Place: Ottawa River
Theme: The Aboriginal Contribution
Related Vignette(s):

1534-1760 - The Aboriginal Contribution
Vignette
A7
The fantastic Birch bark canoe

Painting by Frances Anne Hopkins representing the technique used to repair a canoe. Spruce gum or resin is melted with a firebrand and spread along the fissures and rips found on the outer skin of the canoe to seal and waterproof them.
Painting by Frances Anne Hopkins representing the technique used to repair a canoe. Spruce gum or resin is melted with a firebrand and spread along the fissures and rips found on the outer skin of the canoe to seal and waterproof them.
Canot du maître photographed in 1896 at the Bear Island Trading Post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on Lake Temagami, in North-East Ontario. The black gum lines cover the seams of the sewn pieces of birch bark that make up the skin of the canoe.
Canot du maître photographed in 1896 at the Bear Island Trading Post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on Lake Temagami, in North-East Ontario. The black gum lines cover the seams of the sewn pieces of birch bark that make up the skin of the canoe.
Drawing of a canot du maître, also known as Montreal Canoe, “Grand River Canoe”, “Ottawa River Canoe”, or “Hudson’s Bay Company Canoe”. It was generally 32 to 36 feet (12 meters) long and from 60 to 66 inches (2 meters) wide.
Drawing of a canot du maître, also known as Montreal Canoe, “Grand River Canoe”, “Ottawa River Canoe”, or “Hudson’s Bay Company Canoe”. It was generally 32 to 36 feet (12 meters) long and from 60 to 66 inches (2 meters) wide.
Drawing of a canot du maître, or canot de Montréal and of a typical cargo weighing about three tons. To this load must be added the food and personal effects of a 7 to 12 man crew.
Drawing of a canot du maître, or canot de Montréal and of a typical cargo weighing about three tons. To this load must be added the food and personal effects of a 7 to 12 man crew.
Side-view of a canot du maître drawn by Courtney C. J. Bond.
Side-view of a canot du maître drawn by Courtney C. J. Bond.
Drawing of a canot du maître representing a probable leisurely Sunday outing. The voyageur at the tip of the canoe and two of the passengers are wearing top hats.
Drawing of a canot du maître representing a probable leisurely Sunday outing. The voyageur at the tip of the canoe and two of the passengers are wearing top hats.
The hull of the canoe is held in place by stakes that are driven in the ground.
The hull of the canoe is held in place by stakes that are driven in the ground.
Detail of the bow. Note the lashing of the bark and gunwale of the canoe with “watape”.
Detail of the bow. Note the lashing of the bark and gunwale of the canoe with “watape”.
View of the stern of the canoe when finished. Note the cedar ribs that cover the inside walls of the canoe. These are fitted over the longitudinal cedar sheathing that covers the interior of the birch bark hull of the canoe.
View of the stern of the canoe when finished. Note the cedar ribs that cover the inside walls of the canoe. These are fitted over the longitudinal cedar sheathing that covers the interior of the birch bark hull of the canoe.
The canoe exterior once the work is finished. Note the birch bark joints and seams made impervious by the spruce gum or tar.
The canoe exterior once the work is finished. Note the birch bark joints and seams made impervious by the spruce gum or tar.

The birch bark canoe is, without a doubt, one of the most outstanding feats of Aboriginal ingenuity and engineering. The Natives of Canada invented an ultra-light and easy-to-handle watercraft, which both met their needs and and proved perfectly adapted to navigation on fast-running rivers filled with innumerable waterfalls and rapids. The result was a light birch bark canoe capable of being easily carried along the portage paths that circled around water barriers and obstacles.

The Aboriginals used the bark of the “white birch”, or “paper birch”, the Latin scientific name being Betula papyrifera, to build their canoes. The same material was used for the canot du maître, or the canot de Montréal used by the voyageurs during the fur trade era. The Natives also made use of the bark of that tree to make containers for the collection of maple sap water and to build their wigwams1.

For the building of canoes, the birch bark had to be gathered in winter or in spring. It was at that time of the year that the bark was at its best. It was stronger and easier to remove from the trunk of the tree at that time. Ideally, sections of bark eighteen-feet long were sought out. Once removed from the tree, the bark was rolled up and tied with care before being brought back to the village. It was important that the bark not be left out to dry in the air or in the sun before it was used. For the bark to remain soft and pliable, it had to be kept submerged in water.2

Besides birch bark, other materials were needed to build the canoe. Hardwood and cedar were required for the frame of the canoe. The sheathing, which covers the bottom of the canoe and the ribs of the frame were made of cedar planks, whereas the transverse pieces called thwarts were made with birch planks3. The frame and gunwale pieces were tied with “watape” and “babiche”, the birch bark was sewn with “watape” and spruce gum, or resin was used to caulk, seal, and waterproof the seams in the bark4.

The “watape” was a strap made with the roots of the grey pine, also known as the jack pine or the scrub pine. Its roots were very long and ran along the surface of the ground. These were uprooted, split, cleaned and boiled for hours until they became supple. They were then used as straps to solidify and tie the members of the frame and to sew the pieces of birch bark together. “Watape” was the only material used for that operation5. The “babiche” cords, or bands made of soaked rawhide strips were only used to solidify the frame by tying together its longitudinal parts6.

The construction of a birch bark canoe was a step-by-step process and the work extended over many weeks. In the heyday of the fur trade, trading posts would reserve one of the post buildings for the making and repairing of canoes. That task was considered to be of primary importance. The first step was to unroll the bark, with the inner surface down, and flattened over the building bed7. A frame assembly corresponding to the shape of the canoe was then placed over the bark in order to define the shape of the hull. The sides of the bark were folded upwards and they were held in position by a series of stakes driven into the ground on either side of the building frame. Ocassionally, stones were placed on the bark to hold it in place. The stakes facilitated the shaping of the sides and the installation and assembly of the frame. The wooden strips that go into the frame were scalded or soaked in water to give them the required bend. Once the various pieces of bark had been sewn together with straps of “watape”, the top of the canoe skin was lashed to the gunwales, at regular intervals, from the bow (front) to the stern (back). The interior joints and seams of the canoe were caulked with spruce gum before the cedar sheathing was fitted to the bottom of the canoe. The cedar ribs, which had been measured, shaped and dried, were now inserted on the inside of the canoe, over the cedar-sheathed bottom. The permanent thwarts made of birch planks were then lashed to both gunwales strenghtening and giving greater rigidity to the hull of the canoe. The final step consisted of caulking the outside of the canoe. The joints and seams were filled with hot viscous gum, or tar, in order to ensure a perfect waterproof seal8. Such patient and meticulous work was bound to give striking results. These are embodied in the fantastic birch bark canoe.

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Admire Frances Anne Hopkins’ paintings of birch bark canoes, voyageurs and Aboriginals at:
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References and definitions

1 Kenneth G. Roberts et Philip Shackleton, The Canoe. A History of the Craft from Panama to the Arctic, Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1983, p. 156.

2 Ibid., p. 156. The gathering techniques used to collect birch bark can vary. It’s important however to choose trees that have a diameter of more than twenty inches, that are free of branches for a good part of their length and whose bark are without faults. Refer to : Camil Guy, The Weymontaching Birchbark Canoe, Ottawa, National Museum of Man, 1974, (Anthropological Papers no 20), p. 17-18.

3 Camil Guy, op. cit., p. 17-19.  Also: John W. Hughson and Courtney C. J. Bond, in  Hurling Down the Pine, Chelsea, The Historical Society of the Gatineau, 1987, p. 62-63.

4 Later on, tar is used more and more for caulking purposes and to repair canoes that are damaged on trips.

5 Camil Guy, op. cit., p. 18-19.

6 John W. Hughson and Courtney C. J. Bond, op. cit., p. 62-63.

7 The soft sandy and cleared ground space on which the canoe is built.

8 Camil Guy, op. cit., p. 22-36. Also: John W. Hughson and Courtney C. J. Bond, op. cit., p. 62-63.

Secondary media sources and captions

PHOTO No 1
Source: Library and Archives Canada, no C-2772.
Caption: Painting by Frances Anne Hopkins representing the technique used to repair a canoe. Spruce gum or resin is melted with a firebrand and spread along the fissures and rips found on the outer skin of the canoe to seal and waterproof them.

PHOTO No 2
Source: Canadian Pacific Archives.
Caption: Canot du maître photographed in 1896 at the Bear Island Trading Post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, on Lake Temagami, in North-East Ontario. The black gum lines cover the seams of the sewn pieces of birch bark that make up the skin of the canoe.

PHOTO No 3
Source: Walter S. Avis (ed.), A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, Toronto, W. J. Gage Limited, 1967, page 483.
Caption: Drawing of a canot du maître, also known as Montreal Canoe, “Grand River Canoe”, “Ottawa River Canoe”, or “Hudson’s Bay Company Canoe”. It was generally 32 to 36 feet (12 meters) long and from 60 to 66 inches (2 meters) wide.

PHOTO No 4
Source: Canadian Canoe Museum (Peterborough).
Caption: Drawing of a canot du maître, or canot de Montréal and of a typical cargo weighing about three tons. To this load must be added the food and personal effects of a 7 to 12 man crew.

PHOTO No 5
Source: John W. Hughson et Courtney C. J. Bond, in Hurling Down the Pine, Chelsea, The Historical Society of the Gatineau, 1987, page 62.
Caption: Side-view of a canot du maître drawn by Courtney C. J. Bond.

PHOTO No 6
Source: C. W. Jefferys, The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1953, vol. 2, p. 216.
Caption: Drawing of a canot du maître representing a probable leisurely Sunday outing. The voyageur at the tip of the canoe and two of the passengers are wearing top hats.

PHOTO No 7
Source: Camil Guy, The Weymontaching Birchbark Canoe, Ottawa, National Museum of Man, 1974, (Anthropological Papers no 20), p. 48.
Caption: The hull of the canoe is held in place by stakes that are driven in the ground.

PHOTO No 8
Source: Camil Guy, The Weymontaching Birchbark Canoe, Ottawa, National Museum of Man, 1974, (Anthropological Papers no 20), p. 50.
Caption: Detail of the bow. Note the lashing of the bark and gunwale of the canoe with “watape”.

PHOTO No 9
Source: Camil Guy, The Weymontaching Birchbark Canoe, Ottawa, National Museum of Man, 1974, (Anthropological Papers no 20), p. 55.
Caption: View of the stern of the canoe when finished. Note the cedar ribs that cover the inside walls of the canoe. These are fitted over the longitudinal cedar sheathing that covers the interior of the birch bark hull of the canoe.

PHOTO No 10
Source: Camil Guy, The Weymontaching Birchbark Canoe, Ottawa, National Museum of Man, 1974, (Anthropological Papers no 20), p. 55.
Caption: The canoe exterior once the work is finished. Note the birch bark joints and seams made impervious by the spruce gum or tar.