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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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17th Century

The Canoe

Travel through the interior of Canada would have been impossible without the canoe, a watercraft perfectly suited to the rivers and lakes of North America. Native people in Canada had always used canoes, and it did not take long for European newcomers to recognize the value of these craft. As Champlain wrote: "In their canoes the Indians can go without restraint, and quickly, everywhere, in the small as well as the large rivers. So that by using canoes as the Indians do, it will be possible to see all there is."

Native canoes at the scene of the battle between the Huron and French and the Iroquois

In the woodlands of eastern and northern Canada, canoes were made of birch bark, strong, but light. One person could carry a small bark canoe around the many rapids and waterfalls that blocked the interior rivers.

Builders peeled the bark from the birch trees in long sheets that were then sewn together and attached to a cedar frame. Tree roots were used as thread and the seams between the bark sheets were sealed with spruce or pine resin. One drawback to the bark canoe was its fragility; it didn't take much of a bump against a sharp rock to burst a hole in the side or bottom. Luckily, it was also easily mended. Paddlers always carried with them a bundle of fresh bark and some resin to patch the holes.

Image: Voyageur boat and Chippewa canoe

Canoes came in different shapes and sizes. The bark canoes made by Native people for getting around in the woods were quite small and could be carried on the shoulders of a single paddler. Fur traders and explorers required larger canoes for carrying quantities of furs and other cargo. The largest were called canots du maître. These giants were up to twelve metres long, carried 2 200 kilograms of cargo and required a crew of six to twelve voyageurs to paddle them. They were used to ply the routes between Montreal and the head of Lake Superior. In the wooded fur country beyond the Great Lakes, the canot du maître was too big to wrestle around the portages, so traders used the smaller canot du nord. It was seven metres long, and carried only half the cargo and crew of the larger vessel.

When they were on the move, it was customary for a canoe brigade to rouse itself well before dawn and put in four hours of paddling before pausing for breakfast. The average workday lasted 16 to 18 hours. A bark canoe could be paddled across the water at close to ten kilometres per hour. It was exhausting work, but preferable to the portages, where the cargo, carefully packed in 40-kilogram loads, had to be unloaded and carried on the backs of the voyageurs, along with the canoe. Sometimes these portages were 15 kilometres long, going across swamps and over steep hillsides, and a voyageur would have to tramp back and forth several times.

Drawing: Inuk hunting from his kayak, 17th century

Bark was not the only material used by Native peoples in Canada to build their canoes. On the Pacific Coast, the people carved canoes from cedar logs. The Ktunaxa (Tu NA ha), or Kutenai, people of the British Columbia interior made blunt-nosed canoes that they used to gather wild rice and the Inuit constructed their boats from animal skins, but the bark canoe was the most common form of transportation for European explorers and fur traders.

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