Wabanaki Birch Barks

Wabanaki-style Birch Canoe

Canoes from the “People of the Dawnland”

In the Passamaquoddy language {Wub-bub-nee-hig} meaning the first light of early dawn before sunrise. The “People of the Dawn Land” are the easternmost  Native Americans and in times of the ancestors, their ceremonies assisted the sun each day in its rising. They received the blessings of the sun which they so revered and drew in its red energy. The Abenaki say, “As long as there is one person to honor the sun each morning, it will rise again.”

Wabanaki Birch Barks

Birchbark Canoes of the Wabanaki Nation

Over thousands of years of living and traveling on the ocean and inland waterways of what we now call Maine and the Maritime Provinces, The Wabanaki People developed a highly evolved, perfectly adapted type of birchbark canoe for this area. Wabanaki is the collective designation given to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, and Abenaki tribes.

Wabanaki Guides

Thus I have done the research and have begun my 68th birch bark canoe since 1979.

Pre-bending the cedar gunwales to create the awesome sheer line oy the Wabanaki-style canoe.

Canoe Birch at Crooked Lake

15 feet of bark relaxing in front of the naked birch tree trunk

A building frame is centered on the main sheet of winter bark and the sand building bed.

The Indian’s masterpiece was his birch canoe. He must have a boat light enough to be carried by one man on overland portages, yet strong enough to withstand the waves of the sea and the rapids of swift and rocky rivers, and he had only simple tools and material provided by nature in his immediate vicinity for working out his problem. Difficult as it was, he solved it perfectly.

Before the canoe could be begun, much labor had to be expanded in assembling the materials…birch bark for its outer covering, white cedar for the ribs, the rails and the lining, spruce roots for sewing, pitch for the seams, hardwood for the thwarts.

The best canoe barks were those peeled in winter, when the tree was free from sap and the bark about as thick and tough as sole leather, except for the frost in it, about as flexible.  Much care had to be used to keep the bark  from cracking. When it was removed as a single sheet, it was rolled up flesh side out, from butt to top, making a bundle from five to six feet long, and often a heavy load for one man. Bark in the roll could be kept any length of time and soaked out when wanted. In this way a canoe would be built in summer out of winter bark.

“Bark peeled in summer was also used, but it run off so easily that before the tree was gashed it had to be bound every three feet with bands of elm or cedar bark, otherwise the birch bark would roll off too fast and would break from its own weight.”

The frame of the canoe was got out in the woods; that is, the pieces of cedar used in it were rifted out by axe and wedges and brought home in the rough, unless perchance the canoe-maker was hunting and had spare time for doing all the work in his winter camp. The principal pieces, all of white cedar, were the gunwales, the lining and the ribs. The gunwales consisted of six pieces, three on each side…. the rail, the outer siding and the cap. All pieces were smoothed with a crooked knife.

When the builder was ready to begin work, he put his roll of bark into the river to soak out while he prepared the canoe bed. This was a perfectly level piece of ground, usually near his wigwam, smooth and hard of a suitable length. The bed had to be made very carefully, for one of the worst faults a canoe could have was to be “hog-backed”  from being made on a poor bed. The well-soaked bark was laid upon the bed, flesh side down, with rocks upon it to keep it from curling. Then stakes were driven into the ground on each side to hold the bark up against the gunwales. Now the seams along the side were made, fitting the bark to the gunwales. If the bark came from a small tree and it had to be widened, a long, narrow piece of bark was sewed upon each side of the main bark and seams were made in this by taking out gores to make it fit the gunwales smoothly while leaving sufficient width below for the bilge. These short seams were all sewed with spruce root and afterwards pitched.

The holes for entering the roots might be made with a steel awl, but even in recent times the Indian builders have preferred their old bone awls. One, which a Passamaquoddy Indian was using, was made from the split bone of the fore-leg of a moose, seven and a half inches long and about half an inch thick, somewhat curving, with a hole through the upper wider end for handing it up. He called it sigochskihegan. The Penobscot name for awl is m’goos and the ordinary Passamaquoddy name is tchisisagan

Sewing in the side bark using the root and batten stitch

The canoes’s thwarts are split out from white birch after which they are hewn with the axe and finished with the traditional crooked knife, this blade having a shed antler for the handle.

At this point the canoe could be lined. The lining was of very thin strips of white cedar as long as could be fitted into the bark and held in place by the ribs, which in turn were secured by being fit into the groove under the rail. The ribs were always driven toward the ends of the canoe to force them forward and give all the stiffness possible.

Ribs laid out for marking

Ribs bent and drying in pairs

The ribs have dried, they have been pulled out and bundled, and lining the interior of the canoe with cedar sheathing has begun.

“BEAVER” the builders personal mark

The canoe was now ready to be made waterproof. Nicholas Denys says that they used to fill the seams with spruce gum, which the women chewed until it was of the right consistency. More recently commercial resin mixed with grease has been used. The proportions are determined by trial; if the mixture is too thick, add more grease; if too thin, use more resin; simmer slowly, allow it to boil down, test it, like candy, by dropping in cold water. In summer, pitch should be soft enough not to be brittle from cold nor to be cut by ice. Pitch for winter use could be made from beaver oil. As good grease was not always obtainable in the woods, hunters sometimes carried a few tallow candles, not so much for illumination but to use in making pitch. Good pitch is dark-colored. The very transparent, amber-colored pitch often used on canoes made for sale, had too much resin in it and was brittle and worthless.

In making pitch, the Maine Indians were almost superstitious about using a joint of old stove funnel, flattened and bent like a dish: this was their invariable pitch-kettle. Perhaps one reason for this was that it had no “ears”, a kettle with ears for attaching a bail being unsuitable for pitch-making. Pitch always catches fire from the drip on the sides of the kettle and the blaze can be put out only by smothering it; for which reason, while pitching a canoe, a paddle was always kept at hand to cover the pitch-kettle when afire.

 In pitching a canoe, it was always bottom side up and well dried out before the seams were “run” with a stick dipped in hot pitch. The stick should hold enough pitch to cover the whole seam at one operation. Immediately after the pitch was put on, the seam had to be “shaped” by smoothing it down by the hands, first dipped in cold water. Both hands were used that the seam might crown a little over the center where the pitch needed to be thickest. The seams at bow and stern were done a little differently from the others. In addition to the usual pitching, “bow cloths” had to be applied. These were strips of cotton cloth, cut the length required and tapered a trifle so as to be narrowest at the upper end as the canoe lay overturned for pitching. The cloth ready, the pitch hot, and two firebrands at hand…preferably flat sticks…blown to a coal but not blazing, the seam was first daubed with pitch and the firebrands, one in each hand, were run down each side of the seam, which was immediately smoothed by wet hands and the cloth laid on quickly and smoothly pressed down closely on each side of the seam until the pitch oozes through it. If a canoe leaked, the pitch was renewed in the same fashion. If a hole had been made in the bark, it was repaired by working a new piece of bark under the edges of the tear and pegging the seam, after which it was pitched. A birch canoe was a fragile boat, in constant need of care; when traveling, it was customary every day to look over the canoe and pitch it, if any crack or leaking “eye” in the bark was found, even though it had not suffered serious injury.

In 1863, a good second-hand canoe could be bought of the Indians for from five to ten dollars; a new one cost about fifteen; but a new one of a large size and exceptionally well made might bring twenty-five dollars. A canoe bark was worth from three to five dollars and good paddles sold at from fifty to seventy-five cents.*

*Text adaptations: The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, 1932

The Finished Canoe

Reflections

Bed of Lilly-pads

Wabanaki-style canoe gracing the pristine northern waters

 

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Wabanaki-style canoe built in 2013

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Paddle hard Annie

6 Responses “Wabanaki Birch Barks” →
  1. INcredible! Just incredible.

    Reply

  2. Susan Keyser

    February 4, 2014

    I am in awe! I host an annual summer camp (in Oregon) for my grandchildren, and this year our theme will be the art and history of canoe building. I was searching for related kids’ craft ideas and came across your website–wish you lived closer! Your canoes are stunning!

    Reply

  3. Keith (Longhunter) Lothrop

    April 28, 2014

    OMG! My grandfather told me that he had seen some birch bark canoes when ha was a boy, but with the passing of so many of our elders I never thought I would.
    Thank you!

    Reply

  4. Dan Navarra

    July 24, 2015

    Spectacular, congratulations on your successful completion of this beautiful canoe!

    Reply
  5. amazing . . . thank you.

    Reply

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