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


By Steve Gotcher | June 18, 2020

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  • 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.

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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,
Erika.

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.

Erika:

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

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.

Erika:

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.
Love,
Bun

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.
Love,
Bun

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.
Love,
Bun

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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