Birchbark Canoe



For Indigenous peoples of early Canada, travel by water was the quickest and most common means of transportation. There were no wheeled vehicles, and there weren’t any horses until the middle of the 18th century. Indigenous groups hunted and travelled on foot and, depending on the season, used sleds, toboggans and different kinds of boats. Until the arrival of horses, they had to carry their belongings on their backs or load them onto canoes or dog-drawn travois.

There were several kinds of boats that Indigenous peoples used when travelling on Canada’s waterways – dugout canoes, bull boats, kayaks (Inuit), log rafts and bark canoes. None of these were as easy to build and operate, or as speedy, or as able to withstand heavy loads as was the bark canoe.

Bark canoes were quilted and used in areas where there was an abundant growth of trees whose bark could be used. Birchbark was the most popular. Its growth was found in eastern Canada, up through the forested areas of the Prairies and territories, and into the Cordillera region of British Columbia. Due to the scarcity of birch in some areas, a few tribes used elm or pine bark instead. Canoes made from these barks were not as good. They did not last as long as birch bark. The bark off of a pine tree had to be smoothened first, and this meant extra work for the builders. Canoes built by the Algonkian people of eastern Canada were considered to be the finest in terms of construction, strength and ease of handling. Modern factory-built canoes still follow a similar pattern.

A canoe had to be sturdy enough to bear heavy loads, yet light enough for one man to carry when portaging. The materials and methods used in building canoes were much the same everywhere. Differences were found in size, in the amount of curve at each end, and in general appearance. It was always possible to identify a canoe as belonging to a particular language family. The various designs were not only for identification purposes. The different makes canoes were also to make them better suited to the waters on which they were used. There were canoes for travel on open water, on rivers and streams, through rapids, in shallow and in deep waters.

After the arrival of Europeans, they quickly realized the importance of canoes in the discovery and development of new land and resources. The fur trade could not have grown so rapidly, nor could explorers such as Sir Alexander MacKenzie have been able to travel so far if it had not been for the canoe and the Indigenous people who guided their travels. The shorter routes along waterways made possible the transporting of men, furs, trade goods and supplies from one place to another.

Birchbark canoe making was once a prevalent task for the Indigenous people who used them. Today, it is becoming a lost art as people prefer to purchase factory-built canoes made from wood or aluminum.

Assembly Instructions


Use the two (2) parts of sinew, one for each end,  and string through the bottom of the canoe, pulling it through, so the ends meet to the same length.

Tie one knot at the bottom corner of the hull and pull to a snug fit, with the same length of sinew on both sides.

Start lacing into the eight (8) holes intertwining over and around each other– from the opposite entrance of the holes, until you reach the last 8th hole– then tie 3 knots for a secure hold and cut off lace (to a snug fit).

Continue this until you reach the ends of the canoe hull and do the same to the other end.

Next, put on the rims (gunwales) (2 curved sticks for each side) for reinforcement of the structure and then use a paper clamp or clip on in the middle to make assembly easier.

Using the sinew again, lace through the end hole of the side rim and pull through till you match the length of your sinew together, then tie one knot.

Then start lacing into the holes intertwining over and around each other from the opposite entrance of holes till the end of the last hole, then tie three (3) knots for a secure hold and cut off the lace.

For the last step of the project, slide in the small wood crosspiece-seat in the middle of the canoe.



Curriculum Outcome

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