Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Birchbark Canoes
Nature Bulletin No. 463-A   September 23, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

BIRCHBARK CANOES
All the lightness of the birch tree,
All the toughness of the cedar,
All the larch's supple sinews;
And it floated on the river
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn,
Like a yellow water-lily.
(The Song of Hiawatha -- Longfellow.

Long before the white man came, the Indians in Canada and the Great Lakes region had perfected the art of building birchbark canoes. Using nature's products and Stone Age tools, they constructed small craft which have never been surpassed and were indispensable to their way of life. The canoe enabled them to penetrate and live in regions where vast forests were almost trackless. They could navigate any of the innumerable lakes or follow a stream to its source, portage across a divide, and paddle down into another river system.

Consisting merely of an outer covering of birchbark over a frame -- ribs and gunwales -- of white cedar (arbor vitae), the Indian canoe was extraordinarily light and graceful. When new and dry, a 15-footer might weigh less than 40 pounds; the longer ones, made by some tribes, weighed about 75 pounds. One man could pick up a canoe and carry it, upside down and resting on his shoulders, over a long rough portage. For its size and weight, it had greater carrying capacity than almost anything that floats. A birchbark canoe could carry almost a ton of load and it is said that a 15-foot canoe was often used to transport an Indian Family with several children, plus all of their duffel and dogs.

The birchbark canoe had a rounded bilge (or bottom) and no keel, which made it very unstable and tricky. But it would float in only a few inches of water and was so light and so maneuverable that it could be turned by a twist of a paddler's wrist. Because of its fragile "skin", a birchbark canoe was always loaded and boarded after it had been floated in the water; when coming ashore, the Indians got out before it grounded. There were no seats -- the paddlers knelt on the bottom.

In the old days there were many large old paper birch trees with smooth straight trunks and thick bark. In early summer, because then the bark strips off most easily, a long perpendicular slit was made on such a tree and the bark peeled from it in a long roll that would cover an entire canoe. This was suspended, just off the ground, between two rows of stakes, and sewed together at the ends. The brownish inside of the bark, because it is smoother and contains more resinous oil, became the outside of the canoe's "skin".

The bark cover was then stitched to the noses of the bow and stern, and to the gunwales which usually consisted of two long thin strips of white cedar on the inside and two on the outside. For all such stitching, the roots of tamarack (larch), spruce, Jack pine, or black ash were used -- depending upon the Indian tribe and what was available. The ribs were strips of white cedar which, having been soaked and steamed to make them flexible, were bent to the required curvature over the builder's knee and then, still damp, forced into the hull. They were not attached to the bark or gunwales but, as they dried, exerted a strong outward pressure and made the hull quite rigid. All seams and lacings were caulked with hot pitch, made pliable with grease, from pine or balsam trees.

Our modern canoes, covered with canvas or built entirely of aluminum follow the Indians' basic pattern.

"Thus the Birch Bark canoe was builded...And the forest's life was in it."


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