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The Indian Or Birch-bark Canoe


Where the white birch grows in perfection, and the trees attain

a large size, the chief material of the birch bark canoe is at

hand; and although we ordinary mortals could not be expected to

attain to that perfection of skill which the Indians exhibit in

the manufacture of these canoes, we nevertheless can succeed

sufficiently well to answer all practical purposes. The Indian

canoes are often perfect marvels of skill a
d combined strength and

lightness. These half-civilized beings seem to take as naturally to

the making of these commodities, as if it were almost an hereditary

habit with them; and few men, even with the most exhaustive practice,

can compete with the Indian in the combined result of strength,

lightness, durability, external beauty, and nicety of work, which

are the united characteristics of the typical bark canoe.

The average length of the Bark, as used by trappers, is about

twelve feet, but they may be constructed of any desired dimensions,

to the length of forty feet. A canoe of this size will carry fifteen

or twenty persons, and may be transported with ease upon the shoulders

of two strong men. The smaller size, above mentioned, is capable

of carrying two persons, and is a light load for a single man.

In constructing the bark canoe the first requisite is the gunwale,

or upper framework. This should consist of four strips of cedar,

ash, or other light, strong wood; two for each side of the boat.

For an ordinary sized canoe, their length should be about twelve

feet, width one inch, and thickness one-quarter of an inch. They

should be tied together in pairs at the ends, and the two pairs

then joined at the same place. The object of

these pieces is to give strength and form to the canoe, and to

offer a firm security for the edges of the bark, which are secured

between them. The gunwale being prepared, we are now ready for

the birch bark. The bottom of a well made canoe should be in one

large piece, as our illustration indicates, if possible. Select

some large tree with the trunk free from knots or excrescences.

Mark off as great a length as possible, and chop a straight cut

in the bark through the whole length of the piece, after which

it should be carefully peeled from the wood. It will sometimes

happen, where large birches exist in perfection, that a single

piece may be found of sufficient size for a whole canoe, but this

is rather exceptional, and the bottom is generally pieced out,

as seen in our drawing. This piecing may be accomplished with an

awl and Indian twine, or by the aid of a large needle threaded

with the same, sewing with an over-and-over stitch around the edge

of each piece. Use as large pieces as are attainable, and continue

to sew them on until the area of bark measures about four and a

half feet in width by twelve feet in length, the dark colored sides

of the bark all facing the same way. Next select a fiat piece of

ground, and mark off a distance of ten feet, or two feet less than

the length of the gunwales. At each end of the space two tall stakes

should be driven into the ground about three inches apart. Now

turn the bark on the ground with its white side uppermost, and

fold it loosely and evenly through the long centre. In this folded

condition it should now be lifted by the upper edge and set between

the stakes. There will then be about a foot of projecting bark

beyond each pair of stakes. These ends should now be covered by

folding another piece of bark over them, sewing the edges firmly

to the sides of the rude form of the canoe, which now presents

itself. When this is done, each end should be supported on a log

or stone; this will cause the bottom line to sink downwards at

about the proper curve. We are now ready for the gunwale. Lay it

in the proper position, fitting the edges of the bark between the

two strips on each side, and sewing around the whole with a winding

stitch, exactly after the manner of the edge of an ordinary palm-leaf

fan. The inside of the canoe should now be lined with long strips

of cedar running through the entire length of the boat if possible,

but if not, should be so cut as to neatly overlap at the ends.

These pieces should be an inch or two in width, and from a quarter

to half an inch-in thickness. The ribs are then to be put in. These

are generally made from ash, one or two inches in width, and

a quarter of an inch in thickness. Any light flexible wood will

answer the purpose, and even barrel hoops when attainable will do

very well. These ribs should be bent to fit the interior of the

canoe crosswise, either close together, or with equal distances

between them and the ends should then be firmly secured beneath the

gunwales by a continuous loop-stitch through the bark. For a canoe

of twelve feet in length, the width should be about two feet, and in

order to keep the gunwales firm, two or more cross-pieces should

be inserted, and lashed firmly at their ends as our illustration

shows. The centre third of the length of the canoe should be parallel

at the sides, and if two braces, two feet in length are placed at

each end of this third, the shape will be about perfect. We now

have a bark canoe of considerable strength and durability, and

it only awaits to be made water-proof for final use. In order to

accomplish this all the seams outside, and the entire interior of

the canoe should, be smeared with pitch, after which its floating

qualities may be tested with confidence. Should any leaks occur their

where-abouts are easily detected, and an additional application

of pitch will remedy the difficulty. The Indians in sewing their

bark canoes use tamarack roots, fibrous plants, and grasses, in

lieu of thread, and even with these inferior materials often attain

to such perfection in compact sewing, as to render the use of pitch

unnecessary for water-proof purposes. Such skill is rarely attained

by the white man, and the art of making a water-proof canoe, even

out of a single piece of bark, is by no means an easy task without

the aid of tar or pitch.

For the trapper we strongly recommend the birch bark. With the

above directions we are sure no one could go astray, and we are

equally sure that a canoe made as we describe, would present advantages

of lightness and portability which no other style of boat would

possess. For temporary purposes, canoes can be made from basswood,

hemlock, or spruce bark; but they are at best, very rude and clumsy

in comparison with the birch bark. They are generally made after

the principles of the above described; either sewing or nailing

the edges of the bark together, and smearing every joint and seam

profusely with pitch, and adding gunwales, lining, and ribs.