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Thread: "The Survival of the Bark Canoe"

  1. #1

    Default "The Survival of the Bark Canoe"

    This is a book by John McPhee, first published in 1975, about a builder of Bark Canoes, Henri Vaillancourt, and a trip they made through the Maine woods.

    It is a very good read, if you want to know more about Bark Canoe technology and its history. The story of the trip is good as well. As with any trip, the group dynamics are interesting. John McPhee is a very good writer. You can search for Henri on the web. He is still making Bark Canoes. I'll stick to Twin Tex Has anyone ever paddled a Birch Bark Canoe?

    You'll find this book on Abebooks.
    Last edited by dougdew99; 13th-December-2007 at 05:27 AM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jun 2006
    Kent, England


    A few years ago (or was it many)? I was lucky enough to paddle a birch bark canoe in Canada. It was a joy in every sense. light, sensitive and rigid it almost flew across the water, responding to the gentlest touch of my paddle and change in balance.

    It really was like a leaf on the water!!!!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Dec 2005
    Hunter Lake, Minnesota, USA
    Journal Entries


    I built one about seven or eight years ago. It was something I'd wanted to do for a while. I spent some time with Ray Boesell, one of the premier birch bark canoe builders in our area (and probably anywhere). Ray showed me some things to look for in obtaining the right bark. It has to be pliable, about 1/8 inch thick (not thicker or thinner) and it can't delaminate, as birch bark often does.

    He also gave me some pointers on making watape, and sewing the bark together. I was also able to get some good information from the Chapelle/Adney book, "The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America."

    I spent about a year collecting materials. I found some good cedars, cut them, and split them down to 3/8 inch. If the wood is green, you can bend the ribs out of the 3/8 inch thick splits, by bending them in two places over your knees, two at a time. A crooked knife or draw knife works well for shaving and shaping them.

    I made a point of having coffee with loggers in the mornings, until I found one that would let me harvest bark off birch trees he was going to cut - before he cut them. Once the tree is down - even for a day - it is no good trying to remove the bark. Well, it can be done, but it sure is harder.

    For harvesting the bark I made a knife blade with a socket on my forge and attached it to a ten foot pole. I got the edge razor sharp and used it to cut the bark. The best bark is usually six to ten feet off the ground. I would cut four foot pieces of bark. If this is done in June, the bark will pop right off the tree. This usually netted me a piece of bark about three feet by four feet. To build a canoe, you need about ten to twelve pieces of bark. The bow and stern pieces are sewn together with the seam on the bottom, The belly of the canoe, the pieces are laid with the center of the piece of bark in the center of the canoe. The edges of these pieces are sewn to other pieces which come up to the gunwale.

    To make the watape, you dig in a spruce swamp until you come up with spruce root about pencil size. You follow these as long as they are the right size, usually about ten or 15 feet, but sometimes as long as 30 feet. It is a dirty job. To remove the bark from the spruce root, you use a couple of pieces of maple that are squared, about 3/4 inch and about eight inches long. Holding them in one hand, you run the root between them and it will strip the bark. To split the root, you make a cut with a jack-knife and split the root in half, or sometimes in quarters. Using your jack-knife, you trim the quarters so they'll lay flat.

    Sewing the bark with the watape, you have to keep the watape wet. You also have to keep tension on the end of the watape at all times. If you are not careful, this can lead to carpel tunnel problems. Very hard on the hands.

    To do the build you need a "bed" or form. A good sandy area can be leveled to form a bed. Upright stakes are pounded in - in the shape of a canoe. There are many steps to this process, and I'm not going to list them all, but here are a few of the main ones. The bark is laid in between the stakes. The inwales are fastened to the uprights at the right height. The bark is laced to the inwales and outwales. The bow and stern pieces of bark are sewn to the belly bark. Lacing the gunwales is a long and tedious process. One of the last steps is to place the ribs in the canoe. The ribs are friction fit, and have to be tapped into position. Once the ribs are in place, the "sheathing," thin 1/8 inch thick pieces of cedar, are forced between the bark and the ribs.

    "Pitching" the seams is the last step. Once you've pitched the seams, you place the canoe on two saw horses and put several inches of water in it. Then you mark any place that is leaking and pitch that. This is something you have to do almost every time you use the canoe.

    When you are ready to paddle, you have to place the canoe in the water for about 15 minutes to let the inner bark (which is on the outside) soak up water to make the canoe pliable. Getting in the canoe before it has soaked up water is likely to lead to the bark splitting.

    The bark in a birch bark canoe never stops shrinking. Water is the only preservative that works with birch bark.

    Birchbark canoes are beautiful to paddle. The canoe will undulate with wave action as it has no keel, the ribs are friction fit, and the only rigid structural member is the gunwale. There is nothing quite like it.

    That said, they are a pain in the neck as they need constant care and repair. I sold mine about three or four years ago.

    I used to have a photo on the computer, but it got dumped. The only photo I have of it is a poor quality print off the computer that sits on my desk at work. should have taken a few more photos.
    Last edited by pierre girard; 21st-December-2007 at 08:55 PM.
    The perfect canoe -
    Like a leaf on the water

  4. #4
    Join Date
    May 2007
    Buchholz, 40 kms south of Hamburg

    Default the Survival of the Bark canoe

    last yyear I built a 2 1/2 fathom tete de boules canoe as it
    is shown in Chapelle/Adneys book - cause we have no birch bark
    in Germany we took 4 mm birch plywood. We worked 10 days ten
    hours a day with two men. More you can find
    look at Kanu.

    I like it - if I have birch bark I will built the same canoe once
    regards from Hamburg

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