“The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”—Sigurd Olson
When we consider the methods of travel during the ear-ly days of exploration and colonization of our North American continent, we have a few choices. On land, one could walk or utilize a horse in some manner. For instance, a mounted horseman could travel moderate distances virtually anywhere with relative ease, as long as the terrain permitted the horse to do so. A horse-drawn wagon could carry freight, but required improved roads to do so.
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Traveling by water had its distinct advantages, because the vast network of navigable lakes, rivers and streams in North America provided ready-made highways for exploration and commerce that helped pave the way for our westward expansion. The birch bark canoe was by far the most utilized watercraft in the area around the Great Lakes and parts of Canada during our frontier era, and the French were the first to see this.
As early as 1603, Samuel de Champlain (sometime referred to as the father of the fur trade) wrote, “With the [birch bark] canoe one may travel freely and quickly throughout the country, as well up the little rivers as up the large ones.” In 1604 he added, “And thus about two hundred canoes were launched, which move in an astonishing way…They are made out of the bark of a tree called a birch, reinforced within by small ribs of wood, well and carefully fashioned and are so light that a man may carry one of them…When they wish to go overland to get to some river where they have business, they carry them…”
Birch bark canoes were also used well below the Great Lakes, including on the Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. In May of 1673, Father Jacques Marquette traveled down the Mississippi, paddling within 435 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. A quote from his journal states:
“We were not long in preparing all our equipment, although we were about to begin a voyage, the duration of which we could not foresee. Indian corn, with some smoked meat, constituted all our provisions; with these we embarked—Monsieur Jollyet and myself, with 5 men in two [birch] bark canoes, fully resolved to do and suffer everything for so glorious an undertaking.”
When the birch bark canoe came into being is a mystery. But its ingenious and efficient design made it the perfect vehicle for water travel because it was fast, stable, easy to repair and light to portage. In addition, all the materials needed for building it were obtained from the surrounding forests. It is still amazing to me that there is not one nail or wood screw in its construction, yet the bark canoe holds up well to wilderness punishment and abuse.
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Birch bark canoes came in all sorts of sizes and designs. The smaller ones were around 13 feet in length while the largest Montreal canoes reached 36 feet in length and were capable of carrying, in addition to paddlers, around 4 tons of cargo. My canoe is a 16-foot Chippewa style, meaning the bow and stern are “C” shaped.
Contrary to what some people might think, birch bark canoes are durable. I have owned one since 1992, and have spent literally hundreds of hours traveling various lakes and rivers in northern Minnesota without incurring any serious damage. I have had to make some minor repairs, though. One thing to remember is that birch bark turns pliable when wet, becoming more forgiving when running over rocks and deadheads. Still, a person still has to exercise common sense and good judgment when traveling in areas of potential problems. A birch bark canoe needs to be pre-soaked in the water about 20 minutes before paddling.
Before You Build
Constructing a birch bark canoe is a challenging project. It requires knowledge of the specific design of the canoe being built and basic construction methods. For instance, one can make a birch bark canoe in a very traditional way (usually done outdoors) with traditional tools or in a more modern way (in a shop) with modern tools. Either way, I strongly suggest that anyone interested in building one do two things before ever picking up a tool. First, purchase and study the book Bark and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin Tappan Adney. And second, go on YouTube and type in “building a birch bark canoe.” YouTube has many helpful videos on this subject.
Whether one decides to build a birch bark canoe or not, it is important to know the names of the basic canoe parts. First there is the hull, the outward covering of the canoe. The gunwales run the length of the canoe and support the longitudinal shape of the canoe, while the ribs both support and define the canoe’s contours. The planks (or planking) are thin strips of wood that are sandwiched between the canoe hull and ribs. The thwarts support the canoe laterally. Both the bow and stern sections have their own wooden (stem) frames.
The building materials needed include bark from a white birch tree (not yellow birch) for the hull; white cedar for the ribs, the planking, the gunwales, the stem frames (for the bow and stern); black spruce root for sewing material; and spruce gum, ground up with wood charcoal, and lard for the traditional caulk (modern vulcanized caulk can also be substituted).
One can use traditional or modern tools for this project, or even a combination. Traditional tools would include a good sharp knife, an axe for splitting and pounding, a crooked knife, a canoe awl and a maul for splitting. Most builders today would incorporate a power saw, a drill, a tape measure and power table planer.
Get It Together
Acquiring the birch bark is the first thing on the list. June or July has proven to be the best time for this because the bark can easily be removed during those months. Enough bark material must be collected to cover the whole canoe and this requires a number of sheets that will be eventually sewn together to form the hull. Larger and longer canoes will require more material. Birch bark can be hard to find these days, but there are places where it can still be harvested legally. Check with a property owner that has birch trees. Removing the outer bark will not harm the tree.
All the ribs, planking, gunwales and frames for the bow and stern are made from white cedar. Select a healthy tree that’s 14 inches or more in diameter. One section will be cut for the ribs, planking and stem frames, while another (longer) one will be cut for the gunwales. Traditionally, the ribs, planking, gunwales and stem frames were split into dimensional size and then hand-finished and smoothed using various knives, the most important being a draw knife. Modern builders may use a power planer to speed the process up. The planking is split very thin, usually around 1/16 of an inch to 1/8 of an inch thick. Each end will be pointed. The ribs are thicker, around 1/4 inch and tapered at each end.
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The traditional caulking material for birch bark canoes is a combination of spruce gum and pine pitch that’s mixed with some ground-up charcoal and some animal fat. The spruce gum and pine pitch would first be melted down and then the charcoal and animal fat can be added. The amount of fat added depends on the weather. The finished mixture is hard when cooled down and can easily be transported. Every birch bark canoe had a canoe repair kit, which included extra bark, sewing materials, tools and caulking. Traditional caulking must be applied while it is hot. An alternative for the modern canoe builder is a polyurethane sealant material. It has some advantages over the traditional caulking. It is more flexible under a variety of temperatures, is easy to apply and needs less maintenance. It does take longer to cure, usually a couple of days.
The capillary roots from a black spruce tree are used as a sewing material to connect the pieces of birch bark together for the hull of the canoe and to secure the gunwales to the hull. The roots are first dug and pulled up from the ground, and then split by hand. They must be soaked before using, as this makes them more pliable and easier to sew with. When they dry, they shrink a bit and stay in place.
Piece By Piece
With all the materials collected and ready to go, the actual process of assembly begins. First, sheets of birch bark are sewn together using black spruce root. The number of sheets will depend on the size and length of the finished canoe. The traditional way to build a canoe was to find a flat place on the ground and drive stakes into the ground in the basic shape of the canoe. Once the stakes were in place, they were temporarily removed and the sewn birch bark was placed over the area. One by one, the stakes were put back in their respective holes, and as that occurred, the bark was bent upward until all the stakes were in place. Rocks were used to hold the bark firmly in position. The modern canoe builder will use a large table instead of the ground, and instead of wooden stakes will use specially made frames to brace the bark in place.
With the birch bark anchored in place and bent into position, the gunwales are sewn into place, followed by the thwarts. Each gunwale is a two-piece affair (each side has an inward and outward piece, and the hull of the canoe is sandwiched and sewn together between the two.) The stem frames for the bow and stern are pre-formed ahead of time out of cedar and are also sewn into positon.
A really big job, in my opinion, is installing the ribs and planking. In both the traditional and modern way of doing this, the ribs must be heated and bent. Modern canoe builders will steam the ribs and bend them, while traditionalists will use hot water in a kettle or other large container to help render the ribbing more pliable and bendable. Each rib is hand-fitted into place with the ends being forced in between the inward and outward side of the gunwales. The planking is sandwiched between the ribs and the hull of the canoe.
Caulking the seams must be done with care. The caulking prevents water from leaking into the canoe. If one is using traditional sealant for this purpose, the pitch mixture will need to be heated to a point where it can be applied, usually with a flat stick. Modern caulking comes in a tube and is applied with a caulking gun. Either way, it takes quite a lot of caulking to completely seal a canoe.
Hit The Water
Finally, the canoe should be tested for leaks. This is done by placing the canoe in water and noting where leaks are occurring, or better yet, by pouring some buckets of water inside a dry canoe, rolling the canoe back and forth on the ground and then turning the canoe completely over and marking places leakages are seen. Those places will then be re-caulked and the canoe tested again after the caulking dries.
The birch bark canoe connects us to so many aspects of our North American history, including Native Americans, hunters, French and English explorers, and, of course, the fur trade. More importantly, this simple bark watercraft played a critical role in the development of North America. The longevity of the birch bark canoe amazes me. They were in use well into the first part of the 20th century.
For me, paddling the lakes and rivers of my home state of Minnesota has been a special way to bond with our past. Perhaps it could be yours also. If time and resources prevent one from building a birch bark canoe, one can buy a finished canoe from a reputable builder. I recommend calling Ray Boessel, in Big Fork, Minnesota, at 218-743-3709. He builds great birch bark canoes, including different styles and lengths, and backs up his products.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.