In a 2014 TV series, a celebrity panel named the birchbark canoe as number 20 on a list of the 50 Greatest Canadian Inventions.
Of course the canoe wasn’t invented by Canadians at all; it had already been in use for centuries before Indigenous people discovered Europeans building forts on the seacoasts and pondering how to make their way inland.
Steve Rainville of Cold Lake builds bark canoes as a hobby. His materials and techniques are true to those used by First Nations people for thousands of years. But what was once a necessary skill for societies that lived on the land and travelled the great rivers is now being practiced by only a few Indigenous and non-Indigenous crafters.
The whole process starts in the bush. Everything used in the canoe comes from the forest—there’s not a metal piece in the entire construction.
“It’s all wood, all natural materials that I’ve either collected in the bush or got friends to collect in the bush for me,” Rainville said. “The main frame—the sheathing and the ribs—is all eastern white cedar. It’s lightweight, rot-resistant, and easy to work with.”
The gunwales, which are the rails along the sides of the canoe, are spruce; the thwarts or cross-pieces are birch.
But the key is the birchbark hull.
Rainville says finding a suitable tree can be a challenge. It needs to be thick enough to give a nice wide roll of bark; and it needs to be tall enough that the canoe builder can find a suitable length that is clear of knots and branches. And the bark needs to be of a certain quality—an eighth to a quarter inch thick, with the layers holding together. Sometimes, he says, the bark is “delaminating” and not good for a canoe.
“It is hard. You have to walk quite a few miles and then it’s not in every forest,” he said. “If I’m driving around, quadding or hiking or anything, I’m always looking for spots.
“You develop an eye for it. Your average person that’s not looking for it wouldn’t necessarily notice it.”
Construction begins with the bark on the ground, folded around a crude wood frame into a roughly canoe-shaped envelope. The sheathing or planking gives the hull its durability, and the ribs maintain shape and strength.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the boat is the way it’s held together. Rainville pulls up long strands of spruce root, boils them, and splits them down the middle to form a kind of cord that’s suitable for stitching the bark and lashing the wood pieces to it. A canoe will use 400 to 500 feet of spruce root.
The seams are sealed with spruce gum. The gum becomes brittle when it dries, so the addition of some oil or fat keeps it from cracking and leaking as it ages. Like First Nations boat builders before him, Rainville uses bear grease (though he says commercial fats like lard will work).
He has built four canoes so far: three birch and one spruce bark. The spruce, he says, is not as durable and was made by First Nations people when they needed a canoe to last for a summer or two.
And while he’d love to keep every canoe he makes, Rainville says he just doesn’t have the space. He paddles them to test their water-worthiness, then offers them for sale. (The canoe pictured here is offered on Kijiji for $6,500).
They are suitable for display, and Rainville has no objection if someone wants a canoe for a museum or private collection. But he says he builds them to be used.
“I build them as they’re supposed to be. They’re canoes, they’re supposed to be paddled and they’re supposed to be used. But either/or… they’re nice canoes.”