BIRCH BARK CANOES IN MAINE
September…mr Ballard Still prepareing for his Tour. he brot Two Birch Cannoes to our shore.*
The marvelous accommodations my husband Monte and I stayed at in Lamoine, Maine, provided much for our traveling comfort—cupboards filled with cooking needs (oil, salt, pepper, spices), cupboards of dishes and pans, drawers of silverware, linens…and one thing we had no desire for: canoes.
Colorful canoes can be seen at lakesides, in stores, atop cars, and in yards across the country. There are even some colorful canoes in my little community of Laurel Mountain Borough, Pennsylvania, flotation devices that attest to our proximity to waterways such as lakes and rivers. Canoes weren’t always colorful as the ones we see lined up outside stores, such as one in Ellsworth, Maine. Nor were they made in structures like our modern day canoe factories. I can’t help but insert a paragraph from the first draft of my novel-under-construction:
- Rosalie noticed that the Googins children were as handsome and large as they were affable and hospitable, in spite of their father’s potential disdain. Through their conversation she learned that they grew vegetables, maize, barley, potatoes, and flax, dined on venison, fish, pork, beef, fowl, and milk products. Nearly all had canoes they used for transportation and fishing. They salted the fish and exchanged it for sugar, flour, molasses and oil. They were also engaged in lumbering, and made tables and other furniture which they bartered for whatever commodities they needed.
The Penobscot Indian birch bark canoe, sturdily constructed and light enough to be carried overland by a single person, furnished an easy, convenient mode of water travel for the Indians of Maine and the Maritime Provinces. Such a canoe was critical to both the Indians and the white man during early colonial fur-trading era.
In 1632 Nicolas Denys, an early New Brunswick settler, wrote a detailed description of the Indian canoe, which measured about 2 feet wide in the middle and narrowed to nothing at the ends, and was deep enough to come up to the armpits of a seated man:
- the largest birch tree you can find
- cut about 4-inch wide cedar slats the length of the canoe, narrowing them at the ends
- make half-circles from cedar to form ribs and shape the canoe
- split roots of fir (the thickness of the little finger) into 3-4 parts, placing the results into packages and placing them in the water so they won’t dry out
- from beech make two sticks the length of the canoe and four shorter sticks, entirely round and the thickness of a large cane
- remove the bark of the length of the canoe (3-4 1/2 fathoms long) and bend it into the form the canoe should havesew the two long beech rods along the rim and sew them inside the rim using a punch of pointed bone
- place the short beech rods crosswise, one in the middle and the others in front of it, a half fathom apart
- place the cedar slats along the interior of the canoe from top to bottom
- insert the cedar half-circles to hold the cedar slats in place, driving them in with force
The construction contained seams, necessary to narrow the canoe at each end. To prevent these seams from admitting water, the women and girls chewed the gum of the fir every day, making a salve which they applied to the seams with the aid of fire.
A much-more detailed discussion on the construction of Indian canoes can be found in an article, Canoe from the Penobscot River
I’m certain most of you won’t build a canoe such as this, even though you might, like I do, have birch trees from Boston growing in your yard. It’s much simpler to purchase a modern canoe from a store if I ever want one. I’m also certain Madame Rosalie de Leval, a 1791 French emigre who owned property in Trenton (now East Lamoine), Maine, was intrigued by these canoes. But, like I said, Monte and I haven’t canoed and I’m not certain I want to put it on my bucket list. I’ll just write about the canoes, like those which had construction was such that ” if you do not sit very straight and steady, they immediately tip over…” I’ll end this discourse with one more exerpt, taken The Diary of Martha Ballard in June, 1792: …we were informd at Sun Sett that Billy Foster fell out off a Canoe & is Drowned…
Ballard, Martha Moore, 1735-1812, The Diary of Martha Ballard, 1785-1812. McCausland, Robert R. and McCausland, Cynthia MacAlman, ed., (Picton Press, Rockport, ME, 1992).
Intertwined Love, a novel-under-construction by Carolyn Cornell Holland