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Building a Birchbark Canoe

Peeling the Bark

Photo of birchbark being harvested for a canoeWhen my grandmother taught my parents how to make a birchbark canoe she put a lot of emphasis on the importance of starting with a good piece of bark. She said the bark should be about one quarter inch thick and not crack when it was bent or twisted. It took her a long time to select just the right tree and when she finally made her choice she still wouldn't let my father cut it down.

First we had to clear a place so that it could fall without hitting rocks or dead stumps that might have damaged the bark and ultimately give us a sieve instead of a birchbark canoe. Then, even before the saw was picked up, we had to ceremoniously acknowledge that the tree was about to give up it's life as a tree and begin the transformation into a canoe.

But when the tree was finally felled, my father cut the top away from the long butt end and then Kokum showed us how to peel the bark.

With her hunting knife she scored a shallow straight line that ran from one end of the birch log to the other. Then, straddling the tree she put her axe blade into the score line and with the back end of the smaller axe, hammered the blade into the score. She shuffled herself along the log until she'd made a single line of axe cuts from one end of the tree to the other.

Both axes were used to peel the bark off from either side of the cut line. My parents did this work...after all it was their lesson...but everytime they hit a tough spot Kokum would push them away and do it herself so that there was no danger of them cutting a hole in the bark and ruining her birchbark canoe!

It was particularly tricky completing the peel at the bottom side of the log, but Kokum made a couple of small cedar strip boards from deadfall and wedged them between the bark and the log. By tapping the boards with the hatchet the bark was finally loosened.

Time for lunch.

While we ate we learned about a birchbark canoe that Kokum had seen made when she was a child...that would have been in the 1870's before the Canadian Pacific Railway was in it's glory. The birch bark canoe she talked about was a huge forty or fifty foot freight canoe. It was the type of canoe that needed at least a half dozen men to paddle and was used to move supplies up and down the waterways. Those freight canoes used to be so plentiful that no-one thought to preserve an example for you to admire. There's not even an original freight canoe in the Canadian Canoe Museum! Kokum told us that it took four large trees to make that birchbark canoe. Nowadays trees of that size can't be found.

After lunch the log was ever so carefully rolled off the birch bark by using a couple of saplings braced on the cedar strip boards as a lever. Then the huge piece of bark was rolled up end to end and tied with a tump line to be carried home on my father's back.

So...first you chose the tree, then peeled the bark and then it was time to find a shady spot to build the birchbark canoe.

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