What is a Birch Bark Canoe?

Eric Tallberg

Native American Indians dwelling in the more temperate areas of North America often traveled the various lakes, rivers and seacoast areas via the birch bark canoe. This region encompasses what is now Southeastern Canada, New England, New York, and toward the Great Lakes region, where white birch trees proliferate. As the name implies, a birch bark canoe uses the bark of the white birch as a major component of its construction.

Several Native American tribes that lived in what is now New England and Southeastern Canada used birch bark to create canoes.
Several Native American tribes that lived in what is now New England and Southeastern Canada used birch bark to create canoes.

A canoe is a lightweight, highly maneuverable watercraft, usually tapered at each end, and propelled by a person wielding a wooden paddle. All canoes are direct descendants of the traditional birch bark canoe. Kayaks are another type of boat invented, designed, and built by American Indians. These vessels were used for transportation, cargo carrying, fishing, hunting, and, occasionally, as warcraft.

Birch bark is lightweight and easy to shape.
Birch bark is lightweight and easy to shape.

The materials traditionally used to construct birch bark canoes, besides the bark, consist of spruce roots, which are used to sew the bark together, cedar for rigid framing and inner sheathing, and spruce pitch or gum, which is used to waterproof seams. These materials were, and still are, plentiful in the northeast part of North America, and elsewhere. Most of the materials for these native canoes were gathered in early summer when spruce sap was running, and the bark, lightweight and malleable, was especially easy to peel from the birch trees.

Though time consuming and labor intensive, constructing a birch bark canoe is a fairly straightforward process. A cedar frame is built, and the bark fitted around this frame, and held in place by wooden stakes. Rigid cedar pieces, prows, are inserted at each end, and long, thin strips of cedar placed along each side of the top edge of the bark to form gunwales.

At this point, the tedious job of sewing the bark together is continued. Long pieces of spruce root are used like a needle and thread in sewing gores, slits made in the bark to ease fitting it over the frame. The birch bark at each end of the canoe is sewn together, as well. Additional sewing of bark strips together, prior to fitting the gunwales, may be necessary to ensure that the entire frame is covered.

Cedar thwarts, or braces are inserted to give the canoe gunwales rigidity, and cedar sheathing is laid to firm up the entire vessel. About 30 to 40 pieces of 3/8-inch (approx. 1 cm) square lengths of cedar are then steamed, bent in a U-shape, and spaced along the hull for rigidity. The ribs are inserted over the sheathing and the ends wedged under the gunwales. The entire vessel is then waterproofed at the seams using spruce pitch.

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