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