The author and wilderness advocate Sigurd Olson once wrote, “When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.”
And what have canoes known? Few means of transportation throughout history have been used for more purposes yet retained their original, simple, and elegant design. A uniquely American resource used by many Native American tribes, the narrow, fast, shallow-draft boats carried up to a dozen people and served large lakes as well as shallow, rapids-filled rivers and streams. They were used for hunting, trapping, and fishing, collecting wild rice and other foods, and finding and fighting rivals.
The canoe found its apogee in birch bark and wood-and-canvas forms and it evolved to fit the tribes’ needs and the materials available; birch forests stretched from the Northeast through the Upper Mississippi Valley, and where the birch trees ran out in regions west of the Mississippi to the Pacific, natives built dugout canoes made of cedar and spruce.
Much of what we know about native designs comes from an innovative pioneer named Edwin Tappan Adney. An artist, photographer, and writer, Adney traveled throughout Canada, the Alaskan territory, and the northern United States in the late 19th century, interviewing and photographing Native Americans. Perhaps more significantly, he hand-built more than 100 models of birch-bark canoes, many of which are now in the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.
French Voyageurs appropriated native bark design for freight hauling as they exploited the northern wilderness. Their expeditions in large fur-trade canoes would depart eastern Canada and return in a year or so with beaver pelts for the hat trade of Europe. Scots-Irish, English, and Yankee traders followed the French, but the newcomers could not improve upon the native canoe. Frequent portaging made weight of primary importance, and no craft moved more quickly or easily against a current until the introduction of the steamboat.
Birch bark was considered superior to elm bark, but by the mid 1800s builders were leaving bark boats behind to experiment with thicker wooden ribs and planks that tended to leak badly
until a canvas covering was added. And there were doubters: “Birch will never be replaced by canvas, for it bends in prettier forms,” opined the New York Sun in 1883.
The newspaper was wrong. By the late 19th century, canoes built with wooden ribs, planks, and nails began to replace bark boats. Market hunters and guides who settled the land around the Great Lakes and Northeast employed canoes of wood or wood-and-canvas as work vehicles. A few people began to use them for pleasure. Henry David Thoreau, who frequently explored the rivers near his New England home, wrote in 1857, “Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe.”
By the turn of the 20th century, the hardy tool of the trapper was more likely to be a recreational vehicle enjoyed by thousands, from novice to expert. The American Canoe Association was founded at Lake George, N.Y., in 1880, and local canoe clubs bobbed up all over. The canoe was acquiring an aura beyond mere transportation: “In addition to its peculiarities of model, every canoe has its own moral character,” wrote an author in Harper’s.
Builders such as E.H. Gerrish, E.M. White, and B.N. Morris, and companies such as Chestnut, Peterborough, and Old Town primed the market with mass-produced products, four-color catalogs, and regular model changes. Theodore Roosevelt purchased two Chestnut canoes for his ill-fated trip through the Amazon region in 1913-1914. Old Town, Maine, and Peterborough, Ontario, became headquarters for the wood-and-canvas style, in which strips of wood—usually cedar—are bent around a frame; a canvas covering is stretched around the hull, tacked in place and painted.
The sense of adventure represented by Thoreau and Roosevelt was on the minds of Minnesota high-school graduates Arnold Eric Sevareid and Walter Port in 1930. Port and Sevareid, the latter several years from fame as a CBS News correspondent, completed an amazing 2,250-mile journey by canoe from the Twin Cities to York Factory on Hudson Bay. At Winnipeg, they were guests of Sam Southern at the Canoe Club. “Sam showed us all the different types of canoes and paddles, which made our equipment look sick, although we refused to admit it. There were war
canoes, which contain fourteen men, Peterboroughs, Sunnysides, Old Townes [sic], like ours, and Chestnut freighters. One little canoe was only 12 feet long, a one-man trapper or prospector boat and had to be paddled from the middle,” Sevareid wrote in Canoeing With the Cree, his account of the trip.
Upon their return to Minneapolis, Sevareid wrote, “It was as though we had suddenly become men and were no longer boys.”
York Factory, cold, windswept, and barren as it is, has housed plenty of canoes over the years; the Canadians have placed the canoe near the center of the nation’s identity. In 1936, when canoe racing became an official Olympic sport, Canadian Frank Amyot was among the first gold medal winners. In 1981, at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s gift was a cedar-strip canoe hand-built in Ontario.
During World War II, with the advent of materials used in airplane design, Grumman Aircraft hastened the decline of wood-and-canvas models with cheaper, easier-to-make stamped-aluminum canoes. Many of the old-line companies, such as Chestnut, eventually went out of business, especially after fiberglass began to crowd the marketplace in the 1970s. Kevlar, the material used in body armor, was invented in 1965 and became another popular lightweight canoe material. By 2009 the Outdoor Research Foundation reported that more than 10 million Americans canoed.
Today large manufacturers specializing in fiberglass, Kevlar, plastic, and carbon fiber include Old Town, Wenonah, and Mad River. A subculture of strip boat (wood covered with fiberglass) and wood-and-canvas building still exists, and there are a few craftspeople still producing birch bark canoes, including men such as Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, N.H., who was made well-known by John McPhee’s book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe.
To be sure, there are other human-powered boats, but they do not carry the same special appeal as canoes. Rowboats, guide boats, and dories are propelled with pinned or locked oars, not paddles; kayaks are paddled, but with double-bladed instruments and their decks are closed. And nature writers do not compose lyrically of the rowboat. As Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow wrote in “The Song of Hiawatha”: “I a light canoe will build me.”
Mark Neuzil is an avid outdoorsman and professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. He writes frequently about environmental issues.