Tuesday June 26th was National Canoe Day….a day to celebrate the culture of the canoe. As I write this a birch bark canoe is being completed at Curve Lake First Nation by Chuck Commanda….perhaps more birch bark is being gathered in Wahnapitae First Nation for the two canoe being built there, beginning next week, led by yours truly….while at Shawanaga First Nation another canoe will soon be built by Kevin Finney….other birch bark canoes are planned for later this summer…..perhaps we will soon have a complete fleet of bark canoes. Then we can truly go over to the BARK SIDE!!!!
The Spirit of the Birch Bark Canoe
To fully understand and appreciate the birch bark canoe, you have to fully understand the Indigenous culture because that’s how it developed.
It’s only been in the last 200 years or so that we developed the canoe using different construction techniques and materials. But in many eyes, those newer techniques will never match the resonance and spirit of the birch bark canoe.
A birch bark canoe is harvested by hand in the forest. It comes from living trees and materials harvested only after asemaa (tobacco) has been offered and a prayer has been said. The canoe is formed by hand, keeping good thoughts in mind. When you go through all the harvesting and construction of the canoe with that type of approach, something magical happens.
But as with all canoes, a birch bark canoe is meant to be used….not merely hung from a ceiling….or a wall….or stuck in a museum. This is not to say that a bark canoe is not a work of art. But that doesn’t mean they should lose their function and become untouchable art. You should be able to put the canoe in the water and use it….to paddle it. A birch bark canoe should be a work of art that is functional.
Form will follow function, and be linked to available natural materials. From the birch tree will come the bark; from the spruce, pliant roots; from the cedar, the ribs, planking and gunwales; and from a variety of natural sources, the sealing pitch. A typical birch bark canoe consists of selected high grade birch bark, over 35 hand-split cedar ribs, 50 wafer-thin cedar sheathing, full-length gunwales and pegged caps, deck ends, birch thwarts, about 500 feet of spruce root lacing, and two quarts of spruce gum/bear fat waterproofing. Depending on the materials used, a 14-foot canoe can take between 30 and 50 hours to complete. This time commitment requires dedication. A birch bark canoe is inherently beautiful. The canoe connects us not only to past cultures but reminds us of the importance of nature in our lives. Balance. Harmony. Grace.
A bark canoe is a living being….made from natural materials….all of which is alive….from the bark of a living birch tree….to the green wood of the cedar used for ribs and sheathing….to the roots of the spruce tree that help hold the canoe together….and the gum of the spruce that helps seal it. All of these are alive….as is the birch bark canoe itself. The spirit of the bark canoe is very much alive.