FAIRBANKS — The boreal forest stretches across northern North America. Paper birch is one of its signature species, and the region’s inhabitants have become adept at using birch bark to construct a variety of implements. Their skills reach a zenith in building canoes.
Both Alaska Natives and non-natives constructed birch-bark canoes during the 1800s. The most well-known type of canoe was perhaps the eastern style, adapted by French-Canadian voyageurs for the fur trade. Similar to modern canoes, they were relatively wide, with slightly rounded bottoms and sides, and curved bow and stern.
Athabascans of the McKenzie and Yukon river drainages by contrast built kayak-style canoes with narrow flat bottoms, low flaring sides and angled bow and stern. This type of canoe was well-suited to the region’s swift rivers and also required less birch-bark covering — an advantage in Northwestern North America with its typically smaller trees.
These craft had spruce wood frames covered with strips of birch-bark. Split spruce-root lashing held the frame together, and spruce roots were also used to stitch together the bark covering. Seams were sealed with spruce pitch mixed with animal fat.
According to Robert McKennan’s ethnographic study, “The Upper Tanana Indians,” most men owned a hunting canoe, which was typically 12- to 16-feet long, about 24 inches wide, and very shallow. Canoes across the region usually had birch-bark decking across the forward end, however, canoes along the Upper Tanana also featured aft decking.
These canoes weighed about 35 pounds and were easily portaged. They were usually propelled with single-bladed paddles or by poling. Poling wasn’t done while standing though. Photos from the early 1900s show seated canoeists working their craft upstream utilizing a pair of long slender staffs — one gripped in each hand.
Athabascans also constructed larger canoes (as much as 25 feet long) for transporting families and cargo. These cargo canoes were similar to hunting canoes, but often lacked top decking.
U.S. Army Capt. Charles Raymond, who reconnoitered the lower Yukon River in 1869, also ascended the Anvik River using Native canoes. He wrote that the kayak-style canoes were “admirably adapted to river travel. They are light and draw very little water, and though easily injured they are quickly repaired. In the bow of each canoe a little pitch and birch bark are always kept [for repairs]....The natives make these repairs very rapidly and skillfully, so that an accident ordinarily causes a delay of a few minutes only.”
While they were well-matched to their task, Athabascan canoes were finely balanced and took skill to use. Another Army representative, Lt. Joseph Castner, wrote in 1896 that he “rode 400 miles in one, but did not feel very secure in any position. It seemed like taking a voyage in a peanut shell.”
In the early 1900s canvas began replacing birch bark as a canoe covering but the basic structure remained the same. These canoes were commonly called “ratting boats” since they were used to hunt muskrats. As the ratting boat superceded the birch-bark canoe, so too aluminum canoes eventually replaced ratting boats.
The birch-bark canoe shown in the drawing, which is 18 feet long, 35 feet wide, and stands 111/2-feet high, is a modern recreation of a traditional kayak-style canoe. It was constructed in 2013 (with locally harvested materials) in a class sponsored by Folk School Fairbanks. The class was taught by local resident Randy Brown, who has constructed eight birch-bark canoes in both the eastern and kayak styles. Brown told me that with the myriad variations in canoe building across the region, his did not represent a particular area, but is typical of kayak-style canoes in general. The canoe is now on permanent display at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
Sources: • “A Story of Hardship and Suffering in Alaska.” Lieut. Joseph C. Caster (1886). In Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1900
• “Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.” Edwin Tappan Adney & Howard Irving Chapelle. Smithsonian Institution. 1964
• “Class teaches students the art of traditional birch bark construction.” Tim Mowry. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 8-15-2013
• Conversation with Randy Brown, instructor for Folk School Fairbanks birch-bark canoe class
• Photos of kayak-style canoes in early 1900s. Clarence L. Andrews Photograph Collection, Alaska State Library Historical Collections
• “Reconnaisance of the Yukon River.” Captain Charles P. Raymond, Engineer Corps (1869). In Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1900
• “The Upper Tanana Indians.” Robert McKennan. Yale University. 1959