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.
The manufacture of synthetic canoes enjoyed a boost from the increase in interest in human-powered outdoor recreation in the 1960s and 1970s, activities that also included bicycling and cross-country skiing.
Wenonah continually experimented with new models, including this solo canoe called the Vagabond, seen on the shore of Abel Lake in Virginia. Solo canoes became popular for wilderness trippers and day paddlers alike.
Frank S. Nicholson, poster for the National Park Service, c. 1936–1940. This poster is from the NYC Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which sponsored artists of almost all stripes during the Great Depression. Nicholson was among almost ten thousand artists who were supported by the WPA’s Federal Art Project.
The Nahanni River in Canada became famous—and a popular destination for whitewater canoe adventurers—after the 1950s publication of the book The Dangerous River by R. M. Patterson, a hair-raising account of a trip into the wilderness region earlier in the century.
Evidence of travel by canoe exists in the form of pictographs hundreds of years old in the Quetico region of Canada. Scientists are not in agreement about who made the images—or even when—but the painting of people in a boat is unmistakable.
The business of canoe liveries and outfitters in the lakes and rivers region of North America, including Ely, Minnesota, in 1958, allowed city dwellers to experience the joys of wilderness travel without actually owning a canoe.
Howard Zahniser was a significant figure in the American environmental movement in the 1950s and 1960s. His work on the Wilderness Act of 1964—he is credited with writing most of it—was instrumental in its final passage.
Groups interested in preserving canoe country from development sprang up all over the continent. Canoes were often used as images of a free and quiet outdoors experience, including this poster with artwork by Francis Lee Jaques, ca. 1949.
The National Wild and Scenic River system, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, is an attempt to protect U.S. rivers in their natural state from development as much as possible. More than 12,500 miles of rivers have such protection.
The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, seen from above the critical platform, was at the time the worst spill in American history, later surpassed by the Exxon Valdez (1989) and Deepwater Horizon (2010) spills.