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A pirogue is a small, lightweight boat with a very shallow draft which makes it ideally suited to inland waterways and marshes. These boats are most closely associated with the Cajun community in Louisiana, certain areas of the American Midwest, and the fishermen of West Africa, although several cultures use similar boat designs for fishing and trade.
Originally, pirogues were made from hollowed logs, with cypress being a very popular choice in the United States. Modern pirogues are usually of the plank pirogue style, which involves mounting planks on ribbing attached to a flat bottom. The design is extremely simple, and the resulting boat is lightweight enough to be easily carried when there is no navigable water available.
Traditionally, the pirogue is rowed, and not paddled. Pirogues have also been known to move under the power of sail, and in marshes, they are often punted with a pole, since it can be difficult to row in marshlands. The use of engines as a source of power is increasingly common, with boaters preferring engines designed to work in shallow water so that they can retain the easy maneuverability of the traditional pirogue.
Pirogues can vary widely in size, holding one boater or a large group. They were historically used in trade in many regions of the Midwest, and played a role in the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. One advantage to using a pirogue is that it is very easy to handle, and it can easily be tipped over for drainage if water slops over the side. Many boats are designed to be handled by one person, although they can accommodate additional passengers. Some duck hunters are particularly fond of this particular style of boat.
These boats are most suited to inland waterways or shallow coastal waters. The pirogue design cannot withstand heavy seas, and the sides can be low, which can make the boat subject to swamping in big waves. For inland waterways, the pirogue is hard to beat; the incredibly shallow draft allows it to navigate very shallow waters with ease, and the lightweight design makes it easy for people to carry the boat if they encounter an area of dry land.
Several companies make traditional wooden pirogues for their customers, and some sell kits which people can use to make their own boats. People can also buy fiberglass or metal versions of the classic pirogue. These versions tend to be less expensive and they can be easier to maintain because of the durability of their materials.
Pirogues were also used in the east in the early years of our country. Zephaniah Platt, founder of Plattsburgh, NY noted in his accounts that his group of organizers from Poughkeepsie set money aside for a nice pirogue as part of preparations to claim their land grants on the northern frontier following the Revolutionary War in 1858.