Kayak-Form Birch Bark Canoe
1 in stock
During the summer of 2019, master birch-bark canoe builder Randy Brown taught a Building a Kayak-Form Birch Bark Canoe class. The students worked together as a group to build a 20′ Athabascan kayak-form birch bark canoe. This is the canoe that is now for sale.
Kayak-Form birch bark canoes were built by Native people in northwest North America, including those living along the Yukon River drainage in Alaska. The style is characterized as having a narrow, flat bottom, hard chines, and flaring sides. It has a fixed bottom frame, widely spaced narrow ribs, and partial sheathing along the sides. As such, it does not require bark as wide as required for those built in the northeast and Great Lakes regions, which had a similar appearance to the modern wood and canvas canoes. The Kayak-Form canoe was ideal in form and function for the northwest environment, where the rivers were large and swift, and where the birch trees didn’t grow as consistently large as in the east.
The class built a Kayak-Form birch bark canoe as described by Tappan Adney and Howard Chapelle in their classic book on “The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America”. This book was originally published in 1964 by the Smithsonian Institution Press and reprinted in 1983. It is a great resource on the diversity of canoe building styles across North America, and may be the only one that details the Kayak-Form canoe. “The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America” is available on-line for those who may be interested.
The class built a full-size canoe around 20 feet long. They began by fitting and shaping the wood frame pieces used for the gunnels, thwarts, bottom frame, sheathing, ribs, stem and stern pieces, and flooring. These pieces were made from white spruce, available as boards or quarter sections requiring shaping, splitting, fitting, steaming, and bending. These pieces were made into their final shape with the use of draw knives, spoke shaves, and shaving horses. The class used modern hand tools but built the canoe with the same natural materials that were used in the past.
After the wood pieces were ready, they prepared the building bed, assembled construction materials, collected spruce roots for sewing the canoe together, and gathered spruce pitch to seal the seams. The building bed was a flat, level piece of ground where the canoe was assembled. Construction materials included stakes to hold the bark in position, clamps to squeeze the gunnels tight around the top edge of the bark in preparation for sewing, heavy stones to weight the bottom frame during construction, and other miscellaneous items. Collecting spruce roots and pitch required the group to wander through a large spruce woods digging roots from under moss and chipping dried pitch bubbles from cracks.
Once the wood pieces and building bed were ready, they harvested the birch bark and assembled it with the gunnels into the final shape on the building bed. Birch bark is very flexible right after it comes off the tree and becomes progressively more difficult to work with as it dries. As a result, there is strong incentive to establish the sharp bends along the chines and clamp the top edges between the gunnels immediately after the bark is harvested. The shape and symmetry of the canoe is determined during this step. Once they were satisfied with the shape, they started sewing the canoe together with the spruce roots. The gunnels must be sewed to the bark first, then the various panels of bark will be sewed together along vertical and horizontal seams. Finally, the bark was closed around the stem and stern pieces.
Once the sewing was complete – gunnels sewn in place, all horizontal and vertical bark seams bound, and the bark fixed to the stem and stern pieces – the canoe was ready to have the ribs pounded into place. The ribs were wedged between the inwale and the bottom frame with a mallet, forcing them into vertical position and drawing the bark tight. This process transforms the canoe into final form and makes it moveable and rigid. Bark decks were added to the fore and aft regions of the canoe and the flooring planks will be set in place over the ribs, held in place with spare rib pieces. At this point the canoe was turned over and hot spruce pitch applied to the seams and the boat will be ready for use. They launched the canoe in the Chena River at Pioneer Park and everyone had an opportunity to paddle it around.
In 2013 Randy held a similar class for The Folk School. The class built an 18′ canoe that is now on display at the Morris Thompson Center downtown. Click here to view a photo documentary of that class.
And now this unique canoe can be yours! Local pickup only.