The Men Who Made Canoes

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The design followed partly the builder’s own preference, partly the use to which the canoe was to be put. On open water, low ends were good, to avoid wind resistance; to run the rapids, high ends would keep waves from breaking in over the bow. If there was to be a good deal of portaging, high ends were useful: at night, the canoe turned bottom-up would lie far enough off the ground to provide the bearer with shelter. A canoe built for salt water might have a hogged sheer—that is, its sides would be higher amidships than at the ends, so that the occupant could draw a heavy weight in over the sides, a net full of fish or a harpooned seal, without being swamped by a rush of water over low gunwales. Tribal fashions varied, too. Some Indians liked canoes with a sharp V-bottom and flaring topsides, and others preferred a bottom almost flat with a good deal of tumble home above the bilges. But all of them knew exactly what they were doing.

Proof of this can be seen in the way the French put the canoe to work. The famous fur trade, carried on for two centuries or more, could not have existed without the birch-bark canoe. The French gave the Indian modern tools and put him to work, and he turned out cargo-carrying craft thirty-six feet long and capable of bearing from two to three tons of freight besides the crew, but light enough to be portaged by four men. Using these, the fur companies opened the north country, virtually exterminated the beaver, turned tribal cultures inside out, and during generation after generation carried on one of the most picturesque and romantic trades the North American continent ever saw.

It was romantic from a distance; at close range it was a man-killer. The men who paddled these canoes were overworked, badly fed, and pitilessly exploited. At the portages, which were numerous, a good man was supposed to lug at least 180 pounds of freight (twice that much, very often) up hill and down dale, and the packer’s working life was very short. The fur brigades put a splash of color on the landscape from Montreal to Saskatchewan, but the individual members of these brigades paid a high price for it.

Originally the Indian did little to decorate his canoe, except that he might make a little design representing his personal mark, or signature, somewhere near the bow or stern by scraping away the outer layer of bark according to a set pattern. Some tribes liked to use porcupine-quill designs here and there, and some ran decorations along the sides just below the gunwales. A war canoe, usually carrying four warriors off on a raid, might have each man’s personal mark somewhere on its sides; if it carried a chief, only the chief’s mark would be applied.

Nothing else that the Indian made called for as much work and care as the birch-bark canoe, and in consequence it was something he valued highly. A touching illustration of this fact is provided by a discovery made about a century ago on the east coast of Newfoundland, when an Indian burial cave was found. In this cave a small boy had been buried, and his parents did their best to send their love off with him when he departed. In the cave, beside his body, there was a wooden image of the boy, toy bows and arrows, little packages of food—and a model canoe, three feet long, as carefully made as any canoe might be. Thus equipped, the youngster was left to make his last journey.