Forest Alchemist

8 steps to a bark canoe

This story is featured in the June 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, now available on newsstands.

Tom Byers shapes a white cedar rib with a crooked knife at his backwoods homestead. Photo: Conor Mihell

Tom Byers shapes a white cedar rib with a crooked knife at his backwoods homestead. Photo: Conor Mihell

TOM BYERS’ DARK, DUSTY CANOE WORKSHOP IS CLUTTERED WITH EVERYTHING EXCEPT POWER TOOLS. The accomplished backwoods builder shapes immaculate birchbark craft by axe, knife, awl, and bit brace. Hundreds of feet of peeled jack pine roots join the pieces, all products of the northern forest-birchbark skin, white cedar ribs and sheathing, spruce gum-steeped in the indigenous heritage of this centuries-old alchemy.

Byers built his first canoe in 1994, after he had a “religious experience” glimpsing a birchbark canoe hanging from a shop’s rafters. “I was so disillusioned by the plastic world,” he says. “It’s been a deeply healing process to work with natural stuff. It seemed like an impossible dream to build birchbark canoes and survive at it.”

Surviving means maintaining a threadbare existence in a ramshackle, off-the-grid homestead on Northern Ontario’s Vermillion River. He’s built almost 60 canoes, typically in the company of mostly European enthusiasts he billets for month-long, one-on-one residencies in which he encourages pupils to experiment and learn through experience. His motto for building is “no measurement supersedes a fair line,” believing fervently that a proper canoe’s “gorgeous, subtle lines” can’t be achieved with a tape measure. - Conor Mihell

1. MATERIALS. Byers’ only secret is where he sources his bark. Tall, straight white birch trees with a trunk diameter of at least 12 inches are scarce. Byers uses a ladder to strip the bark-preferably in the spring, when it’s easier to peel.

2. SITE. Bark canoes were traditionally built outdoors, with stakes driven into the ground forming the overhead view of the canoe. Byers uses a permanent, indoor building bed to work at waist height.

3. GUNWALES. Carve one-piece lengths of cedar, which form the inner gunwales of the canoe, from rough stock with an axe and crooked knife-a traditional one-handed drawknife with a curved, flexible blade. These critical pieces determine the shape of the canoe and support the upper edges of the bark. Similarly, a temporary “building frame” forms the waterline dimensions of the canoe.

4. BARK. Unroll the bark with the papery side on the inside, and overlay with the building frame. Byers cuts a series of vertical slices in the bark to conform to the building frame and gunwales, and then sews additional bark strips with jack pine or spruce roots to fill any gaps. Once the bark is lashed to the gunwales with roots, the thwarts can be mortised and sewn into place.

5. STEMS. Cedar stems form the profile of the canoe’s bow and stern. Byers shapes the stem by carefully slicing a thumb-sized piece of cedar into multiple feathers and soaking it in boiling water to make it flexible, then cuts and sews the bark to the stems with roots.

6. SHEATHING. Remove the building form from the bark, and lay the sheathing-wafer-thin lengths of split cedar-longitudinally in the canoe.

7. RIBS. Byers carves ribs from cedar logs, soaked in boiling water for pliability, then wedges the ends of the curved ribs inside the gunwales, held tightly against the sheathing.

8. GUMMING. Seal any seams in the bark with a heated mixture of spruce gum and animal fat or roofing tar-an essential process that serves as routine maintenance on a birchbark canoe.

VIEW THE FOLLOWING SLIDESHOW TO SEE THE STEPS IN PRACTICE:

- Visit NaturalBirchbarkCanoes.com for more information. CLICK HERE to view a documentary by the National Film Board of Canada featuring César Newashish, a 67-year-old Attikamek of the Manawan Reserve, building a birchbark canoe by traditional native methods.

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