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Building a Birch-Bark Canoe (Part 1)


Posted by on Friday, April 29, 2011



Photo: Shoalts preparing to make the first cut.

Historically, when birch-bark canoes were built for the fur trade at the North West Company's outpost at Fort William in Thunder Bay, Ont., it took only a week to build a 24-footer. These were much larger vessels than the 12-foot craft that I intend to make. But because I don't have the experience of these master craftsmen, I’m hoping to make mine in about 18 days if everything goes according to plan.

You can’t just go to the local hardware store and order up some huge piece of birch-bark, so obtaining the materials is a pretty difficult part of the construction process. All the photos you see here are shots of me collecting the materials needed to make the canoe, such as the birch-bark and wood from an ash tree.

CG: Why are you making this canoe?

A: It's going to be part of a display at Fort Erie depicting the First Nations side of the war of 1812. When Europeans first arrived in Canada, the birch-bark canoe was one of the initial things they saw. Champlain was paddled around in one when he arrived and eventually he sent young Frenchmen out into the woods to learn from the natives. They gradually picked up the tricks of the trade and eventually became the Coureur des bois.

CG: What are you planning on doing today?

A: I’ll be collecting spruce root, otherwise known as "woodsman's wire." It’s amazingly flexible and strong and allows you to lash things tightly together. You can weave it like birch-bark and it’s used to hold the frame of the canoe — the gunwales and keel — together. The stuff is strong, but flexible enough that you can coil it around your hand.

The spruce tree I’m taking the roots from was cut down, so I can harvest as much as I want. Traditionally, First Nations would harvest some roots while the tree was still alive and allow it to keep living.

CG: What will you use the tree that you’re splitting in half for?

A: The ash tree that I’m using for the gunwales blew down in a storm. I’m splitting it down into narrow strips of wood. To form the gunwales, one strip will go on the outside and another on the inside and will be lashed together with spruce root.

From the same tree I’m fashioning the centre boards (otherwise known as the thwart or yolk) which bind the canoe together. The craft will be 12-feet-long, so it will have five of these. Voyagers didn’t have seats in their canoes. When you kneel, it's more stable for running rapids since your centre of gravity is lower.

CG: You mentioned Fort William earlier. Why was it a major hub for canoe makers?

A: Fort William was the North West Company's headquarters in the interior. Craftsmen there would repair damaged canoes and make new ones for the Voyagers going on into Manitoba and as far as the North West Territories. Canoes made of birch-bark can get damaged pretty easily, so the company had canoe repair stations placed all along the fur routes, just like gas stations on a modern highway.

The carpenters at Fort William built some very large canoes for the fur trade. A style called the Montréal canoe was roughly 36-feet-long. When loaded up it could weigh as much as 8,000 pounds. These beasts were manned by about 8 to 12 Voyageurs. Then there was the North canoe, which, as the name suggests, was used mostly in the north. It was smaller at about 24 feet and would be manned by four to six men. This was the most widely used vessel in the fur trade. Individual trappers would have had canoes about the size of the one that I’m making.

Voyageurs franchissant une cascade en canot by Frances Anne Hopkins

CG: What has been the hardest part of making the canoe so far?

A: Collecting the bark. When I was ready to start peeling it, I was worried it wouldn't come off properly. There were a few wounds in the tree, but I managed to get around them.

Another tough part was actually finding a birch tree large enough to provide the bark. Giant birch trees are hard to find in southern Ontario. Most people don’t realize how much of the old growth forests we’ve removed in this part of the world. If you looked at an old photo of Algonquin park you would swear it was taken somewhere in B.C. beside a giant redwood.

My father is helping me with the project. He’s a woodworker and an expert in 19th century tools. He made that mallet that you can see in some of the shots and knows a lot, so it’s good to have his help. Another hard part will be the planking. You have to soak the birch-bark and other wood in water to make it flexible enough to bend it to create the ribs.

CG: It must have taken centuries of trial and error for the First Nations to refine birch-bark canoes.

A: The birch-bark canoe is an ingenious invention. Unlike a dugout canoe, such as the ones they built in the Pacific Northwest, a single person can put it in the water. In Robinson Crusoe he learns the hard way why dugouts aren’t as sophisticated. Crusoe spends hours of labour building a dugout and when it’s time to launch it he can’t manage to push it into the water himself. It's not much use if you need to portage if you ask me.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview next week.

Adam Shoalts is a young explorer and former Canadian Geographic intern. While building the canoe he is also preparing for his first trip to the Amazon in early May.
To learn more about his work, visit adamshoalts.com


Interview edited by Graham Lanktree.




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