A Folk School class, taught by Randy Brown, recently built a 20 foot long birch bark canoe over nine days, starting at the end of June through the first week of July. During this time period there was a relatively constant flow of people streaming though Pioneer Park. Many of these people stopped by to examine the work and ask questions about the canoe and the materials being used. There were children and adults, some local and some from other states and countries. They were able to see how roots were used and to handle pieces of the thick bark
Birch bark canoes were essential to the early people in Alaska and northwest Canada, just like they were farther east in North America. However, birch bark canoes in Alaska were constructed somewhat differently, probably because of the different types of trees and materials that were available here compared to farther east. Birch bark canoes in Alaska retain a narrow bottom frame held down by a series of widely spaced ribs. This results in a flat bottom with hard chines and sides that slope out towards the gunnels. Tappan Adney, a birch bark canoe fanatic who documented many different building techniques in North America during the late 1800s and early 1900s, called this classic canoe profile the “kayak-form” birch bark canoe.
Randy Brown led the class of five builders (he led a similar birch bark canoe class in 2013). The five students worked diligently each day using classic hand tool methods to shape and fit white spruce gunnel pieces, thwarts, and the bottom frame. They split five foot sections of green spruce logs for rib material. They learned how to use draw knives and spoke shaves with a shaving horse to shape, thin, and corner all the wood pieces. They also collected spruce roots and pealed and split them for lashing and sewing material.
Once all the wood components were ready, the group traveled to the woods to collect large sheets of birch bark and compiled them on the building bed, where all the pieces would be held in place for sewing. They steamed and bent the ribs and eventually wedged them up under the inwales and pounded them into place, stretching the bark tight. They sealed the seams with spruce pitch, and paddled the canoe in the Chena River. Several other folks who had gathered to watch took a turn as well.
Although the class used modern hand tools in the building process, the materials in the completed canoe are the same as they were when built by the people who lived here long ago.