Now even the canoe is going modern
Canoe-happy kids al camp still use the centuries-old Indian model that made Canada famous but elsewhere the canoe is joining the jet age with glass and aluminum bodies, collapsible frames and mounts for motors. They even piggyback on planes
Robert Thomas Allen
By Robert Thomas Allen
jTo most people, a canoe has become a birchbark novelty in a tourist shop, a mildly amusing accessory at a kids’ camp, or just something that rhymed with "you” in old-time song lyrics. Yet the canoe developed Canada, opened its frontiers and established its trade and commerce. It brought Christianity to the Indians. It carried Canada’s first statesmen and created her first delinquents. Today it quietly advertises Canada throughout the world. Canadian-made canoes are sold in the United States, England, Germany, Africa and New Zealand, and “Canadian canoe" is an official category listed in all Olympic Games reports. To Americans, canoeing in Canada means the genuine experience, like going to the opera in Italy. The canoe has more right to be on the Canadian nickel than either the maple leaf or the beaver.
But although the estimate of four thousand canoes sold last year in Canada is a slight increase over former years, when this figure is compared with the increase in Canada’s population, it means that there are fewer canoes being made per capita, and this when a greater proportion of holidayers are taking to the water than ever before. The canoe, after serving Canada as no other craft for over three hundred years, is going out of date in a world of speed, noise and expensive gadgets. It is being swamped, figuratively and literally, by the power boat. Those who still like to paddle their own canoes don't dare to.
A man at Sturgeon Lake, in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes summer-resort region, who has paddled to his cottage every year for fifty years, last summer racked up his canoe for good when he was strafed six times in a row by power boats.
“You can tell what a storm will do,” he told a curious neighbor. "You can’t tell what a man in an outboard will do.”
There’s one last hope for the pleasure canoe. With more and more cottagers complaining of the noise of pow'er craft and urging restrictions against them, it may have a comeback. Oddly, during summer regattas a great many canoes suddenly appear, then disappear abruptly after the festivities. Jack F. Richardson, general manager of the Peterborough Canoe Company, believes that a lot of the old family canoes are being kept as “second boats.” But, by and large, the pleasure canoe now holds about the position that the family buggy held for a while after the appearance of the automobile.
The heyday of the pleasure canoe was in the 1920s. Back in the days before high-school parking lots were jammed with cars, when hep youths were called “sheiks,” the canoe was the only place a teen-ager could take his girl outdoors and get away from the mosquitoes. Sheet music for such hit tunes as Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home went in for covers continued on page 32
showing canoes silhouetted against rising moons, with girls in frothy dresses trailing their fingers in the water. The canoe was fitted with back rests, cane seats, cushions and battery headlights. It was also made in a slinky model called a torpedo that could be propelled by a double-bladed paddle from a lounging position and was considered the perfect place to make a proposal. In 1925 the Peterborough Canoe Company helped things along by coming out with a special canoe with a cockpit for a Victrola. It was regarded as an unbeatable combination. A theorist of the era, trying to analyze why so many proposals took place in a canoe, concluded that a woman reclining in the bow combined the maximum of desirability with the minimum of accessibility, which momentarily unhinged the paddler’s mind.
Today the canoe has gone back to the scene of its glory—the Canadian bush. There it still holds its own. With the advent of both the airplane and the outboard motor, old-timers predicted the end of the canoe in the north, but it has been adapted to both. It is light enough to be wired to the float or wing of an airplane, and the stern has been squared off for the attachment of an outboard. Sectional nesting canoes are carried in the cabins of airplanes and assembled on the spot with bolts and wing nuts. Canoes are made with special low bow and stern for convenience of being carried by aircraft. Freight models, each with a carrying capacity of two and a half tons, are transported in winter by tractor or transport plane to the location where they'll be used the following summer.
The canoe still provides the best means of coming to grips, at close quarters, with the greatest part of Canada. Only fifteen percent of the land area of Canada is suitable for cultivation and only half of that is occupied. The rest is a hard-bitten land of forest, muskeg and rock, held in a web of waterways.
In one area of 6,094 square miles southeast of Lake Winnipeg, there are 3,000 lakes. In another area of 5,294 square miles southwest of Reindeer Lake in Saskatchewan, there are 7,500 lakes. This kind of terrain is the workshop of the canoe. In a vast area of Canada, less familiar to the average city dweller than outer space, geologists, prospectors, trappers, timber cruisers, police and welfare workers still go to work daily in a canoe.
Many of Canada’s prominent mining men started their careers in a canoe. On a single canoe expedition in 1934 from Saskatoon to Flin F'lon, the party included W. G. Robinson, now of Ventures Mines; J. Scott, today with Kennecott Copper; E. Crull of New Dickenson; W. Clarke of International Nickel; C. Donald of Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting; and Lewis Parres, a director of Nor-Acme Gold Mines Limited. All were young geology students, starting into business in a canoe. Parres, a mining geologist in Elin Flon as well as a director of Nor-Acme, still owns seven canoes, each suited for a particular type of work.
About seventy-five percent of the canoes made in Canada are manufactured by four companies. Ail now make power boats, but still retain the word “Canoe” in their company names. Three of these —the Peterborough Canoe Company, the Canadian Canoe Company and the Lakefield Canoe Company—are located in or around Peterborough, Ont., which is situated in the Kawartha Lakes district. This is one of the most popular waterresort areas in Canada, and used to provide an abundance of the lumber required for boatbuilding, two factors that attracted many small watercraft companies. Most of these have given way to the three main companies still operating in the area. The biggest and oldest, the Peterborough Canoe Company, which employs about two hundred and twenty people in peak periods, has the unforeseen advantage that the name
of the city, which is also the name of the company, has become identified with canoes, in the same way Sheffield has with steel. Many canoe owners refer proudly to their craft by the term “a Peterborough canoe,” even though it may have been made by one of the Peterborough Canoe Company's competitors.
The fourth major manufacturer, the Chestnut Canoe Company of Fredericton, New Brunswick, has the distinction of having introduced the canvas-covered canoe to Canada. This type of construction has just about replaced cedarstrip, although the latter is still used in power craft. Canoes are also made of molded plywood, Fiberglas and aluminum, but the canvas-covered canoe, which comes closest in principle to the Indian birchbark canoe, has been generally accepted as the most efficient canoe made, and is the common commercial canoe of the north. When birchbark began to get scarce in New Brunswick, causing, or at least contributing to, the decline of Indian canoe-making there, two brothers of Fredericton, Will and Harry Chestnut, saw a chance to remedy the shortage of canoes and at the same time put themselves in the market with a new product. Americans, on camping and canoeing trips, had been coming down the St. John River in canvas-covered canoes made by the Oldtown Canoe Company of the State of Maine. It was these canoes that became the model, with some modifications, for the Chestnut brothers, and which eventually were adopted from them by the other makers.
In this canoe the ribs are covered with thin cedar planking, over which is stretched seamless marine canvas, sealed and coated to a hard, glossy shell. Canvas-covered canoes are light, strong, and graceful (a quality that in a canoe has a practical function) and the manufacturers provide an easily used repair kit.
Commercial canoes have model names,
Now even the canoe is going modern continued from page 17
“It’s still the best way to come to grips with most of Canada”
such as the Rat (14-foot trapper model, Canadian Canoe Company. $153), the Voyageur (18-foot prospector canoe. Chestnut Canoe Company. $210), the Giant (22-foot freighter, Peterborough Canoe Company. $600). The trapper canoes weigh about thirty-five pounds, and sometimes have runners fitted to them for scooting across ice. Most freight canoes are now ordered in models designed for the attachment of outboard motors, either with a square stern similar to that of a regular outboard boat, or with a V-stern that retains the lines of a canoe below the water line so that paddling qualities are not affected. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police use canoes fitted with outboards for long patrols, refueling from remote caches of gasoline flown in by airplane.
A northern canoeman kneels in the centre of the canoe, resting part of his weight on a thin wooden thwart, and, with the canoe heeling to one side, takes about forty-six short, choppy strokes a minute, as compared with an amateur's average of twenty-six long, languid ones. A beginner paddling from the centre of a canoe will turn it in a circle in three strokes, but an expert moves in a straight line and conserves the craft’s momentum, which a novice loses every time he straightens his canoe by picturesquely trailing his paddle.
To portage a canoe, a professional grabs it by the gunwales, hikes it to his lap in a crouch, boosts it with his knee and rolls it upside down over his head. The rest is up to his sense of balance, strength of his ankles, and ability to ignore sweat, black-flies and mosquitoes in one of the most grueling physical chores left to civilized man.
To ascend rapids, he sometimes shoves his canoe upstream with a pole. Sometimes, traveling downstream, rather than portage around rapids he runs them in his canoe. If they look tricky, he takes a walk along the bank and plots his course. A canoeman's first experience at running rapids is a bit like a flier's first solo . . . sometimes it ends in
disaster. A geologist with Nor-Acme Mines, running rapids near Flin Flon, hit a log that lifted him into the air and landed him in the water. When he came to the surface, he was in the dark. He had come up under his overturned canoe.
In spite of the hard work of portaging and the perils of shooting rapids, canoe trips through the Canadian bush, as a recreation, have a strong and basic appeal. A man with a pack in a fourteen-foot canoe is free, self-sufficient, mobile and thousands of evolutionary years away from ranch houses, time payments. traffic and the struggle to keep his end up in an increasingly complex civilization. The Ontario Department of Lands and Forests issues detailed instructions for trips that range from fourday cruises from Newmarket, thirty miles north of Toronto, to Waubaushene on Georgian Bay, to a 636-mile trip from Sioux Lookout, north of Lake Superior, to Fort Albany on James Bay. Many of these routes were used by the Indians long before the discovery of North America. The booklet points out that they lead into wild, undeveloped wilderness, a potent reminder of which is the final instructions that ground signals, to be seen by planes, should show an SOS in letters at least ten feet long.
Anyone can paddle a canoe, after a fashion. The big killer is inability to control the canoe against wind and waves. Few amateurs ever think of taking along ballast. An experienced woodsman, if he needs to, will put a log in the canoe to give it more grip in the water. A
common cause of trouble with an inexperienced canoeist is that he sits well back in the stern. This leaves the bow raised out of the water, behaving like a weather vane. He rarely thinks of working his way up to the middle and sitting down if he gets into trouble.
In boys' and girls' camps, where canoeing is still a traditional activity, contests are held for paddling with the hands, moving the canoe along by "bumps," like those of a burlesque queen, paddling while standing on the gunwale, dumping the canoe and getting into it again. Great importance is placed on the canoeist being a swimmer. Old-time bushmen who live to ripe old ages in canoes without being able to swim a stroke regard all this as about as useful as teaching motorists how to collide with another car or to steer with their feet. The whole secret of staying alive in a canoe is learning to handle it so that it doesn’t turn over. If it does, being a good swimmer doesn't always help. Most people who drown from canoes are good swimmers who leave their upset crafts and try to reach shore. One of the prime rules of canoe clubs is, "If upset, always stay by your canoe.“ A canoeist clinging to a canoe can stay alive as long as he hangs on, and has a good chance of being picked up.
One tragic exception occurred at a boys' camp on Balsam Lake, Ontario, in July 1926. Just before sunset, fifteen boys left camp in a thirty-six-foot war canoe. In the middle of the calm lake, as far as could be established afterward, one of the boys missed his stroke and grabbed the gunwale. The boat rolled over. In a scramble, all the boys got hold of the upturned canoe. But they were in the water for six hours. Numbness and exposure forced one boy after another to relax his grip and drop off. Some tried to swim to shore and were lost. When the canoe reached an island at two in the morning, only four of the fifteen boys were still clinging to the sides.
The war canoe is a sensitive racing craft that carries a crew of ten or more paddlers. Speed depends on co-ordination and on the condition of the canoe. Other racing canoes are specially designed shells that can be paddled singly, in tandem or in "fours.”
The forerunner of these sophisticated sporting craft was one of the first and most valuable of human tools. It was developed right after man started playing around streams on floating logs, then began binding some of them together into crude rafts, much the way a kid on a creek does today. At least twentyfive thousand years ago. a small, brown inventor began hollowing a log with a stone axe and hot rocks; grunting, hitting his fingers and burning himself, but coming up with the world’s first boat. He probably reached North America from Asia by way of Bering Strait. The Kootenai Indian canoe used today in British Columbia has the same peculiar plow-shaped bow as the birchbark canoes used on the Amur River, which flows to the Russian coast opposite B. C.
North American Indians made canoes of tule grass, elm bark, buffalo hide, seal skin and moosehide. In the Arctic, the Eskimos made closed-in canoes called kayaks, stretching sealskin over a driftwood or whalebone frame. The birchbark canoe of the northeast woods Indians, which popularly became the prototype of all Indian canoes, had the greatest carrying capacity for its weight of any craft afloat: in fact, nothing has ever equaled it, with the possible exception of the rubber life raft of the last war.
Some anthropologists doubt if the aboriginal Indian, a stone-age man, made really good birchbark canoes until the white man gave him some better tools. It is certain that some made very poor canoes and some didn't make any. By far the greater number of North American Indians used dugouts. The view that the Indian canoe wasn't as good as its reputation, however, is not shared by all experts. George Frederick Clarke, a retired dental surgeon of Woodstock, New Brunswick, who has been a lifetime student of Indians, points out that the ships' carpenters who accompanied Cartier, after examining and admiring the Indian canoes they saw, said that they could see no way of improving them.
A dying art
Whether or not the white man gave Indians the art of making good canoes, it's certain that he took it away from them. Indians are among the most enthusiastic users of canvas-covered canoes. preferably with an outboard motor attached. The white man also depleted the Indians' supply of birchbark, until Indian canoe-making has just about become a lost art. The last one made by the St. John River Malecite Indians was built forty-four years ago. Recently the National Museum had a birchbark canoe made to order by an eighty-oneyear-old Ontario Chippewa Indian named Matt Bernard. This canoe weighs almost three quarters of a ton, and can carry sixteen paddlers and a sizeable cargo; it is an authentic replica of the Montreal canoe adopted from the Indians by the French fur traders. The search for birchbark for this canoe involved travel of about a thousand miles by jeep.
Original Indian birchbark canoes are becoming collectors’ items. Dr. Clarke, who is well known as an author, historian, poet and collector of Indian artifacts, once bought the entire contents of an old building for fifty dollars to rescue a birchbark canoe—a profitable deal, as he not only got the canoe but found two rare collectors’ stamps which he sold for six hundred dollars each.
Clarke himself is one of the few people left capable of building an authentic Indian birchbark canoe. His knowledge was gained largely from a lifetime friendship with one of Canada’s most colorful Indian authorities—-Edwin Tappan Adney, an Ohio-born American who came to Woodstock, New Brunswick, at the age of nineteen and devoted much of his life to studying Canadian Indians. Adney
lived for a time with an old Indian named Peter Jo, one of the last birchbark canoe makers of New Brunswick, who taught Adney the art.
Several years ago there was a sixteenfoot birchbark canoe made by Adney and Peter Jo in the Exhibition building in Woodstock. A heavy snowstorm caved in the roof of the building. Clarke waded through snow to the building and saw that the cave-in had broken off about five feet of the bow of the canoe. "I saw one of the exhibition members. He agreed to give it to me. I contacted Adney. We got a horse and sled and took it to Adncy's bungalow at Upper Woodstock.”
Clarke and Adney went about rebuilding the canoe, following the same methods used by the Indians. In the early spring they found a suitable birch tree, one in which the sap had not yet ascended, and stripped off a piece seven or eight feet long. In mid-May Adney scooped out a fiat depression in the ground, put the canoe in it with the broken portions in place, and drove stakes into the ground for a form. He then laid in the new birchbark, the thin strips of cedar sheathing, and reset the ribs. “Ir was as good as new,” Clarke says.
The Indians made a frame of two gunwales spread apart by five rock maple crossbars. The frame was laid on a prepared bed on the ground and stakes pounded into the earth a-round it. Then each stake was pulled out, the frame set aside and the bark was laid on the bed. The frame was now placed on top of the bark and the stakes driven back and tied together at the top to hold the bark against the frame. Finally the sheathing and ribs were put into place.
In Woodstock, Adney made about a hundred models of birchbark, spruce, elm and moosehide canoes, representing the models made by different Indian tribes. They were structurally exact reproductions. It was a rare collection overlooked for so long by Canada that Adney eventually sold them to the Marine Museum at Newport News, Virginia.
The Indian knelt on the bottom of his canoe, sitting on the insides of his feet, and gripped the sides with his knees. He pursued swimming deer and bear in it, gathered wild rice in it, turned it upside down for a shelter on the trail, up-ended it to mount stockades, and prowled in it deep into enemy territory. '
The Indian birchbark canoe was quickly adopted and improved by the French to follow Canada’s network of waterways. Eventually there were so many
afloat that they were licensed, and the licenses became so valuable that delinquent young Frenchmen, who were given the name coureurs de hois and immortalized in all school history books, sold the licenses on the black market.
Finally fur companies were using thirty-six-foot birchbark models that would carry five tons of merchandise, three fifths the load of a modern car transport. Priests traveled through the wilderness in canoes equipped with portable alters, and Governor Frontenac, although he first objected that sitting in a canoe was an undignified way to travel, hiter visited the Iroquois on Lake Ontario surrounded by four hundred men in a hundred and twenty bftchbark canoes arrayed in battle formation.
The explorers built canoes in the woods, dragged them over snow and ice as toboggans, poled them up rapids, carried them cross-country and navigated frozen streams in them, one man chopping ice in the bow and another paddling. La Salle started the trip that finally
took him to the mouth of the Mississippi by paddling north from what is now the city of Toronto up the Humber River.
Although as a specialized working craft the canoe has held its own with the age of the horse, automobile and airplane, and has now entered the age of rockets, it has been largely forgotten by the average traveler of today's fourlane speedways. But today at Niagara Falls, newly-weds, who have driven in an hour or two the distance that used to take weeks by canoe, are handed Chamber of Commerce literature that tells them to look into the rainbow for the Maid of the Mist, The Princess Lelawala. who, dressed in white doeskin and surrounded by fruit, game and flowers, was sent over the falls in a birchbark canoe to appease the Thunder God and his two sons. If they see her, they are told, they will have a life of bliss. Even if they don’t, they and their descendants will still be sharing in the benefits brought to Canada by the canoe. ★