Virtual Reality: Resurrecting The Original Canoes and Kayaks of North America


Edwin Tappen Adney spent six decades studying and reproducing the aboriginal canoes of North America—a lifetime’s worth of work that nearly went unheralded. Adney’s obsession began at age 20, when documented the construction of a New Brunswick Malecite birchbark canoe in the 1880s. From then on, traditional canoes consumed Adney’s life. By the time he was 81, he’d traveled across the continent multiple times and recorded the lines of hundreds of canoes. After several false starts, he died before he had a chance to complete a book on the subject.


Fortunately, then-Smithsonian Institution curator Howard Chappelle resurrected Adney’s work and in 1964, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America was released. As Adney hoped, it became the definitive work on the subject-lavishly illustrated with plan drawings and diagrams for canoes and sea kayaks (Chappelle’s specialty) from across present-day Canada, the United States and Greenland. The book has said to have “[saved] the craft from oblivion,” inspiring a new generation of birchbark canoe- and skin-on-frame kayak-builders across the continent.


Among those influenced by Adney and Chappelle’s work is Grand Marais, Minn.’s Bryan Hansel. A photographer, paddler, and blogger at paddlinglight.com, Hansel has build eight cedar-strip paddlecraft of his own, and has aspirations to build more. Lacking a place to undertake his annual winter boat-building project, Hansel has dedicated this winter to reproducing and modernizing the canoes and kayaks of Adney and Chappelle, and making detailed plans available online for modern wood-strip builders.


His plan is to transfer Adney and Chappelle’s research “into a form that’s useable for modern cedar-strip construction.” Hansel imports Adney and Chappelle’s measurements into Delftship Pro, a nautical engineering software program that generates three-dimensional models and exact measurements to create plywood forms for modern boat-building. So far, Hansel has made several plans available for free download on his website, including an 1895 Malecite St. John River canoe and an 1898 Passamaquoddy ocean canoe. A new canoe or sea kayak plan will be posted on paddlinglight.com each week.


Ultimately, Hansel’s goal is to breathe new life into the canoes and sea kayaks of The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America and other long-forgotten designs. He hopes to live vicariously through the experiences of those who take on the challenge of bringing these boat designs-many of which haven’t been made in over a century-back to life. “I think it’s a great experiment in archaeology,” says Hansel. “If we go back and try to build these boats we’ll get a better feel for what the original designs were like. It will give us a chance to compare them to the boats we’re paddling now.”
Conor Mihell

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