- Historic Sites
The Men Who Made Canoes
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
He took his materials where he found them, which limited the area in which the authentic canoe was used: if the right trees were not handy, there could be no canoes. The essential, of course, was birch bark: the bark, that is, of the white or paper birch, the beautiful tree that gets into all of the summer resort photographs and sketches. With this, the Indian had to have white cedar for the ribs, sheathing, and usually for the gunwales; maple for the thwarts; roots of black spruce, white cedar, tamarack, or jack pine for stitchings and lashings; and spruce gum melted down with animal fat to make the seams watertight. Some tribes not blessed with many birches made do with other barks, but nothing but birch bark was really satisfactory, and they usually got their canoes by trading with more northern tribes; otherwise, they used dugouts. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America , by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. The Smithsonian Institution. 242 pp. Illustrated. $3.25.
The Indian had to work hard to make a canoe, because the tools he used were abominable. For an axe he had nothing but a blade of chipped stone lashed to a wooden handle; he used stone knives, wedges of stone or wood, and wooden mauls to drive them; awls and drills he made from bone or whatever else was handy. Sometimes he used the paired incisor teeth of the beaver for a chisel, with the skull for a handlethe beaver having previously, of course, been dispossessed. To cut down a tree—and a birch big enough to provide usable sheets of bark could be pretty big—and then to remove the bark and to split out, dress, and smooth the timbers for gunwales, ribs, thwarts, and interior sheathing, must have been unutterably wearisome.
If he had a large birch and proposed to make a small canoe, the Indian could sometimes get one sheet of bark big enough to serve his purposes. Otherwise he had to get a number of separate sheets; and in either case he usually soaked the bark in water until he was ready to use it, in order to keep it pliable. (He also soaked the snaky roots that would be used for stitching and lashing, for the same reason.) It was best, by the way, to get the bark after a long winter thaw, or early in the spring when the sap had begun to flow, because it had more elasticity then.
Once he had his materials in hand, the builder got to work. His building yard was a smooth bit of ground near the water, preferably shaded so that the hot sun would not dry out the bark too fast, and near a good camping site because the Indian was going to be there for many days and had to have a convenient place to sleep and eat. Usually he made his gunwales first, splitting out the long pieces of wood, tapering them and rounding the edges, usually laminating them in the middle for greater strength, lashing the ends together, and springing the gunwales apart for the required breadth by making the thwarts and mortising them in place.
All of this done, the Indian laid his joined gunwales on the building bed and drove strong stakes into the ground all around, from end to end, accurately outlining the boat’s final shape. Stakes and gunwales were then removed, the bark was laid on the bed, and the gunwales were laid on top of it, weighted down with stones, to serve temporarily as a frame that would give the birch-bark envelope its proper shape. The edges of the bark were slashed here and there and the bark was bent upward, at which point the stakes were put back into their original holes. Then gores were cut in the bark, any additional strips or panels of bark that might be needed were added, and the bark was carefully stitched together. Then the gunwales were taken out, sheered up at the proper height, and the upper edge of the envelope was stitched and lashed to the gunwales, and the stakes were removed.
Now the result began to look like a canoe, except that it was flat-bottomed and wall-sided, with angles where there ought to be curves. The seams were gummed on the inside, stem and stern pieces were fitted, and long strips of thin, white cedar sheathing were laid along the bottom and sides, held in place by temporary ribs while the permanent ribs were prepared. There might be fifty permanent ribs, thin, wide cedar battens that were treated with boiling water until they became malleable and then were bent into shape and allowed to dry. The temporary ribs were removed and the permanent ones were inserted, mortised into the gunwales, and given a snug force-fit, pinning the sheathing into shape and giving the hull its final form, with rounding bilges and a smooth, moderate curvature across the bottom.
While this was being done the Indian had to keep the bark and stitching wet so that the skin would bend and not crack under the strain; he also had to know just how much strain the bark would take without bursting, and he had to know—by sighting along the hull or by running his hands over it—when the curves were right, when the craft was symmetrical, when, in short, the thing was properly shipshape, with no uncalled-for bulges in the hull and with a graceful sheer line. After he was satisfied, he fastened thin strips of cedar on top of the gunwales for added strength and neatness, turned the canoe upside down, and gummed the seams on the outside to make them fully watertight—and then, once he had made some paddles, the canoe was ready for use.