Beaver Bark Canoes

Posted on January 20, 2012


My first introduction to the birch bark canoe was on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation in 1979. There was a Ojibwe Culture Program there that was started by Ernie St. Germaine and was running for five days. One could learn about the language, pipe making, moccasin making, building a birch bark canoe and many other traditional Native crafts of the local Ojibwe people. I was fortunate to have this opportunity and was one of several non-natives accepted into the program.

The young man who was teaching canoe was a Ojibwe from the Red Cliff, Lake Superior Band and his name was Marvin Defoe. Marvin was a very good teacher telling and showing us how he built a birch bark canoe from scratch. We went into the forest and collected fresh birch bark; one of the four elements that were used in making a canoe. The other three are cedar, pitch and roots. 

We were taught the proper respect in harvesting these materials by offering tobacco and a prayer for these gifts we were about to receive. We learned how to split and peel the roots of spruce which were used to bind and sew the canoe together.

Once all the materials were collected and prepared, the birch bark was rolled out on the ground, the gunwales were tied together at the ends and spread, laid on top of the birch bark and weighted down with rocks. Next, the bark was gored at intervals with a knife, bent up using hot water that softens the bark, and stakes were driven into the ground to shape the canoe. Having never seen a birch bark canoe being built, I couldn’t comprehend how a strong canoe would evolve using such primitive procedures. Once the canoe had been stabilized, and the bark was protected from curling up in the hot sun, we proceeded to sew the many group lashings that sandwiched the bark between the inwale and the outwale. Marvin then carved five birch-wood thwarts which were mortised into the inwales and then lashed with roots.

Marvin Defoe

That was as far as we got in the five days that the class lasted. I, was now on my own and much more knowledge was necessary before I could build and paddle my own canoe.

My first canoe being built at the Bear Pond Camp in Winchester Wi, 1979

This was the inspiration and motivation that has developed into a 32 year career in making birch bark canoes. In that 32 year span, I have produced 67 birch bark canoes ranging in size from seven feet — twenty-two feet long. I also craft scale model canoes, canoe paddles and birch bark baskets decorated with etched designs and porcupine quill embroidery. 

In the words of the late Algonquin birch bark canoe builder Basil Smith: “LOTS OF WORK FOR THAT INDIAN WAY.”

Thank you, Miigwech,

Ferdy Goode