher’s daughter, Erika, was a little girl, she started a now 25-year tradition of sending him letters on pieces of birch bark. Last winter, they sat down and talked about how and why it began.


Erika Gotcher: I remember having a book and — in the book — there were all these wacky ideas, experiments and things that kids could do. One of the things was you could put a stamp on a banana and send it in the mail. I saw that and I wondered if it actually worked. So I thought, “What can I put through the mail?” I knew that you could write on birch bark and you could draw on it. So I thought, “Why not try a letter?”

Steve Gotcher: You have the first letter there somewhere. Why don’t you read it to me?

Erika: Well, they all start the same, and they say:

Dear Papa,
I’m writing to you on birch bark!
I am having a great time here, but I miss you a lot.
Love you,

Steve: I think you were five or six.

Erika: Yeah, well, I spelled writing, ‘r-i-t-i-n-g.’

Erika Gotcher in Missoula, Montana on her 30th birthday. (Photo by Morgan Schulte)

Erika Gotcher in Missoula, Montana on her 30th birthday. (Photo by Morgan Schulte)

Steve: So why did you decide to do it again?

Erika: I don’t remember. I know why I do it now. I can’t remember why I did it when I was younger.

Now, it’s whenever I’m out in the woods and I am hiking and see a piece of birch bark on the ground, I pick it up because it’s a great fire starter. But also because I can write to you from wherever I am. And it’s a personal message.

Steve: Why don’t you read the one you have right in front of you.


Dear Papa,
I’m writing to you on birch bark!
We are having a very fun time.
I hope you the same,

And then I have made a heart, a smiley face and a swirly, which was — I believe — my signature at the time.

Steve: How old do you think you were then?

Erika: Probably eight.

Steve: And you’re now 29. So you sent me a letter every year or so.

Erika: The spelling has gotten a little better. Handwriting is a little neater.

You have to find the right piece of birch bark that can lie flat and can take the pen ink. Sometimes you have to scrape off a few layers of the birch bark. But that’s neat because you can use that to start the fire and you write a letter on the rest of it.

Steve: You sent some that have stamps on them. Why don’t you read that one.


Dear Papa,
I’m writing to you on birch bark, although this won’t send until I get back to the cities.
I wanted you to know that I was thinking of you and Mama out here in the wilderness. Will you and Finn come back here with me someday? It is magical here.
I love you and I hope all is well.

Steve: Do you recall many of the places you’ve sent them from?

Erika: Boundary Waters, up in northern Wisconsin. I’ve done a lot of canoeing up there. I sent you one from Alaska. That birch bark wasn’t from there because they don’t have birch trees up in the Brooks Range of Alaska. So I brought it with, also Minnesota.

Erika Gotcher's birch bark letter. (Jenny Peek/WPR)

Erika Gotcher’s birch bark letter. (Jenny Peek/WPR)

Steve: Well, one of the things that I wanted to tell you is that these letters mean a whole lot to me. As you can see, I’ve collected them and kept them safe over the years. And I never know when one is going to come in, but I always am delighted to see it.

Erika: Well. I’m not going to stop that tradition anytime soon. There are two more I’d like to read.

Dear Papa,
I’m writing to you on birch bark!
I love this tradition we have, and I hope we never stop doing it. I hope your summer is in full swing and filled with biking, grilling, outdoor music, and paddling. I can’t wait to do some or all of those things with you when I visit in July.
I love you, Papa. And I think about you whenever I find new music to love. You gave me that gift.

Dear Papa,
I’m writing to you on birch bark!
We are about to embark on our journey north. And I wanted to write and say thank you for all the adventures you took me on. And for inspiring me to go on my own.
Thank you.
Happy Papa’s Day.

Steve: Thank you very much for sending me all those letters over the years. I really appreciate it.

Erika: I’m going to keep sending them.


Steve Gotcher

Steve Gotcher is a technical director and producer with Wisconsin Public Radio.

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