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Building a BirchBark Canoe

Choosing the Tree

Kokum Peeling Birchbark - a painting by the Ojibwa artist Nokomis.I'm going to tell you a little bit about how to build a birchbark canoe, but on this page I'm going to tell you about the first time I was involved in making one.

One summer, a long time ago, I watched my grandmother show my parents how to make a canoe from a birch tree. My grandfather had died the previous winter, and looking back, I think Kokum realized that she'd better get a move on if she was ever going to pass on all the tricks of her trade.

She made the announcement one Spring evening after watching a huge flock of geese fly over our canvas covered cedar strip canoes and land noisily near the point of reeds that sheltered the bay.

Without consultation she said, "It's time to get some birch bark. we're going to make a canoe. We'll start tomorrow."

So next morning my mother packed a lunch, then armed with a bow saw, an axe, a hatchet and the inevitable hunting knives we set off looking for a birch tree that would provide us with a single piece of birch bark about sixteen to twenty feet long and about three or four feet wide.

Nowadays finding the tree is the hardest part in the process of making a canoe! Useable canoes can be made from a selection of smaller pieces of birch bark by lacing them together with strips of spruce root and sealing with spruce gum, but the result is never quite as strong because more seams increase the possibility of more leaks.

Photo showing the gunwales being laced to birchbark.

When Kokum finally found a tree she thought might be appropriate - one that not only grew tall but had long ago shed any small branches from its lower trunk - she told us that we had to test the bark itself before we cut it down. Not all trees provided good canoe bark. Sometimes it wasn't thick enough. The test was to cut a piece off and twist and turn it this way and that. If it didn't crack it was good enough to make a birch bark canoe.

When the bark passed the twisting and turning test then Kokum talked to the tree and thanked it for providing us with a canoe.

Only then could we cut it down. At the time we had tools with us, but here's hot to fell a tree without an axe or saw.


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