Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Canoes
Nature Bulletin No. 394-A   November 7, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

CANOES
On May 19, 1859, young Robert Kennicott, the famous Cook County naturalist, left Fort William, on the north shore of Lake Superior, with a "brigade" of three canoes of the Hudson's Bay Company to explore Arctic North America. The following is condensed from his fascinating journal.

The three canoes were each about 36 feet long, 4 in width, and 2-1/2 deep in the middle. The outer shell is formed entirely of birch bark, placed with the inside outward. The seams are stitched with split larch (tamarack) roots, and gummed with resin from the spruce. The outer shell is strengthened by a lining of thin strips of larch laid longitudinally, and light ribs of the same within these. The gunwales are formed by light bars of larch, about two inches square, into which the ribs enter and to which the edges of the bark are lashed by larch roots.

One of these canoes weighs, after some use, about 300 pounds and it will carry nearly 3000 pounds besides the crew. A block is placed in the bottom behind one of the thwarts to receive the foot of a mast. This is not usually carried but whenever there is a favorable wind, a suitable pole, with a fork at the top, is cut and up this is drawn a pole used as a yard for the square sail which is trimmed by means of lines at the corners.

The larger canoes, described above, are called north canoes. Another size, about 20 feet in length, are known as half canoes; while the small ones, ordinarily used by the Indians and only ten or fifteen feet long, are called light canoes. A still larger size than the north canoes were formerly used on the voyages up the St. Lawrence and across the lakes to Fort William. These were designated as "Montreal" or lake canoes, capable of carrying 4000 pounds of freight and weathering hard storms. But for inland navigation, where portages are so frequent, the lighter "north" canoes are found preferable.

The proper crew of such a canoe is eight men: a bowsman, steersman, and six middlemen. The bowsman, who is the guide, sits alone; the six middlemen occupy three seats placed about five feet apart; and the steersman stands in the stern, never sitting down while the canoe is in motion. The latter uses a paddle with a much longer handle and broader blade than the rest; he paddles as well as the others, rarely using his paddle as a rudder, but only makes a little over half as many strokes as the others. As the steersman's post is much the hardest, all of the good middlemen take the post by turns. In good water the guides uses an ordinary paddle but on rapids, or in turning sharp corners, he takes one larger than that of the steersman. All keep perfect time and, when the three crews came abreast, as they sometimes did, all singing and keeping stroke together, the effect was very exhilarating.

In ascending some parts of the stream, where the current was too strong for paddling, the canoe was propelled by poles. On stronger rapids the men were often forced to pull the canoe with lines, walking in the ice- cold water or along the shore where its nature permitted, to avoid a laborious portage.

Each day we started about 3 a. m., stopped at about 8 a.m. for breakfast, and camped at about 8 p. m., or later when the arctic days were longer. They paddle with great rapidity, making about 40 strokes per minute. When it is considered that this is kept up, exclusive for several "smokes" of about 15 minutes each, and of the stops for breakfast and dinner, from twelve to fifteen hours per day, some idea may be formed of the extreme powers of these French-Canadian and Iroquois voyageurs.


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