The Canoe Builder: Preserving a Lost Art

Picture a stand of birch trees. Nothing unusual, right? Drive around the shores of Lake Superior and stands of birch trees are as common as air. But it is somewhat startling to realize that many, many years ago, the humble birch tree played a key role in the founding of Canada. The birch tree???

It's true. Two thousand years ago, when highways were made of rivers rather than asphalt, North American aboriginals, including the Ojibwa and Algonquin to name a few, utilized canoes for transportation. Birch bark was one of the key elements in canoe construction.

Upon their arrival in North America, the Europeans quickly adopted the birch bark canoe as their primary conveyance to the rich, fur-bearing lands in the Canadian northwest. Voyageurs were soon moving tons of fur thousands of miles in the relatively lightweight vessels. At the same time, explorers like Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson were discovering new frontiers thanks to the buoyant watercraft. In the wake of these facts, you could conclude that Canada owes its very existence to the simple birch tree.

Master canoe builder working in his shopDave Brown is an expert on the obscure art of birch bark canoe construction. Dave is the canoe builder and shipwright at Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Fort, a large-scale living history attraction operated by the Ministry of Tourism, employs skilled artisans who demonstrate the crafts that flourished during the Canadian fur trade era. Musket making, coopering (that's barrel-making to the uninitiated) and blacksmithing are among some of the vanishing trades that the public and school groups rediscover year after year.

Dave is responsible for constructing canoes that are featured in the Fort's daily historical reenactments in the summer. He can be found dressed as an artisan in the South Canoe Shed, supervising costumed summer staff as they demonstrate craft techniques from 1816. He's been doing this for almost 20 years.

Dave began working at the Fort in 1978, assisting in the construction of a schooner, but he was drawn to canoe building because of its uniqueness. There might be lots of places that build wooden boats nowadays, he says, but there aren't too many places specializing in birch bark canoes.

In 1984, he formally took on the mantle of canoe builder. Although he wouldn't admit it, he is in rather select company. There might be three dozen individuals in all of North America who practice the craft to any substantial degree. Although it is possible, it's not a trade that's easily learned from a book.

Dave learned the secrets of his craft orally from another skilled individual, which is evocative of how apprenticeships worked in 'olden' times. True to this tradition, Dave's mentor, Charlie Lebarge, received his own training in similar fashion from an Algonquin native in Mattawa, Ontario.

Dave thrives on the challenge of construction, as every canoe is distinctive in its own right. "You have something new with each one you build," he says. "The material determines the kind of canoe you'll have."

The "material" Dave refers to includes rolls of birch bark and long, tough strands of spruce roots that he gathers in late spring with a crew of Fort summer students as they venture into the bush around Thunder Bay.

Having a good teacher is one thing, but there's no substitute for years of experience. It takes a trained eye to find just the right kind of tree. Selection is crucial--not just any old tree will do. Dave does the selecting himself to cut down on waste. "There might be one out of a hundred you'll take a closer look at," Dave says, "but there might be one out of fifty that you'll actually peel."

To get a good roll of birch bark, the tree has to be fairly large, more than 18 inches in diameter. It can't have any low branches or knots. The bark has to be the right thickness, so it is thin enough to work with but tough enough not to crack or split.

Depending on his needs, Dave may peel twelve to twenty trees per year. It takes about six to nine rolls of bark to make one 24-foot "north" canoe. For the benefit of eco-tourists, he points out that peeling does not necessarily mean the end of the tree. It all depends upon the age and health of the tree and the amount of bark peeled.

In the Fort's Canoe Shed, it's fascinating for visitors and school groups to actually see the transformation happen as the rolls of birch bark gradually coalesce into a boat. The birch bark sheets are laid out around a wooden template that serves as a guide for length and width. The bark is turned "inside out," so the tan-coloured, waterproof inner lining now becomes the canoe's outer layer and the rough, white texture faces the vessel's interior.

Dave's assistants, who are dressed as voyageurs and Métis women, soak the spruce roots in water to make them flexible enough for stitching the sheets of bark together around the template. Braces and clamps help hold pieces together during assembly. Dozens of thin, flexible pieces of planking and ribs are split out from a white cedar log. The artisan then mounts a shave horse, (a kind of wooden vice) to hold these pieces in place for trimming and shaping with a draw knife. The planking and ribs will reinforce the canoe's interior.

The ribs are heated for several minutes in a steam box that's attached to a huge kettle in a fire pit. The heat makes them flexible enough to bend and be fitted into specific spots. The average 'north' canoe takes just over 50 ribs. The thin planks or sheathing are overlapped and fitted against the rough white exterior of the bark. Spruce gunnels are laced along the top edge of the canoe.

To seal the stitches, pitch (commonly mistaken for tar) is applied. Pitch is traditionally composed of spruce gum, charcoal and animal fat. The fat makes the substance flexible, the gum provides adhesiveness and the charcoal gives it all a glistening black colour, hence the tar-like finish. (Suspended against the shed's wall are old examples of how NOT to pitch---canoes streaked with heavy, black swatches of pitch ladled on by some unlucky, previous canoe builders; aside from being less than pleasing visually, the thicker pitch also scrapes off more easily and makes the canoe heavier to carry during a portage.)

Overhead shot of canoe builder working on canoe.pngAfter the bow and stern have been assembled and gunnels and thwarts installed, the crowning touch is the painting of authentic designs on both ends of the canoe. These will often feature emblems of the fur trade, including the North West Company's trademark "NWC" and various aboriginal designs.

After about 300 hours of work--voila!--the canoe is completed. The rolls of birch bark, coils of spruce roots and strips of cedar and spruce have been turned into a vessel for the North West Company. It's a wonder to see how these virtually unadulterated natural elements have been transformed into a buoyant work of art.

Looking at the finished product, it's hard to believe the astonishing weight the canoes carried and the distances travelled two hundred years ago. On average, a north canoe would take a crew of six, carry a ton and half of freight while covering more than 2,500 miles.

Hanging from the ceiling nearby is its counterpart, the imposing 36-foot Montreal canoe that took a crew of eight to twelve voyageurs and carried four tons of freight while covering the 1,200 mile trek between Fort William and Montreal.

Little wonder that the average lifespan of these vessels was no more than a season or two. Hence, the need for two canoe sheds to replace and repair.

Dave and his assistants may produce one or two canoes for the historic program each summer. Once completed, the canoes are used by the Fort's voyageur brigades who re-enact the daily arrival sequence, paddling in from the Kaministiquia River to the greeting of celebratory cheers and the thunder of cannons.

The Fort canoes are not limited to historic dramatizations. Visitors have a variety of hands-on opportunities to experience voyageur life firsthand. School groups from all levels dress as voyageurs and paddle in the more stable simulated bark canoes in the Fort's numerous educational programs.

During July and August, families and other visitors can go for a pleasant canoe ride on the Kam in front of the Fort, under the expert stewardship of a costumed guide, called a gouvernail (pr "goo-vair-nie). And for those truly intrepid souls who really want to live the fur trade experience, they can not only paddle, but dress, dance, cook, gamble, make crafts and camp out like true hivernants or winterers, as part of the Voyageur Overnight Adventure program.

Since becoming canoe builder in 1984, Dave has assembled his fair share of canoes of different sizes and styles. In 1999, he completed his 39th canoe for the Fort.

However, Dave's specialized calling extends far beyond Fort William. Museums and pavilions as far afield as Osaka, Japan, Banff, Alberta and Chicago, Illinois feature different examples of his work. Ottawa's Museum of Civilization features a North West Company canoe in Canada Hall that Dave built.

And occasionally there are specialized orders, including a recent one that called for a "half" canoe which was to extend from a painted mural to give an bas-relief effect in an interpretive exhibit.

Dave's latest project is a 17-foot hunting canoe destined for Lower Fort Garry, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

So, the next time you see a stand of birch trees, think of the history of Canada. The "lost art" of birch bark canoe construction is alive and well at Fort William Historical Park.