Modern day conveniences provide us with a plethora of goods, all made with high tech materials, and yes, in many ways today’s products are far superior than yesterdays. But not everything is superior, especially when the crap hits the fan and you cannot find a place to repair that fiberglass canoe that you damaged while duck hunting. Natural materials are far superior in these instances, and you can actually repair a hole in your fiberglass canoe temporarily by melting pitch, and covering the hole with a small sheet of thin birch bark. It is temporary, but it will get you home in an emergency.
Birch bark canoes were the Chevy of the woodland waterways over a hundred years ago and have since largely fallen by the wayside, along with the skills it takes to build one. I came across this letter to the editor of the defunct Forest and Stream magazine from the November 3, 1906 issue that describes the basic steps in building a birch bark canoe. It may be a fun project to learn how to build one of your own, and it may even turn into a second source of income to help you get through the coming times. Things are only going to get worse, financially, and there seems to be a growing cadre of re-enactors and survivalists that want only the original product when it comes to going back in time.
Building a Birch Bark Canoe
I am sending to you by this mail photographs of Micmac Indians building canoes on the Wild Cat Reservation in Queens county, Nova Scotia. I believe that only a small proportion of persons who have used birch canoes have a fair general idea of how they are made.
The builder first secures his bark, and this itself requires experience and good judgment or all the work will be in vain, as it is not every big birch tree with smooth bark that will yield the desired article. Next, the gunwales are dressed and the ends fastened together, and crossbars put in place. Then come the ribs; they are fashioned from fir splits and whittled into proper shape with a crooked knife. Taking one for the exact midships of the canoe, the two ends are drawn nearly together, near enough to leave them the width of the canoe in the widest part, and tied there. Into this bowed-rib, another is bent and fitted, and another and so on till the end is reached. Another midrib is prepared in the same way and filled in like manner as the first. These are well soaked before being bent and they are left to dry, when they will retain the shape as they were bent.
Meantime a slightly dishing place is prepared on the ground, and upon it is laid lengthwise the gunwales and cross bars tightly fastened together. All around this frame stout stakes are driven deep in the earth, about one foot apart, and left to stand above ground about two feet. The gunwale frame is then removed; and the bark, now all in one piece, sewed with spruce roots, is snugly stowed away into the space surrounded by the stakes, and there arranged nearly as possible into the required shape, fitted tightly against the dishing ground to give it the proper upward curve of the extremities on the bottom. The frame is then replaced with the edge of the bark on the outside of it next the stakes. The ends of the gunwales, already securely lashed together, are made fast to two stakes, one on each side at the proper height from the ground, and on the middle crossbar is hung a stone of sufficient weight to sag the frame into a graceful curve. The edges of the bark are then tacked to the gunwale, and a thin wooden ribbon is nailed the entire length to the gunwale, and on the top of them both another thin ribbon is nailed. Once they were all sewed with roots, for nails and metal tools were not to be had for love or money.
The next step is to line the whole inside with thin strips of fir that have been dressed smooth with the knife. They are to be held firmly in place by the ribs with which a beginning is made by placing the ends of the middle rib under the gunwale and against the bark, and then forcing by hand the lower part as tightly as possible into place; but even then it will remain slanting. The next rib is placed in like position; and so on with them all till both ends are reached. By the use of a bit of wood and a hammer the ribs are, by slightly tapping them one after another, driven into a perpendicular position, and thus the bark is stretched tightly over them and takes the desired shape. If at any place the bark is unyielding, and the rib is prevented from going into proper place, this portion is treated with the application of a warm stone to the rebellious spot, when the desired result is soon secured. This is done, as a matter of course, after the canoe is taken from the stakes when it must be made water tight by the application of pitch on the seams over which narrow strips of cotton are placed. At each end are fitted heads of thin boards beyond the last pair of ribs, and behind them the space is stuffed tightly with dry shavings to prevent the bark from shrinking inwards. If there is a suspicious place that looks like a crack, it is tested by placing the mouth over it and sucking; if air comes through, a little pitch will be the remedy.
This in brief is the manner of making the birch canoe. There are great differences among the builders; some of them are born mechanics and have an eye for a good model, and have a painstaking desire to make a “thing of beauty.” that if not a “joy forever” will at least gladden some owners while she lasts. To have seen one made before tools of metal were in the hands of red men would have been an interesting performance.
R. R. Mcleod.
Brookfield, N. S.