This is the story of the canoe, that singular American artifact so little changed over time. Featured here are canoes old and new, from birch bark to dugout to carbon fiber; the people who made them; and the adventures they shared. With features of technology, industry, art, and survival, the canoe carries us deep into the natural and cultural history of North America.
Old-growth cedar trees are immense and can provide the materials for several boats. In this photograph, four different canoes are being hewn from one red cedar log at Olympic Loop, Queets River, Washington. Photograph by Dale O. Northrup, c. 1930.
The setting of a frame for a birch-bark canoe involved preparing the ground, driving in stakes, and sliding in the bark and attaching a frame in the general shape of the boat. Photograph taken ca. 1885 at an Ojibwe camp.
Native builders would roll the stripped birch bark into a backpack of sorts, secure it with roots, and carry it back to the canoe-making camp. This individual with the pack is identified as Cheemaun of an Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin.
A tray or pouch made of birch bark was used to carry hardened pieces of specially prepared spruce gum (sap mixed with animal fat and ash), which could be chewed or heated and used to repair canoes when on a trip.
In 1939, Ojibwe tribal members at Grand Portage, near the border between the United States and Canada on Lake Superior, completed a birch-bark canoe in the traditional manner as part of a Works Progress Administration arts program. Here a headboard is installed.