Bark Canoes Wave Eaters

Bark Canoe Construction

Most of the bark canoes used by Canada's First Peoples were built in a completely different way from Arctic skin boats. Whereas the kayak and umiak have solid frameworks, the canoe is built by forcing a framing system into an assembled bark "envelope." Since wood sheathing is held in place only by the pressure of ribs against the bark cover, removing the latter would cause the hull to collapse.

Micmac canoe; photo: Don Deblois; S93-11278, PCD96-09-44

In Canada, the most popular bark for canoe construction has come from the paper birch, although spruce, pine, elm and cedar bark have been used where birch trees are small or absent. The bark was removed from large trees early in the summer. It was taken off in a single sheet, which was then rolled and carried back to camp. The construction of an ordinary canoe required the continued labour of a man and a woman for about two weeks. The bark was unrolled and flattened on the ground, and then a wooden "building frame" in the form of an outline of the canoe was weighted in place so that the shaping could begin. The gunwales and ribs, as well as the special stem piece, had to be steamed or soaked, bent into shape, and allowed to dry. The ribs shaped the hull of the canoe while holding the inner lining in position, and also gave the hull considerable strength. The seams were caulked with gum or pitch to make them watertight.

The canoe cover was often ornamented with a scraped design or a drawing indicating ownership. The extreme lightness of the bark canoe was some compensation for its fragility. A damaged canoe could be patched in a few hours with a piece of bark, a few threads of spruce root, and a little spruce gum.

Algonquin hunting canoe with decorations scraped in bark
Main builder: Jocko Carle
Round Lake, near Maniwaki, Quebec, 1981

Construction stages

  1. Using a gunwale assembly as a temporary "building frame" to establish the general outline of the canoe.
  2. Cutting slits in the sides of the bark so that it can be turned up smoothly around the building frame.
  3. Folding the bark up around stones that have been placed on the building frame.
  4. Raising the gunwales to their proper height after the stakes have been driven around the canoe.
  5. Caulking the seams inside and out with a gum made of pine and spruce resin mixed with fat, after the bark has been lashed to the gunwales.
  6. Carving the cedar ribs to required thickness before sprinkling with hot water and bending to shape.
  7. Installing thin cedar sheathing strips and pre-bent ribs.
  8. Sheathing is wedged tightly in place against the bark when the ribs are tapped in position with a mallet.

Building a Micmac rough water canoe, 1991
Photo: Don Deblois; S93-11100, PCD96-09-01 Photo: Don Deblois; S93-11183, PCD96-09-25 Photo: Don Deblois; S93-11247, PCD96-09-34 Photo: Don Deblois; S93-11126, PCD96-09-09
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