National Canoe Day

Today is National Canoe Day….a day to celebrate the culture of the canoe.

First welcome 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.

Some other thoughts on canoes:

A Recipe For Success:


An elegant accompaniment to fish.

Make ahead of time for relaxed visit with friends.

51 board feet of peeled and deveined eastern white cedar

10 board feet of combined ash, black cherry, and maple

2600 brass tacks

18 feet of 10 weight canvas

¾ gallon of oil base filler

3 quarts of varnish

2 quarts of paint

Assortment of beer to taste (chilled if possible)

Using a large shop, prepare all ingredients the night before. Early the next day preheat element to high heat. Bring an adequate quantity of water in a large pot to a tumbling boil. Steam ribs until al dente (flexible) and bend immediately while still tender. Let stand at room temperature to blend flavors until cool. Chop cleaned white parts of planking into long thin slices, (smaller pieces will fall to ground). Add bulk of brass tacks and planks at random until ribs disappear (careful not to tenderize planking with pounding of tacks). When ingredients become solid remove from mold and set aside. Prepare gunwales and decks by chopping fresh hardwoods. Snip to length and desired shape, introducing slowly for best results. Wrap with canvas skin; skewer with tacks along edges, leave middle open. Add both caned seats and center thwart until balanced. Inlay decks for garnish.

Use the same basic recipe for fifteen and seventeen footers.

Quantities will vary including concentration of beer.

Well before serving time, press filler firmly onto bottom side of prepared carcass to seal in natural juices and let marinate. Heat entire hull at medium to high sun for about three weeks, covering occasionally, until fully baked. From a separate pot, baste inside with all-purpose varnish to glaze ribs, careful not to drip, and let harden. Repeat occasionally. Meanwhile, whisk and and gently combine, until mixed but not runny, an assortment of fresh paint to color, stirring occasionally as you serve, and dressing the outside lightly from end to end. The condiments blend even better if allowed to stand for several hours until sticky topping hardens. (Careful not to undercook, but do not let baking temperature bubble surface.) Repeat spreading of additional layers on outer crust and again set aside and let stand until hard. Cover and store in a safe spot until needed. Present whole at room temperature, arranged attractively on an adequate bed of water. If desired, garnish with cherry paddles as a starter. Bon voyage. Serves 2 to 3. (Note: Depending on degree of festivities, presentation may be turned into a dip.) – Don Standfield, from Stories From The Bow Seat: The Wisdom & Waggery of Canoe Tripping by Don Standfield and Liz Lundell.

“First, the canoe connects us to Ma-ka-ina, Mother Earth, from which we came and to which we must all return. Councils of those who were here before us revered the earth and also the wind, the rain, and the sun – all essential to life. It was from that remarkable blending of forces that mankind was allowed to create the canoe and its several kindred forms.

From the birch tree, came 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.

In other habitats, great trees became dugout canoes while, in treeless areas, skin, bone and sinew were ingeniously fused into kayaks. Form followed function, and manufacture was linked to available materials. Even the modern canoe, although several steps away from the first, is still a product of the earth. We have a great debt to those who experienced the land before us. No wonder that, in many parts of the world, the people thank the land for allowing its spirit to be transferred to the canoe.

Hand-propelled watercraft still allow us to pursue the elemental quest for tranquility, beauty, peace, freedom and cleaness. It is good to be conveyed quietly, gracefully, to natural rhythms….

The canoe especially connects us to rivers – timeless pathways of the wilderness. Wave after wave of users have passed by. Gentle rains falling onto a paddler evaporate skyward to form clouds and then to descend on a fellow traveller, perhaps in another era. Like wise, our waterways contain something of the substance of our ancestors. The canoe connects us to the spirit of these people who walk beside us as we glide silently along riverine trails.” – Kirk Wipper, in foreword to Canexus (also published as “Connections” in Stories From The Bow Seat: The Wisdom And Waggery Of Canoe Tripping by Don Standfield and Liz Lundell, p. 15)

A true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping. – Pierre Berton

Anyone can make love in a canoe, it’s a Canadian who knows enough to take out the centre thwart! – Philip Chester

There is a sense of timelessness and tranquility that goes with canoeing. These feelings come from fitting in with history, tapping a connection to our beginnings in the here and-now and having a concern to preserve the future integrity of this activity. So past, present and future meet…. – Bob Henderson, Reflections Of A Bannock Baker from Canexus.

Canoeing more or less defines who I am. Patched boats in the backyard affirm soul truths. My home, Canada, is not an abstraction; it is kindred canoe spirits and a constellation of sun-alive, star-washed campsites, linked by rivers, lakes, and ornery portages; scapes of the heart, rekindled by sensations that linger long after the pain is gone. When I meet someone, I wonder what they would be like on a trip. – James Raffan

For the canoe is as much a part of the Canadian landscape as the trees, the rocks, the mountains, the rivers – and even the highways heading for essential escape. – Roy MacGregor, author and Globe and Mail Columnist

We are Canadians who took the time and hard work to feel the history in the stroke of our paddles and blisters in our boots. – Michael Peake

In Canada, whether or not we have much to do with canoes proper, the canoe is simply inside us. — Roger MacGregor

Even long ago there were some men who could not make all the things that were needed. In each camp there were only a few who could make everything. The hardest thing to build was the canoe. The man who could make a canoe was very happy because the people depended on it so much. – John Kawapit Eastern Cree Great Whale River, Quebec

The canoe is the most practical, efficient and satisfying way to travel through wild country, particularly on the Canadian Shield, where you can go almost anywhere. I think of that country every day of my life. One of the things I like best about canoe travel is that you are completely self-reliant. There is no dependence on mechanical devices. It is utterly simple. For me, the canoe means complete freedom – the ultimate escape. – Alex Hall

I have always had a desire to explore out-of-way places. Together, the canoe and this country’s many waterways provide the ideal combination. When travelling by canoe you seem to blend in rather than being an intrusion on your surroundings. – John B. Hughes

Ultimately, a paddling trip simplifies life. – Wendy Grater

Canoeing is the best way to become intimate with the land. You can cover so much more territory in a canoe. You don’t need to concentrate on your feet, thereby allowing your eyes to soak up the landscape around you. Travel by canoe is more about the journey than the destination. – Rolf Kraiker

Today, most Canadian canoeing is recreational. Many of us would assert that it is usually meaningful, aesthetically fulfilling and ecologically sensitive recreational canoeing. Admittedly, these modifiers are not present in the highly competitive, highly structured and technically oriented canoe racing sports which tend not to take place in a wilderness environment. But with these large exceptions, canoeing, certainly canoe tripping and lake water canoe cruising, tends to involve in varying degrees a quest for wilderness or at least semi-wilderness. It also involves a search for high adventure or natural tranquility or both. These activities are an integral part of Canadian culture. Bill Mason asserts that the canoe is “the most beautiful work of human beings, the most functional yet aesthetically pleasing object ever created,” and that paddling a canoe is “an art” not a technical achievement. That certainly means culture. – Bruce Hodgins, from Canexus, p.46

It’s pretty hard for me to go more than a few days without getting a paddle wet somewhere. For me, that stepping into the canoe and pushing off is a very special spiritual and physical experience. Bill Mason had it right: it’s like walking on water. It transports you to another way of being, another way of feeling – it restores my soul. – David Finch

In the early morning light, just as the world seems to wake up and come alive, the canoe glides over the glass like lake. The beautiful wood canvas hull easily slices through the lake’s surface, water slipping aside almost as if willed, forming undulating wavelets in its wake. Above the ripples, the paddle hovers momentarily like a dragonfly, before dipping down to break the intricate pattern formed. The canoeist seems lost in the moment.

On the wing over the watery expanse an eagle soars, in synchronicity with the man’s journey; as the paddler shifts to miss a rock, the raptor slows to test the wind. The large bird lazily wheels across the horizon, almost touching the rays of the rising sun. Yet his flight seems to keep pace with the canoe below. The eagle rides the air currents while the canoe dances over those of the lake’s surface. As the paddle flashes in the early morning sunlight, dipping once again into the water, the eagle dives to capture his breakfast, a silvery trout. Then, only briefly, do both break the mirror reflecting their seemingly choreographed display. While they never quite meet except for that, it doesn’t stop the dance. One on water, the other in the air, they are partners, each moving rhythmically over a northern vista of rocks and trees and water.

Occasionally, such magical moments happen out on the water. For the canoeist, the lakes and rivers become more than mere passageways. Waterways become vantage points to observe all that is around, carrying a message of life while still being the very lifeblood of Mother Earth herself. All at once, the paddler is both vessel and prophet, both audience and actor, just by merely venturing out on the water. Paddling these liquid highways takes the canoeist and canoe on a wonderful magical mystery tour, blending into the surrounding natural world.

The paddler is blessed to be able to join in the dance around him for awhile. While he watched, the large bird of prey flew off, likely to share his meal of fresh fish with his young brood nesting in a nearby lofty pine. Eventually the canoe glides on. A new dance may soon begin anew. – Mike Ormsby

If I get out and paddle my canoe, I feel freedom. That much I’ve stated here before. But freedom from what????? Certainly freedom from stress. Possibly freedom of expression in that I am able to express myself in a way that is definitely free….not only in cost, but in freedom of spirit and emotion. Canoeing is physically freeing too.

Something about gliding on water….going with the flow….having a way to get into spots on the water that no other water craft can so easily….sometimes just drifting along….others moving with purpose and direction (such as when paddling from point A to point B and even in a certain time frame). But no matter how you travel in a canoe, there is part of you that just naturally slows down….finds a natural “groove” at least….a rhythm….and as has been pointed out often (here and otherwise), eventually you become one with your canoe. It might take some practice….learning how to paddle your canoe efficiently and properly….but with time, you do become in “sync” with your canoe….just as it becomes one with the surroundings….blending in so to speak.

So that’s part of this freedom….travelling under your own power in a water craft….that is so well suited to such travel. And you don’t even need music to make your canoe dance. Maybe just the song of your paddle. But the harmony that you and your canoe can form is truly beautiful music. If you’re fortunate enough to become proficient, your paddling seems almost effortless….too easy in fact. But even for those of us without such skill, we can still paddle our own canoe very freely….still find a way to free ourselves….just being on the water is a way to feel free.

I believe we have an inherent part of us that is in tune with water….the human body is largely water….so we are all part water….and consequently, water is part of us….add in a canoe that is so well suited to being on the water, being part of the water, and you have an interesting equation….and there is a very real “flow” to it. Maybe something as simple as:


Paddles up until later then. – Mike Ormsby

(NOTE: Please excuse the number of photos below….these include first bark canoe I built with me paddling it in several shots….and several with my favourite green wood canvas canoe including an overhead shot of us dancing on the water together.)

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