Using ochre to imprint the hands and feet of a newborn baby

When Jeff and Kim McGirr's son Finley was born on April 11, they knew they wanted to find a special way to mark his birth.

Jeff and Kim McGirr wanted to use a natural northern Ontario product to make a special keepsake

Bonfield's Kim and Jeff McGirr found a chunk of ochre with help from northern Ontario outdoor expert Bill Steer. (Supplied/Bill Steer)

When Jeff and Kim McGirr's son Finley was born on April 11, they knew they wanted to find a special way to mark his birth.

Like most new parents, the couple near Bonfield, looked into creating a keepsake.

"And one of the things that you've got to do is the hand and footprint," Jeff said.

He began researching ways to safely do the prints and eventually started seeing what natural products in the area could work. The couple considered using blueberries, but decided those were better suited for a pie. Eventually, they came up with another idea.

"I thought about my exploration in the bush and this area and the ochre mine," he said. "I thought that was the perfect medium for this."

Bonfield's Jeff McGirr says it took him about an hour to grind some ochre into a fine powder of even consistency. He then mixed it with a bit of water that "formed an excellent ink.” (Supplied/Bill Steer)

Jeff says they contacted Bill Steer to help.

"Because I knew if anyone would have some laying around or have some easily accessible, it would be him," he said.

Days before he received that call, Steer says he had just paddled by an ochre mine.

"I didn't take any ochre that time but I did have some here in my odd rock pile here," he said.

To avoid having to meet up to give him the ochre due to the pandemic, Steer says he created a GPS treasure hunt for Jeff to go pick up the material.

Ochre needs to be pulverized to get it into a powder form, which is then mixed with water for painting. (Supplied/Bill Steer)

Steer says ochre is a very important mineral, especially to Indigenous people. He says Indigenous people would traditionally pulverize it and use it in pictographs.

"We know there are more than 80 sites of pictographs throughout northeastern Ontario," he said. "What a great organic material to use for this keepsake."

'Inspiring because it comes from the local area'

To create that keepsake, Jeff says it took two steps. First, he had to make the ochre into a tempera. That itself took 45 minutes.

"You have to be quite motivated to get it into the form that you would paint with," he said.

From there, you mix in a bit of water. Then, Jeff says it was time to move onto the second part.

"Of course, the second challenge with a newborn baby is actually sticking the baby's hands and feet into the tempera and then onto the page," he said.

"It's not necessarily an easy thing to do."

Kim and Jeff McGirr, who live near Bonfield, decided they wanted to use a natural pigment known as ochre, to preserve an imprint of their newborn's feet and hands. (Supplied/Bill Steer)

As for how the finished product turned out, Jeff says his family couldn't be more pleased.

"It was something creative to do," he said. "It was inspiring because it comes from the local area around here. My wife and I, we love the outdoors and we love northern Ontario."

Bill Steer, a.k.a. Backroads Bill joined us with a story you might not expect to hear from the outdoor adventurer. Jeff McGirr approached Bill with a unique request for help in the creation of a baby keepsake. We asked both Bill and Jeff to fill in the details.... 8:03
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With files from Markus Schwabe


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