Building a Birch-Bark Canoe (Part 2)
Posted by Adam Shoalts
on Friday, May 06, 2011
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.
Read Part 1 of the canoe making process
CG: How is construction going this week?
A: It's been a really rainy week around here, but I worked on it a lot yesterday. Getting the spruce root was easier than I thought it would be. There was a really large wind storm here the other week and it blew over a bunch of trees.
We need hundreds of feet of root to lash everything together. The ends of the canoe, also known as the stem, are shaped like a 'C' and the seam is tightened together with woven root. On the inside, the canoe's shape comes from the gunwales and ribs which run the length of the craft and almost go right up into the stem.
Everything needs to be soaked in water, and I was using a watering can to keep the birch-bark wet. When it's wet it doesn't tear or break. So it's good that it's been raining a lot. Otherwise the the spruce root and everything else would tighten.
CG: What challenges are next on the list?
Pierre Trudeau paddling a craft made for him by Patrick Maranda, one of the last master birch-bark craftsmen.
A: One of the hardest parts coming up is making the canoe waterproof. It needs to be sealed along the seams - kind of like wrapping a present. You need to fold it up tightly and seal it with pine or spruce resin.
To collect the resin, you cut into a tree with your hatchet and catch it as it seeps out. Once you've collected enough, you boil it over a fire and add bear grease. Traditionally canoe makers would lather this mixture on the birch-bark and put it over any wounds. You've got to patch them up with the resin to make it perfectly waterproof.
The hardest part will be figuring out the right consistency. If the resin mixture is too runny it can potentially melt in the summer heat, unsealing the folds. If it's too thick, it can become brittle in the winter cold and flake off.
CG: What's happening with the stakes in this shot?
A: My Dad and I are using the pegs to create the canoe bed. The First Nations built their canoes outside. Cutting stakes from the forest, they drove them into the ground in a way that gives the canoe its shape.
They would then put the sheet of wet birch-bark over top and shape it as it sank into the middle. Once the canoe starts to take shape, the gunwales then need to be added and clamped to the stakes.
Before European contact, the First Nations wouldn't have used clips or many of the tools that we're using. So the way that we're building it is quite appropriate for the War of 1812 display at Fort Erie where this canoe will eventually end up.
I'm heading off to the Amazon for a couple months, but my dad will take care of sealing the canoe and he's making paddles out of ash too. You can follow up with him on his progress next week.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of our building a birch-bark canoe series.
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