Birch Bark Canoe


Photo of "Gitche Chee-mun" in 1956. The largest
birchbark canoe.

Pikwakanagan is renowned for their birch bark canoes and for the construction of the largest birchbark canoe,"Gitche Chee-mun". It was created by master birchbark canoe maker, Matt Bernard. The National Museum of Canada requested the building of the canoe in the fall of 1956. The canoe is 36 feet long, with a six-foot beam, is three-foot high at the centre of the gunwale, and its bow and stern curve six feet high at either end. It weighs three quarters of a ton.
Birch bark canoes are light and strong, they can carry heavy cargo and numerous passengers. Birchbark canoes require much preparation to complete.

Making a birch bark canoe
Finding a good birch bark tree has become increasingly more difficult. The tree must be very large in circumference and blemish free. The tree must then be felled. Before doing this a bed of small trees is laid where the tree is foreseen to fall. This is done to prevent any damage occurring to the precious bark as it lands.

Once a tree is found, it is not until the summer months when the bark of the birch is easily removed in large sheets, making it possible to create large birch bark canoes. Using a wooden frame of sticks held together with tree gum, a canoe can be made of completely natural and biodegradable parts.
A cut is made from the base of the trunk to the spot where the branches begin. The bark is then carefully peeled from the tree in one piece. The bark is then rolled with the outer bark (the white side) on the inside, and then tied.

Gathering the spruce root
The roots are dug out of the ground a few feet from the trunk of the tree and pulled up their entire length. When enough has been gathered they are piled upon each other and then rolled up like a doughnut and then tied.

Gathering the cedar
Proper cedar for ribs and sheathing comes from mature trees.

Gathering the spruce gum
Pieces of hard gum are gathered from wounds in spruce trees.

Once gathered, the materials used in the building of a birchbark canoe can be left to dry indefinitely. All that is necessary to get them in top shape again is to soak them in water.

Construction
The bark is gored along the sides, an extra piece is inserted below the gunwales. The seams are sewn with spruce root. The thick plank sheathing is made of white cedar. The ribs are of the same material and are closely and evenly spaced inserting them under the gunwale.

Five thwarts of white cedar are placed and attached with spruce root. There is a double gunwale construction with cedar plank on top of this and attached with carved wooden dowels. Gunwales are bound with spruce root at regular intervals. The seams are sealed with spruce gum. The birchbark canoe is now ready for the water.