History of the Canoe
"I believe the more you know about the canoe, the more you will understand its beauty and your appreciation of its beauty will heighten and brighten until you are propelled to find out more about it. "
The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and also the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and the wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores..."When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known. (Siguard F. Olson) The instant he dips a paddle, he flows as it flows, the canoe yielding to his slightest touch, responsive to his every whim and thought.
The canoe, declares Olson, gave him a "sense of unbounded range and freedom, unlimited movement and exploration such as a larger craft never know". A man felt at home with a paddle in his hand "as natural and indigenous as with a bow or spear." Paddling a canoe, moreover-the actual swinging through a stroke-set in motion forgotten reflexes and stirred "ancient sensations deep within his subconscious."
"Canoe", is a simple sounding two syllable word, easy to pronounce, ka-noo' its also easy to define, "a light, slender boat with pointed ends, propelled by paddles. (from the Spanish word canoa-from Haitian) recorded by Columbus". This definition is but a word until you really see a canoe. To see a woodstrip/epoxy canoe with its classic lines and warm-hued natural wood finish make it as much a work of art as a boat. I believe the more you know about the canoe, the more you will understand its beauty and your appreciation of its beauty will heighten and brighten until you are propelled to find out more about it. Beauty, art, is largely a matter of the unification of contrasts. Variety is essential to the concept of beauty and the many different styles and models of the canoe have evolved since the primitive dug was launched.
What is a pipe dream for some became a reality for me. Little did I know how this dream would carry me along of a journey from one dream to the next? From a worn dog-eared MCA canoe builder's book, I started out to convert a stack of wood strips into a canoe. Many friends would suppress their thoughts at my pipe dream. The proposed vessel, I claimed, would not merely float but comfortably handle the meanest rapids and the largess lakes. What's more, this thoroughly functional watercraft would inspire praise normally accorded a piece of fine Henderon furniture.
As I traveled through the process of building my canoe it started to take on a spiritual quality to it. I thought of the finished boat as being part of my body. You can't see it, visualize it, and imagine it, until it happens. What I learn about myself was not visible at all in the canoe itself and only manifested in a smile of satisfaction when I stood back to admire it. As each new strip was put in place I became more interested in how this amazing craft came about. Growing up in Minnesota I knew the canoe has had a long and distinguish history in shaping our area, "the Canoe Capitol of the United States". I began to wonder where did the canoe evolve from and who where its early designers? Who were the first humans to use this type of watercraft?
I discovered that the origin and early history of the canoe are not known and likely never will be. To some the idea of the canoe, however, is an old and certainly widespread one, that the ancestors of the North American Indians brought it with them in migrations from Asia into American.
There is a little evidence that on the northern most island of Japan, an Aboriginal race named, the Ainu, built a canoe with a crude framework. In David Gidmark's excellent book, The Alogonquin Birchbark Canoe, he writes, "there is only one area that of the Amur River in southeastern Siberia, were Birchbark canoes of any importance, and here is found the only prototype for an American canoe". As early as 1899 Otis T. Mason pointed out the startling similarity between the monitor shaped canoes of the Goldi, Oltscha, Tungus and Yakut indians of the Amur River area and those of the Kootenay Indians of the Northwestern United States.
To others the canoe (dugouts) originated in Africa,
where people from Gabon to Mozambique still ply the
crocodile and Hippo Rivers, the coastal waters, and
Rift Valley lakes in hardwood canoes. Eastward, in southern
Asia, dugouts are used wherever navigable waters are
warm and plentiful, fishing and trade fuel local and
regional economies, and tropical hardwoods grow abundantly.
Some may assume canoes crossed the Bering Strait with early northeast Asian tribes-people, ancestors of the first Americans, who perhaps followed the glacial or land bridge coastline in large oceangoing dugouts or skin boats, or at least built them when they could to hunt seals, whales, and waterfowl, and to fish, while they skirted the coast on foot and crossed the Beringian land bridge no earlier than the end of the last Ice Age, ten to twelve thousand years ago, and over generations followed an ice-free inland corridor south.
Yet origin narratives throughout the western hemisphere contain stories of ancestors arriving by canoe from the west, the north, or the sky. In North America alone, canoe iconography surfaces widely in ancient art and stories. A pictograph carved besides a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, depicts half a dozen ancestor-like beings standing in a celestial dugout. The Iroquois Peacemaker comes form the northwest to upstate New York in a stone canoe, or a white canoe in some renderings, to establish the Great Peace and unite the Five Nations. The Muskogees and other southeastern tribes believe in twin Beings of Light (analogous to the Maya Here Twins) who descended by canoe from a hole in the sky to teach the culture to the ancestors.
Recent discoveries of early coastline migration have challenged the long-held paradigm in which manufactures of distinctively fluted projectile points. The projectile points and the people who made them are known by the name Clovis, after one of their best-know sites in New Mexico.
No direct archeological evidence places canoes in Mesoamerica before the first millennium B.C.E.: wooden artifacts rarely survived the tropical climate. (In North America the oldest-known dugout, found buried in the mud in Florida, dates to 5000 B.C.E.) Yet in South American numerous Amazonian tribes say their ancestors paddled the river- the "Paths of the Ancestors)-east to their homelands. Anthropologist Anna Roosevelt has found wood preserved in mud besides a river in eastern Brazil considerable older than ten thousand years and bearing all the earmarks of dugout fabrication.
Roosevelt's is one on many recently excavated sites (the Queen Charlotte Islands, Chile, and elsewhere) that challenge the Clovis paradigm of recent migration by land alone. She believes the migration from Eurasia to the Americas took place, at least in part, by canoe via coastal waters, following the southern shore of Beringia. This movement may have taken place before, during, and/or after the last glaciations. A coastal route would have been richer in game than an interior, and the climate generally milder.
Traversing the land bridge itself would have been "impossible with out water crossings," says anthropologist William Engelbrecht and Carl Seyfert. Beringia and the ice-free corridor inland would have been laced with thousands of square miles of melt water sloughs, meanders, blind channels and whitewater draining to the Proto -Yukon River. It is hard to imagine a mammal living there who was not an accomplished swimmer or a human who was not a skilled boatman," adds Peter Young of Vermont's Center for Northern Studies.
Equally waterlogged conditions would have confronted human migrants moving south by the interior route. Points retrieved from formerly submerged sites suggest Paleoindians probably hunted swimming caribou and mammoths from boats. Boats would have speeded the Clovis migration itself.
Watercraft must have existed in Asia in time to support the peopling of Australia at least forty thousand years ago. Human occupation of the Solomon Islands dates from thirty-three thousand to twenty eight thousand years, requiring long ocean crossings during low Ice Age sea levels. By two thousand years ago seagoing canoe navigators had peopled most of the far-flung Pacific islands. Today, traditionally minded Pacific islanders ritualize and metaphorize canoecraft and navigation's much as did the early Mesoamericans, who esteemed cane navigators and considered long-distance cane travel analogous with the shamanic journey of the spirit.
It would have taken far less sophisticated craft and skill than the island navigators possessed to follow the coastal waters of the land bridge and the low, now inundated coasts of British Columbia and the Northwest. And tribes of the Aleutian Islands, the Queen Charlottes, and the Pacific Northwest have developed and currently sustain some of the world's richest canoe cultures.
Whether or not sublimed memories of canoe-borne migration from Asia under gone certain western hemisphere creation narratives, we know that the Olmec and Maya associated canoe and long-distance canoe travel with ancestral arrivals and the making and shaping of the world. (Sacred Monkey River by Christopher Shaw 2000)
The classical Maya Maize God, also called First Father rode a cosmic Cayuco (canoe) across the path of the sun to set in place the three cosmic hearthstones near the constellation Orion. There, he departed earth and sky at the dawn of the fourth creation cycle - ours, which approaches its end in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Two Dos accompanied him whose images crop up frequently in classical depiction of birth, death, and royal accessions, kneeling at the opposite ends of the galactic canoe.
Today, Lacandon Mayas brew their sacred intoxicate, the beverage called balche - their vehicle of communication with the gods - in a ritual dugout that stands outside the "god-house," a pole-and-thatch structure set off from the residential houses, where Lacandon men gaiter to drink and burn copal incense in braziers represents the gods. Their cosmology equates caycuos and crocodiles,. Both are low and long, and liminal between the upper and lower worlds. Crocodiles derive from the caycuos of the wooden men, the Lokin, who lived during the previous creation. At death Lacandons travel to Xibalba by paddling across a dangerous river, accompanied by a dog.
The canoe motif is continuous. The Olmec instigated
the voyages of trade and pilgrimage into the highlands
and along the gulf coast of Yucatan, Mexico. Later gulf
traders linked the city stares of the Maya classical
period, fostered there rise and perhaps there decline
By the classical period, canoe travel had long been perceived as a first principle of creation, preexisting the world itself. Voyaging the rivers, ancient paddlers recapitulated the journeys of gods and ancestors, retracing and thereby consecrating the Maya terrain. The processes of "entering the road" - Water Path - and transforming themselves from yeoman into pilgrims, they delineated and held together the world, and the land-based identity of the people.
The canoe as briefly described above has had a variety of uses to many people and throughout the long history of the canoe the shape has changed very little. The materials and design has improved during the last few hundred years, along with its use in everyday life. Many variations of materials were used according to the raw materials of different lands. Log canoes were most common, but there were straw canoes, bamboo canoes, and reed canoes.
Early African, South Pacific and North American canoe builders used to build dugout canoes with a method that was very time consuming. They would hollow out a tree trunk that had been left to cure for a least one year; this would cause the wood to become malleable. They used a stone hammer along with chisels made of flint or some other rocklike substance for their tools. It would take many long hours of hard work to chisel the log into a dugout shape. A major improvement came when the North American Indians began using a method of taking a green tree and by using fire and wet mud they would burn the hull into a very thin shell. They then would take the charred hull and stretch it into a flared shape and fixed it permanently with thwarts by filling it with water warmed by hot stones.
The Mayan's traditional practices varied little whether undertaken by teams overseen by masters, Village groups, or individuals. Trees were selected for straightness, width, durability, and ease of working. The preferred species included mahogany, cedar, and a species known as Mankhote in Chol, which lasted in the water for thirty years.
The tree's location hardly mattered: some were cut ten or twelve miles from water. After receiving permission to fell the tree, the crew erected a platform to sever the trunk above the swelling root buttresses common in rain forest species. The first cuts, made with ritual care, were placed to guard against splitting and to guide the tree's fall. Then the master examined the fallen trunk for defects and decided how best to cut around them. Cutaway sections were saved, and carved into bowls and troughs (called canoas).
With the log laid out, the master cut transverse grooves at the point where the sheer line would rise toward the peaks, then ran a cord for cutting the trunk down to the level of the gunwales. Axes machetes, and curved and straight adzes accomplished the work. Next he marked the chine, the angle at which the sides were cut, and strung another line down the center of the trunk, on either side of which he drew the critical bow and stern shapes - the sheer and rocker, the characteristic banana curve of whitewater craft, adjusted for whether the boat would be used primarily in swift water or flat. In an older technique, one side of a large leaf would be folded over the bow and traced onto the wood, echoing the craft's organic, dendrite roots). He roughed out the ends with a machete.
The master marked the side and interior and they were cut, thicker along the bottom, thinner along the gunwales, the thickness monitored through holes bored in the hull. Finally the boat was inverted using a log and fulcrum to "winch" to shape the bottom for rocker and side-to-side stability, another critical step that determined performance.
The process took up to two weeks. When the holes were plugged and the boat finished, the crew ate a ceremonial meal and transported the canoe to water by pushing it across poles used as rollers, the method by which ancient traders portaged cayucos overland.
Another method of canoe building used was to build a frame out of bones or tree branches and stretch animal skins over the frame. The Eskimo made the best Canoe/Kayak by using sealskins. The sealskin was lightweight, strong and waterproof. Eskimos ventured into the seaward archipelagos of moody, storm-breeding sea in canoes so light they could be carried underneath one arm. Made of animal skin stretched over wood frames, Eskimo boats were simple, easy to repair, shock-resistant, beautiful, and fast. Eskimo Umiaks, large open vessels, carried tremendous loads and as many as forty people. Eskimo kayaks, slender and nearly weightless, were the finest hunting canoes in history. Skin boats made the Eskimo culture circumpolar, extending its reach over the northernmost coast of Asia, America, and Greenland. Other peoples also have experimented with skin boats. In Europe the Celts built them. The Irish went to sea in a sort of Umiak as recently as Elizabethan times, and they still paddle the cowhide Curragh on lakes. Next to the kayak, this curragh, oval, dumpy, and slow, is a sorry performance.
Kayak design varied. In the Gulf of Alaska, where big storm waves came up suddenly, the kayaks were built strong and seaworthy. In northern Alaska, where offshore pack ice narrowed the reach, and where the hunters had to navigate thin leads in the ice, kayaks were built light, slim, and low-sided. Materials varied. The Greenland Eskimos covered their kayaks with sealskin, the Canadian Eskimos with caribou skin, the Aletues with sea-lion skin. The Alaskan Eskimos used bearded seal when they could get it and walrus when they couldn't.
There were many advantages of the Birchbark canoe over the dugout. What other craft drew but a few inches of water, and so be plied anywhere there might be a trickle of water. What other craft could be easily carried on men's shoulders over the scores of portages, which made tedious by the explorers, which created many trade routes? It could shoot rapids that for the dugout and raft were impossible. What other vessel that weighs less than 300 pounds can sustain the burden of five tons of crew and freight? Made by both Indians and the voyageurs, it was built entirely of forest products with the aid of a few simple tools, and without the need for nails or other scarce items.
The North American Indian mainly used two styles of canoes throughout recorded history, the dugout and the Birchbark canoe. Excavations alone the Ottawa River, Quebec Canada, have revealed tools used in Birchbark canoe making. On Morrison's island, archaeologists have discovered copper awls that were in use 5000 years ago. Awls are essential to the constriction of the birchbark canoe but they had many other uses and it does not necessarily indicate its manufacture. In the period between the use of copper awls 5000 years ago and of iron and steel awls by the Indians today, awls were made of antler or bone.
It is thought that the antecedent to the Indian crooked knife made of a blade of steel was a crooked knife made of incisor tooth of a beaver. On Morrison's Island were found beaver teeth ground at the ends to form left or right-handed knives, also from five millennia ago. In addition, the site yielded stone gouges and adzes, vital to the manufacture of dugout canoes. This type of canoe was undoubtedly made 5000 years ago and probably predated the birchbark canoe; construction continued well into the nineteenth century.
The North American Indians built their canoes using White Birchbark; this canoe is the one we visualize when conjuring up an idea of a canoe. The very approximate form of the birchbark canoe is that of the dugout, which existed for thousands of years. The technologically sophisticated birchbark canoe may trace its structural origins through canoes of spruce bark and elm bark. Most often thought of as temporary canoes, these were heavy, awkward and not durable. They had a rough framing of branches that were often unfinished. A very small, young green tree was used for each gunwale and widely spaced branches were used as rudimentary ribs.
The canoe styles and quality of workmanship varied from area to area. The White Birchbark canoe reached its apogee as to the quality of workmanship and intensity of use among the Algonquian-speaking peoples north of the Great Lakes and to the east. The Chippewa Indian canoe in particular is generally recognized as being the finest in design and workmanship. It was a graceful craft with high, curved prow and sleek lines, and today is the stereotype of the Indian Canoe.
In New England states and eastern Canada the gunwales sloped upward only slightly at the prow and stern, and this style became prototype for the modern commercial canoe of the white man. The Iroquois, just south, in taking over this general design, replaced the curve with a straight prow angled slightly forward from the top to bottom. They were also forced to substitute oak and red elm for birchbark.
To construct their canoes the North American Indians used materials from their surrounding environment. As you can well imagine this was a time consuming project that encompassed many days, if not weeks to accomplish. Bark was most often harvested at warm times of the year (72 F) when it can be removed most easily. Good quality bark comes off easily: if it is a warm day and the bark is difficult to peel, then the bark is probably not good. This bark was used for the outside skin of the canoe.
Some Indians took the bark while the tree was still standing, using a make shift ladder. This method had it disadvantages because after the bark sheet was peeled it has a tenancy to split when being lowered to the ground. Where the builder had a choice of techniques, cutting down the tree made it more likely the bark would be harvested successfully.
The Indians of prehistoric times would topple a large birch tree by making a fire and charring its base. Mud was then applied higher up on the trunk so that only the lower part was charred. The charred section was then hacked away and this process was repeated until the tree fell.
The birchbark canoe was built with many natural resources available in the immediate area. In Robert Ritzenthalers' book, Building a Chippewa Indian Birchbark Canoe, he writes in great detail that structural members of the birchbark canoe were almost always made from white cedar. The members of the canoe such as gunwales ribs and sheathing are ordinarily made from straight-grain cedar that is knot-free. Thwarts were generally made of a hardwood such as ash or birch. Black spruce furnishes the roots (called watap in Algonquin language) for the lashing of the canoe together.
The constructions of these early canoes were simply in design. They would place short poles in the ground the size and shape of the canoe to be built. Next they would lash young green cedar trees to the poles for the gunwales. They than unrolled the bark sheets inside this pattern, holding the sheets together with pit tar and tree root laced to the gunwales. After the bark and pitch tar dried it became hard and made for a fragile but useable craft.
I stated the early history is vague and most knowledge was handed down from generation to generation. Gidmark reiterates a significant improvement in the canoe design was the introduction of the powerful rib compression characteristic of the modern craft. The average size canoe would use approximately forty ribs. These were 2 ½" to 3 inches wide and usually made from spruce. The ribs were soaked in water for two days before beginning the bending process. Boiling water was ladled over the ribs for three to four minutes, heating up the water that has soaked into the wood. The builder would take the rib and work it back and forth across his knee, care being taken to bend it slowly. After the ribs are bent they are place inside the canoe, next a binder is put in place to hold the rib snugly against the hull. The binder pushes out the ribs with tremendous pressure, exerting the same pressure on the hull. The ribs were lashed with Black Spruce roots and left out to dry in the sun. This building method strengthens and extended the durability of the White Birchbark canoe.
The birchbark canoe was not restricted in America to the realm of the Indian, but also played an important part in the early development of America by the white man. Nearly all the early exploring of the northern woodland regions was done in the birchbark canoe, and the extensive fur trade on the 17th and 18th centuries could not have been developed without it. The birchbark canoe became widely known throughout the European world during the early part of the seventeenth century.
It all started with the French settlements along the St. Lawrence River. A demand was created in Europe for American furs almost as soon as the colonies became a reality. Samuel de Champlain, French explorer, founder of Quebec in 1608 and Governor of New France, was responsible more than anyone for the adoption of the birchbark canoe by the Europeans. In the 1603 he encountered Indians (probably Algonquin) near present - day Quebec. He was particularly impressed by the speed of their birchbark canoes and said "the birchbark canoes would become essential to exploration, commerce and use by the military."
With the discovery of a seemingly endless supply in North American, the demand for furs simply exploded. Rapidly heavy trapping quickly depleted the supply of the once rich St. Lawrence Valley. As the trappers and traders ventured west they needed help - and so they engaged men from the villages along the St. Lawrence River to paddle the canoes and do the many chores; these men were at first called "engagees." Later, they were more appropriately called "voyageurs," which, in French, simply means travelers."
In Duane Lunds' book, Our Historic Boundary Waters, he glorifies these larger than life adventures. "So great their achievements, so spectacular their endurance, so colorful their attire, so unique their mission - they could have come out of fiction or modern day adventure comic books - but they were very much real - theses voyageurs of our North American wilderness." Their birchbark canoes were a remarkable creation, no nails, just birchbark over cedar strips tied together with tree roots and sealed with pitch from the pine tree or gum from the spruce tree. Thwarts across the top of the canoe held its shape. Seats, if any, were narrow. The canoes used by the voyageurs were basically the same as those used by the Indians for centuries - only larger.
The first Indian canoe makers with whom the French had long term contacts with were the Algonquian. The French modified the Indian birchbark canoe by lengthening it to produce the fur trade canoe. The great birchbark canoes of the fur trade came into being because of the need to transport large amounts of merchandise long distances to Lake Superior and beyond, and then they would return to Montreal with prodigious loads of furs.
As the volume of demand for furs increase, so did the demand for bigger and better canoes. The traditional Indian Canoe was fourteen or fifteen feet in length, the North canoe was 25 feet and the Montreal canoes were 35 to 40 feet in length. The latter weighted about 500 pounds and could handle a cargo from 5000 to 6000 pounds - including the crew of twelve. The steersman or "gouvermail" stood in the stern and used a long, wide paddle as a rudder. The captain or "avant de cannot" was in the prow. His paddle was the longest of all and was used to ward off rocks while going through rapids. The rest of the crew were called "miliew" or "middlemen"; they were the paddlers who gave the boat momentum. Their paddles were three and one-half to four feet in length and extremely narrow by today's standards - about three inches.
The North canoes had the same arrangement but smaller crew - eight men - and carried about 3000 pounds. The French authorities in order to keep control of their market regulated the number of canoes that could be used in the fur trade. This regulation had a profound affect on the design of the cargo canoe; therefore the tendency was to increase the length of each on each canoe. At first the Indians made the larger canoes to order under the supervision of the French. After a time the French craftsmen also worked on their construction. The trade canoe factories were established at Trois-Rivieres, downstream from Montreal, and elsewhere. The Algonquin sometimes worked in these factories, as did Indians of other tribes, and there was also a very active trade in rolls of birch bark for canoes. Of the various bow profiles of tribes who were birchbark canoe makers, it is thought that the Algonquin canoe may have been the model after which the fur trade canoes were built.
In the 1750s Colonel Louis Franquet reported that the factories at Trois-Rivieres made canoes of a standard model, 10 meters (33 feet) in length, 1.5 meters (5 feet) in the beam and 75cm (2 feet 6 inches) deep. They made about twenty of these canoes per year. After their manufacture at Trois-Rivieres, they were sent to Montreal, the eastern terminus of the fur trade. A Finnish writer of the 1750s observed that the French of Canada would not "trade their canoes for barrels of gold." When the English obtained control of New France in 1763, they also took over much of the fur trade. The birchbark canoes remained the backbone of commerce. In one government storehouse, they discovered six thousand cords of birch bark for canoes. While the cedar strip was evolving from the native dugout along the banks of the an obscure colonial river, at the same time the canoe was undergoing a morphosis across the Atlantic. This movement was started by an English philanthropist named John MacGregor, who had been inspired by the bark-and-skin canoes and kayaks he seen during his travels in Siberia and Canada.
In 1865, six years after his return to England, he designed what he took to be a facsimile of the native watercraft for his own use. The Roy Rob was 15 feet long, clinker-built with overlapping stakes as in a rowing skiff, topped with long kayak-like decks enclosing a small central cockpit. He sat on the canoe bottom and propelled himself with a double-blade paddle. One may think of John MacGregor as the first pleasure tour canoer. He embarked on a three-month journey across Europe in his small and then strange craft. When he returned in the fall of 1865 he published "A thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Twenty Rivers and Lakes of Europe", thus the modern sport of canoeing was born.
John MacGregor is also noted for being an aggressively promoter of the sport of canoeing. His book and his sequels were a tremendous success; the public responded by not only by buying them but also by forming canoe clubs of their own and building more decked boats in the style of the Rob Roy. John MacGregor had the greatest influence in the United States. By the late nineteen-century genuine American Native canoes had become rarities and the populace found itself suddenly peaceful, prosperous and suffused with a romantic disposition born in the writings of Whitman and Thoreau.
By the early 1900s the increasing use of canvas canoes, along with the decline in useable White Birch trees, were major factors in the decline of the birchbark canoe. Today we can trace the birth of the modern day canoe back to a village of Lakefield, Ontario, which, with neighboring Peterborough, has long been noted as the home of some of the world's - top canoe builders. Here in the middle of the nineteen century in the valley of the Otonabee River lived great craftsmen like: John Stephenson, Gilbert Gordon and Walter Dean who designed and built canoes that will live forever in the hearts and minds of pure canoeist. Combining the best qualities of Indian design and fine European carpentry, the new canoes flourished with a kind of vigor and life of their own. These unique cedar plank canoes were admired and used throughout North American, Europe and the international boating world for their beauty, workmanship and grace in the water.
At the turn of the century one facet of the canoe building industry grew into a leisure craft business. Many canoes were design for the booming new middle class market. The canoe became a craft for romances were people could get away from the chaperon's watchful eye. Water courtship became an institution, with the word "canoe" serving as a staple rhyme for "you" in the lexicon of Tin Pan Alley. One contemporary pundit, speculating as to why so many proposals took place in canoes, thought that a woman reclining in the bow of a canoe presented the image of maximum desirability and the fact on minimum accessibility, which momentarily tantalized the suitor.
One poplar canoe of the 1920's bears witness to the extent the craft became refined in its romantic role. It contains a specially molded seat in the stern for the paddling swain, with a long deck in the bow partially enveloping a vertical throne in which the passenger sat facing the stern, while coyly trailing one hand in the rippling water. Cabinets were built beneath the deck on either side of the foremost seat, one apparently intended for liquid refreshment, and the other equipped with a complicated sliding door that opens to reveal a built-in Victrola.
Anyone who would build a woodstrip canoe today cannot help but gain inspiration from the legacy of the Peterborough and Lakefield canoes that are the unmistakable forbears of all lightweight and "stripped" canoes of today. There is a wonderfully written book on history and design of the early canoes of northeast America called "Canoecraft", written by Ted Moores and Merilyn Mohn. They write that these builders, early Canadian craftsmen in a sleepy backwater valley of eastern Ontario, can be credited with starting what can best be described as "the Golden Age of Canoes" at the turn of the century. As a floating vessel of luxury, the finely finished cedar planked canoe - "the poor man's yacht" - was leagues ahead of its competition, perfectly suited to the leisurely use of quiet lakes and rivers, especially those in central and eastern Ontario that had recently been transformed into affluent cottage country.
In crafting a wood plank or stripper canoe of today, one takes full advantage of the most modern resins, fibers and finishes that high technology can provide, but at the same time, one must stop and ponder the fact that the wood plank design can be easily traced to indigenous Canadians. In a short 225 years that trace the white man's influence on the light canoe, evolution has made it faster, lighter and far more durable, but it has left intact the fundamental elegance of the basic design.
As with many of today's improved machines or craft, racing has played a key roll in its development. The history of North American plank canoes was written in a edition of the Katchewanooka Herald dated 1857 - a handwritten news sheet circulated among the settlers in the colonial Upper Canada clearing known as Lakefield - in which the lead editorial explained of an upcoming canoe race: "we trust the numerous young men of the clearing will show themselves as invincible at the regatta as they would be no doubt in the case of and invasion."
North America's first recorded canoe regatta had taken place eleven years earlier at nearby Rice Lake, but informal races date from pre-colonial times in Canada. Native canoeists often tested there paddling speed and skills against one another and the settlers soon followed suit, staging social gathering around race day.
George Strickland witnessed the first race and was so inspired that he went home and perfected a new method of making dugout canoes. His canoe, which he called "The Shooting Star" had a hull planned to a half inch thickness and had sophisticated lines, it defies visions of mud wielding char scrapers. It showed all the stylish touches that would later become know as the quintessential "Peterborough." Today his now famous "Shooting Star" dugout canoe hangs in the Peterborough Centennial Museum in Petersburg, Ontario, Canada.
"It is doubtful whether any first-class canoe is the result of any one person's study. The builder's shop is the mill, he is the miller". The ideas of others are grist's. "J. H. Rushton"
One does not have to be a naval architect to understand the basic principles of canoe design. They are all are relatively simple, yet vitally important - especially to the builder. The curves of a well-designed canoe are its calling card - a proclamation of the kind of paddling it does best. At one time, lines of the slender, double-ended craft were directly traceable to a particular locale or people. The curious profile of a Newfoundland Beothuk canoe was a far cry aesthetically, functionally and geographically from the sturgeon-nosed craft of British Columbia's Kootenay people. Within limits of materials and technology, both Indian and early white canoes were traditionally shaped to conform to the kind of waters they plied and to the job they had to do.
At the Katchewanooka regatta of 1857, the two types of canoe competed side by side. George Strickland took all honors in the singles "log" division, but even his elegant Shooting Star seemed cumbersome and awkward alongside the light, finely shaped birchbark canoers. Among the shore bound onlookers were two men: John Stephenson, co-owner of a planing mill across the river from Peterborough, and Thomas Gordon, a Lakefield man. These two men were best of friends, canoeists as well as skilled woodworkers. While watching the regatta they had an idea. Why not combine the best of features of the refined dugout with the principles of lightweight Indian canoe construction? Instead of hollowing out the basswood trunk for a dugout, why not slice it into thin boards that could be bent and held in place over a skeleton of thin ribs typical of European boat building?
I cannot find in any resources that can proved which man took up the challenge of redesigning the dug or log boat, John Stephenson or Thomas Gordan. I can imagine they would get right to it while it was fresh in their minds, probably in the summer of 1857. From my experience of building canoes I would imagine that either one would have started out by "lofting" the dugout. However, Ted Moores suggests that they started by first bending square ribs over an overturned dugout and then nailing three wide basswood planks onto each side, joining them at either end with rough-sawn stems. He goes on to say they than sealed the seams between each plank with square battens on the inside; a crude but historic craft because it was the first white man's canoe.
Thomas Gordan was the first of the two to exploit the invention commercially, by quickly establishing the world's first wooden-canoe building shop. Tom Gordan was such a perfectionist with an eye to both beauty and utility. His repetition and shop grew when he won the Prince of Wales medal for craftsmanship at the British Empire Exhibition in London. Meanwhile, Stephenson remained a loner, building canoes freelance with only his son to help and eventually selling his patents and business to a firm that became the Peterborough Cane Company.
In Gil Gilpatricks' book, "Building a Stripper Canoe", he explains in great detail that these first wide-plank canoe builders were innovated in over coming great difficulty building their first canoes. Once these problems were overcome, the birth of the cedarstrip canoe took place. To accomplish this the first great innovation was the development of solid molds to replace the overturned dugouts on which the first hulls were formed. With the molds in place, two other factors combined to push the wide-board basswood canoe in the direction of the cedarstrip. One was the difficulty of bending the wide planks to conform to compound lines of the mould. To prevent splitting, and because good-quality lumber was becoming scare, some builders were using up to four planks per side. Each plank had to be carefully tapered to follow the narrowing girth of the hull toward its ends, and this was accomplished by using the patterns that determined the taper of each board as it was sawn to shape.
Next came the challenge of sealing the seams between the butt-joined planks. The first wooden canoes were sealed with raised battens that were fitted over the seams between planks. This awkward arrangement soon gave way to a system of flush battens running along the entire length of each seam. They were installed first by rabbeting (notching) the inside edge of each plank to half its original thickness. When the planks were joined together, this produced a long, shallow channel centered over each seam. But before they were joined, the planks were fitted with wooden battens that filled the channel and raised flush to the inside of the planking, producing a watertight seal.
Gilpatrick says this systems led to metallic flush batten, a canoe-long "staple" of zinc or brass pressed into cuts sliced on each side of a seam. Although they probably cut weight and production time, metallic flush battens did not provide the strength of hardwood battens, so the builders responded by moving the ribs closer together. This new "close rib" design and the practice of rabbeting the edges of the planks eventually became essential features of the cedarstrip canoe.
There were some spectacular innovations within this natural evolution, most notably John Stephenson's "Patent Cedar Rib" and Daniel Herald's "Patent Cedar" canoes. Both builders aimed to eliminate the ridged interior of the rib canoe. Herald succeeded with an extraordinary craft build with one interior layer of planking butt-joined and running from gunwale to gunwale and another longitudinal layer on the outside. Between them was sandwiched a sheet of waterproof canvas. Stephenson's boat was even more awkward to build. It consisted of a single layer of narrow tongue-in-groove planks running from gunwale to gunwale like ribs, with only a few longitudinal battens inside the hull for support. "A beautiful job but too expensive to build, " commented Gilbert Gordan (son of Thomas). "It was built on a special mould, and it had adjusting screws on the ends that fitted on the planking. They put in a dry kiln. Every day they took it out and tightened up the screws, this process took weeks to finish one canoe. (Moores & Mohr, 1983)
For many years the Indian birchbark canoes started to lose out in popularity because of their frailty, manufactures such as Old Town of Maine and Peterborough of Ontario, Canada, started to put together canoes of strong ribs and wide planking held to together by copper tacks clinched on the ends to keep them from pulling out. This wooden frame was covered with canvas and paint to make it completely waterproof.
The foundation of all so-called "stripper" canoes, exotic and plain, rests on a substance familiar to the first native practitioners of the canoe builder's art: wood, unexcelled for its stiffness, strength, buoyancy and striking appearance. Slender strips of cedar 1/4-inch thick and less than an inch wide are glued together on forms that are fixed at regular intervals on a secure, level base. This provides shape and support for the hull, which is sanded, planed and then sheathed inside and out with fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin. These "stripped" canoes of today are a far cry from where they evolved. (Hazen, 1976)
Just as racing stimulated the first board canoes, it was racing that rescued the cedarstrip from oblivion and stimulated a return to good design and innovative construction. The cedar stripped canoe design of today is a product of a few gifted craftsmen: Karl Ketter, Eugene Jenson, Pete (buzz) Peterson, Bob Brown, Bruce Knuz all residing in Minnesota, "the Canoe Capital of the World".
These competitive paddles of the Midwest were rediscovering the fine lines of the Vee-bottom Peterborough cedar strips. Indeed, because of the Model 1420 Peterbrough owned by Eugene Jenson, the Stripper Canoe we know today began back in 1949. Jenson and Peterson tried to reproduce its shape, being ignorant of the solid mould, instead used a strongback with sectional forms, one in the center and two others equidistant from the stems. After the canoe was planked, the hull was inverted with the forms still in it. Ribs were steamed and nailed between the forms, which were finally removed to insert the last ribs. The difficulties in achieving true lines must have been considerable with such widely spaced forms, but the move was significant - the solid mould, appropriate for mass production was successfully replaced with sectional forms more accessible to the amateur boat builder.
In my telephone interview with Karl Ketter Jr., he explained to me in the Peterborough stripper line, they had begged, borrowed, or stolen the idea of making strip and small rib racing canoes from his father, Karl Ketter. One of these canoes was a 20-foot, four man canoe for early Olympic racing. They also made a two-man, 16 foot, 30 inch wide "V" bottom racing canoe model 1430. These were made of concave and convex strips and one-half inch wide ribs spaced about six inches apart and again held firmly by copper nails. The tight fit of the wood strips enabled the canoe to be leak proof without a covering of any kind except a few coats of good varnish.
One of the major events during the Minneapolis Aquatennial in the 1940s was a 500-mile canoe race. This race began at Lake Bemidji, near Bemidji Minnesota, on or near the fourth of July. This ten-day race drew many of North America's top canoeists. Karl explained to me that the day before Aquatennial 500 race started, many of the racers would hold sprint races on Lake Bemidji. These races would unleash many an idea from men like Eugene Jenson, Tom Estes, Irvin (Buzz) Peterson and Karl Ketter himself.
There were many long distance canoe races on the Mississippi River from the year 1922 up to the present, but up until 1940, the conventional canoe was used. At that time, a "V" bottom plywood canoe was brought in from Chicago and won that year's Aquatennial 500 mile race in a breeze. It was not that this canoe was so great, but the paddlers were in superb condition and were far ahead in paddling technique. The canoe was used as the excuse by the local boys for the loss, and the building race was on.
The year 1941 found Jessie Tibbets, a Chippewa Indian from Ball Club, Minnesota, putting together an 18-foot strip canoe patterned after the Peterborough model 1430. Three forms were used: these were made off pine boards, the largest form being in the center with the two smaller forms and equal distance from either end. These forms, with a stem piece on either end, were placed on a flimsy strong back of 2 x 2's. The canoe was built upside down and was stripped from the bottom toward the gunwale. Many difficulties were encountered, but the canoe had a good Peterborough shape and won the Aquatennial race in 1947. (Betty Ketter) These early racing paddlers tried to eliminate ribs to reduce weight in the cedarstrip, thanks to the post-war technology in the form of waterproof glues and fiber-reinforced resins that facilitated the transition from cedarstrip to ribless woodstrip canoes.
At this time, Eugene Jenson, a young 18 year old, brought a 16 foot 1430 model Peterborough, probably the only one of its kind in the state. He team up with Tom Estes, and together they won the 500 mile Aquatennial race in their first year of competition. Concerned that competition would be tougher the coming year; Gene and Tom decided to experiment and built an eighteen foot plywood canoe on the order of the Chicago canoe, but with a much sharper "V" shape in the bottom hull design. This was a very hard canoe to ride, but they also won with this canoe in 1949.
Not to stand still at this point, in the winter of 1949 and 1950, Gene and Tom built two, twenty foot long, thirty inch wide, round bottomed strip canoes with small ribs. The strips were glued with Weldwood glue. The procedure of construction of these two canoes was similar to today's construction with a strongback and forms being used, but after the canoes were stripped, they were removed from the strongback with forms still intact. The ribs were then steamed in and nailed with copper nails. The forms were then removed and ribs were added to fill the gap where the forms had been placed. The strips were fitted very close, and no canvas was required. Needles to say, Gene and Tom won their third Aquatennial race with one of these canoes.
Many other builders were busy working by now, but Irvin C. (Buzz) Peterson was getting a good start, especially in canoe design. One of his canoes Buzz Peterson used in the Aquatennial race was a 17' wood rib canoe built by the Minneapolis Canoe Company. The Aquatennial race was fading by this time, but the big race was now in Shawining, Quebec, Canada, and for this race, Buzz made three round bottom canoes.
In 1954, while studying the design of his wood-plank and canvas canoe, he decided that ribs were not needed, so he built a 26 footer with no ribs. He edge-nailed the strips, using waterproof glue, and fitted the strips perfectly so there would be no leaks. No canvas was needed. The following year during the winter of 1954 to 1955, he made a 30 footer, same construction, no ribs, but strips were concave and convex to make an easier perfect fit. (Ketter Jr.)
In 1957, Canadian Quebec rules shortened the canoes to 16 feet with the now present 3" and 27" rules, so Irv built his now famous 16 footer which is still owned by Gil Tinker of Canada, and won more major races than any other single canoe. Construction was with concave and convex strips, Weldwood glue, edge nailing, 3/8 inch planking, and hand shaping with a rasp to get the lines wanted. On this canoe, he put on the first layer of fiberglass, but only on the outside. Buzz and Tom Estes used it in the Flin Flon, Canada, in 1958, were Rene Belemare of Quebec, Canada saw it and reproduced in 1959--the first built by a Canadian. It was also seen by Norm Brown of Michigan, who rushed right home and built the first ribless canoe in Michigan, in 1959. (The MCA Builders Book, 1988)
During these years Karl Ketter was formulating ideas of his own and in 1964 he again added to the history of the canoe. He used Norm Browns' idea of building a canoe without ribs by using fiberglass cloth on both the inside and outside of the canoe. He redesigned the canoe strongback using breakaway forms; this had never been down before. Karl used white waterproof glue and 3/8 inch staples to hold the 1-inch cedar strips to the forms. He than laid a 6 oz fiberglass cloth over the outside and applied a resin-harder to bond the cloth and wood together. This made the shape of the canoe stable enough to hold its shape.
Next he removed the break away forms from underneath the canoe and turn it over, placing it in a cradle. He also laid 4 oz fiberglass cloth, bonded with resin on the inside on the canoe. The gunnels, bow plates and seat were next too be installed. This method was to revolutionize the building of the canoe and he created what is now known as The Stripper Canoe. Karl Ketter continued to build, design and redesign the canoes he loved so much. He was one of the founders of the Minnesota Canoe Association back in 1961. I wonder if Karl knew at the time that this organization would continue to the present day. The MCA building book he helped design, used the canoe forms of Buzz Peterson for his photo illustrations. This canoe is probably the largest money winning canoe, having won six major canoe races. (Betty Ketter)
How ironical that near one hundred years early John MacGregor books started a renaissance for the canoe. Today, because of Karl's method and desire for his building book, a new renaissance was born right here in Minnesota. No longer were the innovations limited to a narrow region and a handful of builders who devoted their lives to canoes. The woodstrip/resin canoe emerged simultaneously across the continent form Minnesota, Quebec and California, with commercial and backyard builders all contributing to its improvement. With the MCA's Hut magazine articles and a handful of how to do books open the method to the general public, the posterity of the cedarstrip offspring was assured.
Just as the early history will never be known, like wise we will never know the future of the canoe. What will they look like? Will the new canoe designs be created using a CAD (computer aided design) program? What new exotic new materials will be used? These questions can only be answered in time. I personal believe the future will be bright for the woodstrip canoe. People of today's modern high-tech society are rediscovering the joys of a beautiful, well built canoe. I'm sure many designs of antiquity are lost and we will never really know what took place. The great boats shops of a century ago are gone, most of the precious moulds taken to the closest dump, broken, burned; only some lucky ones are preserved in local museums. All we have left are the canoes themselves, which continue to surface through the wooden-boat revival of recent years. What cannot be resurrected are the proud men who put something of themselves into each boat they built, doing their best with materials and tools at hand, always working toward that elusive perfection in form and function. However the techniques evolve, the spirit of those builders will be preserved wherever boats are built with integrity and respect.
Adney, E.T. & Chapelle, H.I. - The Birchbark Canoes
and Skin Boats of North American, Washington D. C. McGraw-Hill
2. Gidmark, David - The Algonquin Birchbark Canoe, Aylesbury, Shire Publications LTD, 1988
3. Gilpatrick, Gil - Building a Strip Canoe, Yarmount, DeLorme Publishers, 1979
4. Hazen, David - The Stripper's Guide to Canoe Building, Larkspur, Tamal Vista Publications, 1976
5. Lund, Duane - Our Historic Boundary Waters, Staples, Staples Nordell Graphic Communications, 1980
6. Minnesota Canoe Association, - The Canoe Building Book, Minneapolis, Howard Printing, 1988
7. Moores, Ted & Mohr, Merilyn - Canoecraft, Camden east, Camden House Publishing, 1983
8. Nute, G.L. - Voyager, New York, Appleton & Co. 1931
9. Ritzenthaler, Robert E. - Building a Chippewa Indian Birchbark Canoe, Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Museum, 1984
10. Vickery, Jim - Wilderness Visionaries, Merrillville, ICS Books Inc. 1986
11. Betty Ketter, - Interview, February 23, 1992
12. Karl Ketter Jr., -Telephone Interview, February 15, 1992
13 Shaw, Christopher - Sacred Monkey River; W.W. Norton& Company Inc. 2000