Tuesday, 13 November 2012


Written by Martin Hunter who lived and worked in the Nipigon area over a hundred years ago, and wrote about it.
From the Nipigon Historical Museum Archives

" I think from my personal care and supervision of Birch Bark canoes for thirty years that I am qualified to give advice as to wintering them successfully."

"I may say at the outset that the larger the canoe the more danger there is of the bark splitting by contraction from frost. A canoe of 12 or 15 feet, providing it has been in use a season and pretty well loaded at times requires no further precaution than to see it is thoroughly dry at the end of service and placed under cover mouth down, over a couple of beams in a hay loft is as good a place as can be got."

"A new canoe, however, of this size or one that has been little used, should have all the timbers well slacked back except the first three or four in the ends which are not necessary to touch. The ribs should be so slack that they almost tumble out. The best way to loosen them is with a piece of three-quarter inch board, four inches broad, and a couple feet long. The upper part can be edged off to accommodate the hand and the lower end left perfectly square and flat. This you guide along the edge of the rib and strike with a hammer or wooden mallet, being careful not to knock too hard or too frequently in one place."

"Commence by the timber in the middle immediately aft, or forward, of the middle bar, and work towards both ends of the craft doing two or three at each side of the centre as you go along."

"Begin your first blow where the timber bulges first from the almost flat bottom and slacken up to within six inches of the gunwale and the same at the other side."

"It may not be out of place while on the question of Birch Bark canoes to instruct the reader as to the proper way to bind or tighten his craft, as any violent treatment of the bark in the spring after its remaining in a dead, unelastic state all winter would surely lead to regrettable damage."

"First, don't be in too much of a hurry to put the canoe into commission in the spring unless you are to give it immediate use. Often in the month of April we have some very cold nights and a canoe newly bound tight and not used would surely rend."

"A favourable day in May might be chosen, preferably a day with warm showers and intermittent hot sunshine. Put the canoe out of doors, bottom up and let it undergo this wetting and drying process for half a day. The bark will then be soft and elastic. Now place her on a soft level sward or a couple of horse blankets on the barn floor, and reverse the order of knocking the timbers from what was done last autumn, i.e., commence at each END  working towards the middle and try not to hurry matters. Time taken in the hammering process is time well spent."

"The gum on the seams may have become cracked either from the frost or during the binding and extension of the bark. In such a case when your canoe is finished and tight-bound from end to end, turn her over and with a hot poker, or some other piece of heated iron, pass gently over the gum, rubbing the softened pitch with a wet hand behind the iron's passage."

"Here again two can do better work than one, one man manipulating the hot iron while the other follows smoothing the soft gum into the cracks."

"At some of the inland posts where canoe transport is carried on, as many as twenty or thirty canoes of different sizes at in use from a single man's hunting canoe of twelve feet long, up to bi transport ones of thirty feet long, the latter carrying a load of fifty-five hundred pound dead weight, a crew of seven men and provisions for the same for a couple of weeks, besides tent poles, cooking utensils and the personal dunnage of the men. And the large and useful vessel is made of Birch Bark, cedar lining and ribs, the only tools required in the construction are a crooked knife, awl and axe."

"The safest way we found to winter all canoes longer than eighteen feet, was to slacken the timbers moderately and winter them mouth up on a prepared sandy or soil bed, with a gradient of a few inches in forty."

"Each canoe as it was placed in position and the ribs slackened had some of the gum knocked off the lower end...this provided a leak or outflow for the melting snow in spring. Opposite each bar of the canoe on both sides, stakes were driven into the ground at such an angle that the end would just catch and engage itself under the gunwale. This kept the canoe in true shape and prevented her opening out from the pressure of winter snows for be it understood where they were placed at the end of the season of navigation, they remained until the next May, open to wind, snow and rain, and a better or safer way could not be found after years of trying different modes."

"It must further be explained that at each post there was a commodious building especially for the storage of canoes, but this was only used in summer after the canoes were taken from their winter quarters."

"We always had two or three new transport canoes on hand in case of loss in a rapid or some other accident, these were put into the canoe barn fresh from the builder's hands, without gum and the ribs only partially driven, and they remained there over winter suspended on poles, or beams, until required for use."

"Before the final binding and gumming the bark was subjected to liberal doses of hot water to soften it up, thus imparting a safe elasticity to ensure it from breaking."

"The first year a transport canoe was put into commission her work was to carry out to the frontier the valuable packs of pelteries, and return laden with dry goods, guns, ammunition, etc., thereby insuring their safety from the newness and staunchness of the vessel that carried them."

"Following this she transported for a couple of years flour, pork, lard, shot, hardware and other coarse portions of the trading outfit. The rest of her life was local trips or use about the post loading hay or wood to the establishment."

"Each canoe had a name or number and record of when first used, thus we knew the age of each craft and the work it had done."

"As one of the secrets of having a water tight canoe is in the gumming thereof and properly prepared gum, I would refer the reader to an article in "Recreation" published in New York, January, 1906, entitled "Canoe Gum" in which he will find valuable information regarding the kind of gum to use and the process of preparation."

End of article

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