Birch Bark Canoe


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Entirely by hand ... From the ground up

By Tom Hennessey

Reprint courtesy of Bangor Daily News, and previously published Saturday/Sunday, September 22/23, 2007

Birch bark canoe, photo by Heather Perry. It's unfortunate that, aside from basket making, much of the culture and heritage of Maine's Wabanaki people - namely, the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet Indians - has been lost on the long trail of time. With that in mind, four years ago several members of the Penobscot Nation organized a program to perpetuate the ancestral art of making birch bark canoes. Which, for all intents and purposes, had gone the way of the wigwam.

Surprisingly, the birch bark canoe program's original supervisor was a non-Indian, Steve Cayard, of Wellington. Since its inception, the program has produced four of the canoes, all of which were built on Indian Island, the centuries-old home of the Penobscots handy to Old Town. Allowing that spiritual connections are strong on the island, it isn't surprising that the materials and methods being used in the canoe program are the same as those used by the early Indians. In other words, the early canoes are made entirely by hand and from the ground up, using only primitive tools and materials gathered straight from nature's storehouse. As can be imagined, there's more to it than meets the eye. Much more.

Birch bark canoe, photo by Joe Dana. Accordingly, few people realize that, for the most part, birch bark canoes were covered with one piece of birch bark, which, of course, meant searching for big white birches. "Those trees are hard to find nowadays," said Pat Almenas, supervisor of the birch bark canoe program. "What you look for is a tree about 48 to 50 inches around, with a clean trunk about 20 feet long. And when you find one, you don't talk about it." Obviously, the whereabouts of such trees are guarded like the locations of trout brooks.

While showing a nearly completed 18-foot canoe, Almenas explained that after the bark was cut and peeled using a knife or ax, it was placed on the ground with the inner side down. Within a few minutes the curved bark flattens and is rolled up for transport. Though it's common to see paintings of birch bark canoes showing the white of the bark on the outside of the canoe, to the contrary, the bark is applied inside out. And for good reason: The inner brown side of the bark is smooth and impervious to water. Conversely, the roughness of the outer bark would impede the canoe's motion and absorb water, causing the bark to separate and peel.

Tribal elder Butch Phillips building a birch bark canoe, photo by Heather Perry.Almenas said only white birch is suitable for covering canoes. "Gray birch doesn't grow big enough," he said, " and yellow birch isn't supple enough." Moreover, he pointed out that the inner bark of the white birch is lighter in color during summer and darker in winter. Hence, summer bark is used for covering canoes, while winter bark is best suited for decorative purposes. The resilience and durability of birch bark are manifest in its 1/8-inch thickness, give or take.

In following the tracks of their ancestors, participants in the birch bark canoe program gather spruce roots for sewing, binding and lashing. When asked how the roots were dug out of the ground, Almenas held his hands out and said, "With these. Digging with any kind of a tool would risk cutting the roots, and we want them as long as we can get them."

"Butch" Phillips, a Penobscot elder - denoting tribal rank, not age - who built a 14-foot birch bark canoe, said, "Spruce roots grow long and shallow, spreading away from the tree. By cutting the root off near the base of the tree

it's possible to take hold of the stub and pull the whole root out of the ground, maybe 10 to 20 feet long."

Tool used for building birch bark canoe, photo by Heather Perry. Afterward, the roots are boiled, peeled and split into narrow, flexible strands. Pointing to a section of wraps binding the gunwales of the canoe, Phillips said, "The roots shrink as they dry, becoming tight and strong. If I cut one of those wraps it would let go with a pop," like breaking a bowstring.

The information provided by Phillips and Almenas was fascinating. For example, only the straightest cedar trees are used. Twists in the lightweight wood may cause splitting and breaking when being bent and shaped to the contours of a canoe. Strong, straight-grained ash is often used for thwarts. There were no seats in early birch bark canoes, which were paddled while kneeling and poled while standing. And there's no place to sit in the canoes now being made on Indian Island.

The tool used to split the peeled, dried cedar into long, pie-shaped pieces is called a "froe," essentially a blade and handle forming an L. The pieces are split into thinner strips to be used for ribs, rails and planking. The painstaking work of shaping, shaving and smoothing the strips is done with a drawshave and the distinctly Indian invention called the crooked knife; no power saws, planers or sanders.

Birch bark canoes are not built on forms, the way ribbed-and-planked boats and canoes are made today. Instead, the flowing curves and lines begin with construction of the inner rails of the gunwales. The one-piece rails are shaped and held by lashing them to stakes arranged in holes bored into a wooden platform. Here, the program deviates slightly from the original method of driving the stakes into the ground.

After the thwarts are secured to the rails, the structure is removed from the stakes, which, in turn, are removed from the platform. Next, the bark is placed on the platform and weighted with rocks. To facilitate fitting the bark, elongated V-shaped slits called gores are cut along the sides of the bark, similar to the way a seamstress makes tucks in fabric. The bark then is bent upward and held by stakes that rise in height from the canoe's midsection toward the ends. After the gores are sewn with strips of spruce root, the rocks are removed from the bark. With the canoe's classic profile thus formed, the bark is trimmed and lashed to the rails by means of holes punched with awls.

Tribal members work together to craft a birch bark canoe, courtesy of Penobscot Indian Nation. The stem pieces forming the curved ends of the canoe are made from pieces of cedar. Starting at one end, each piece is split into narrow strips that stop within six inches or so of the other end. The pieces are boiled, bent to shape and secured until dry. Then the strips are wrapped with the fibrous inner bark of basswood, which adds strength and doesn't split when the bark is sewn to the stems. It's interesting that each of the Wabanaki tribes had distinguishing curves to the stems of their canoes.

Tapering, smoothing and beveling cedar ribs and planking with a crooked knife is hard to imagine; but think about forming the ribs, which first are boiled, by kneeling on them and bending them upward. Therefore, the shaping of the ribs - and that of the canoe, actually - is done entirely by eye.

The planking, only about 1/8 inch or so thick and a few inches wide, is started at one end of the canoe. The first section of the center plank is inserted beneath the base of the stem. Other sections then are placed on both sides of the center plank, rising toward the rails. Subsequently, ribs are placed over the planking and secured by inserting the tapered and beveled ends of the ribs beneath the rails, which also are beveled to ensure tight fits. Thus, the canoe is systematically ribbed and planked. Amazingly, all of the pieces are held in place by the pressure of the ribs.

Headboards of cedar form pockets between the ribs and stems at each end of the canoe. The pocket is filled with cedar shavings to support the bark enclosing the ends. To keep the shavings dry, a piece of bark called a "diaper" is placed over the opening above each pocket, slightly ahead of where the rails meet. The device, often decorated with carved signs and symbols, extends a few inches below the rails and is trimmed in a curve ending at the stems. Likewise, a long piece of winter bark is sewed to each side of the canoe and decorated with designs and totems of animals including beavers, turtles, moose and eagles.

The gunwales are completed when the outer rails are bound in place and capped with strips of cedar secured with wooden pegs. At that point, the canoe is nearly finished, save for sealing the stems and gores with a mixture of pine pitch and animal fat. The fat keeps the seals from drying and breaking. To be safe rather than sorry, early Indians carried containers of the mixture in their canoes.

This historic birch bark canoe and fish spear can be viewed at the Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island, photo by Cheryl Daigle. Of course, it would be sacrilegious to even think of coating a birch bark canoe with shiny shellac or varnish or, God forbid, glossy paint. To do so would surely arouse the wrath of Gluskabe, the mythical man-spirit of the Penobscots, not to mention offending the spirits of the people who, centuries ago, hunted, fished and trapped from Katahdin to the coast and beyond. Speaking of the coast, John Banks, the Penobscot Nation's director of natural resources, told about his great-grandfather Lewey Ketchum hunting porpoises in a 20-foot birch bark canoe on Penobscot Bay.

As impressive as that is, the recorded travels of Penobscot Indians in birch bark canoes are the stuff of story and song. Trips from Indian Island to Boston and Washington, D.C., for instance, were made to meet with representatives of state and U.S. government agencies. Mention of the nation's capital reminds that Pat Almenas paddled a birch bark canoe up the Potomac River to celebrate the grand opening of the Smithsonian Institution's Native American Museum.

Birch bark canoe entering Penobscot River, photo by Joe Dana. Closer to home, Butch Phillips and his son Scott paddled a birch bark canoe from Indian Island to Pockwockamus Falls in Katahdin country. That's a long poke with a paddle; nevertheless, the spiritual journey initiated 26 years ago by former Penobscot Chief Barry Dana was regarded as strong medicine to the extent that the journey is now a tribal tradition.

In keeping with his tribal elder status, Phillips is steadfast in perpetuating the culture, tradition and heritage of his people. In discussing the construction of his 14-foot birch bark canoe adorned with totems of eagle and hawk feathers, he said, "You have to wonder about the ingenuity and artistry that produced this process, and how long it took to perfect it." Amen to that. At any rate, the basic design of the versatile watercraft is so perfect in form and function that it hasn't changed.

Kirk Francis, current chief of the Penobscots, had it right when he said, "The birch bark canoe program is a reminder of Penobscot River history and a symbol of who we are as a people. The individuals who participate in the program deserve a lot of credit for striving to keep our culture and heritage alive."Photo by Joe Dana.

Namely, the credit belongs to the likes of Barry Dana, Butch Phillips, Nick Dow, Pat Almenas, Hugga Dana, Roland Jewell, Frank Loring, Neil Phillips and others whose pride in their ancestry and spiritual connection to nature inspires them to perpetuate the art of making birch bark canoes entirely by hand and from the ground up.

Tom Hennessey is a former Bangor Daily News outdoors writer.

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