A working definition of Canada
Canoes and the Canadian experience are inseperable
"In a canoe a man changes, and the life he has lived seems strangely remote. Time is no longer of the moment, for he has become part of space and freedom. What matters is that he is heading down the misty trail of explorers and voyageurs, with a fair wind and a chance for a good camp somewhere ahead. The future is other lakes, countless rapids and the sound of them, portages through muskeg and over the ledges."
Sigurd Olson, 1972.
By G.D. Maxwell
My very first canoe was handcrafted of birchbark and cedar, formed and decorated in the Algonquin style. Its squat, rounded ends, sharp at the root-laced stems and curving gracefully towards its passengers, opened gently amidships to form a spacious, perfectly apportioned lake traveller. That it was only eight inches long and travelled principally within the shores of my bathtub didn’t really matter to me.
It was a gift from a land far away — Canada — a romantic place of forests and lakes and fish the size of grown men’s arms where my grandparents went in the summer to camp and angle with their friends. Doubtless purchased at some roadside curio shop, it may have been of questionable heritage and craftsmanship but its sleek lines and delicate detail sparked my child’s imagination and I longed to own such a craft and glide gracefully across still water.
Growing up landlocked in the deserts and mountains of the US southwest didn’t afford many opportunities to paddle ancient waterways. Wilderness travel in the home of my youth was by foot, in alpine forests, high ridges above treeline or across sere stretches of Sonoran desert. It wasn’t until moving to Canada some 20 years ago that canoes began to play any role in my life beyond a vague stirring in my collective conscience.
For Canada is a land of canoes, a terrain of lakes and rivers and streams held loosely together by portages of earth and muskeg. The ratio of good hiking terrain to good canoeing water in this country must be about one to an incomprehensibly large number. The facade of modernity strung out along Canada’s southern border — in the form of its cities and virtually all of its population — fades rapidly as you travel north into lake country or wind your way inexorably toward Hudson’s Bay on one of many rivers draining into it.
In many parts of the country, a trip north isn’t even needed to shake the patina of civilization. Lying snug against the border between Ontario and Minnesota is 4,700 square kilometres of protected wilderness consisting of hundreds of lakes, several historically important rivers and innumerable streams and creeks. Three to four million year old granite, some of the oldest rock on this planet, is what passes for land here. Since being scoured to bedrock by glacial ice, 9,000 years of freeze and thaw cycles, with the help of pioneering lichens, have pulverized enough of this Canadian Shield to support a forest of jack pine, black spruce, balsam fir and other northern forest trees.
To pick a route and dip your paddle into the waters of Quetico Provincial Park is to drink fully of the history of this country. Better than any academic text, better than any government propaganda, to glide silently in the wake of Jacques de Noyon — thought to be the first European to trace these routes — or La Verendrye who followed, or the countless Ojibway braves, trappers, cour de bois whose travels led down the Kaministikwia and Maligne rivers and eventually to the shores of Lake Winnipeg, is to begin to comprehend or at least develop a sense of this place. If there is a Canadian Culture, the grail of angst-ridden Canadians fearful of being swallowed by the American juggernaut, the chances of connecting with it are far greater in the seat of a canoe in a place like this than it ever will be in any museum, art gallery or theatre.
And it was the canoe that made it possible. If it hadn’t been for the thousands of years of canoecraft evolution employed by North American natives and an unusual willingness of early European explorers and settlers to abandon their own traditional methods of boat construction to embrace those impossibly flimsy bark canoes, the history of Canada would have had to wait for several generations until our European ancestors figured out how to walk on water. The history of exploration and discovery of Canada is, inextricably, the history of canoes.
On the south shore of the island of Montreal, in a blue-collar working class neighbourhood, you can sit on a park bench perched in a narrow strip of grass between the St. Lawrence River flowing in front of you and cars whizzing past on the roadway behind you. Gazing across the water, you can see as nasty a stretch of white water as you’re ever likely to find in an urban setting. Standing waves, haystacks and holes, some the size of large trucks or small buildings, boil for several hundred metres in the fast moving water.
The Lachine Rapids was the end of the line for boats built in the European style and it is not an exaggeration to say they represented the dividing line between New France and Canada. To move very far inland of the Lachine Rapids required early explorers and fur traders to adopt indigenous modes of travel, learn long established water and land routes, and develop cordial relations with the Native peoples already familiar with the uncharted territory. In so doing, they and their progeny were changed forever and grew a new country.
This early "development" of Canada stands in sharp contrast to what was happening south of the then fuzzy border. When Marquette and Jolliet and La Salle and Champlain were exploring deep inland and Scots and voyageurs were trapping out the beaver further and further beyond Montreal, US pioneers — travelling overland by horse and wagon — had barely made serious forays beyond the first hills west of their thin strip of civilization along the Atlantic Ocean. The canoe, travelling swiftly over familiar paths of water, made all the difference in the pace with which Hudson’s Bay Company trappers reached the western end of the continent decades before the mountain men to the south ever tasted Pacific salmon.
The birchbark canoe encountered in this new land was, for its time and place, a perfect craft. Lightweight and rugged, bark canoes could take shape, at the hands of master builders, with an ease that must have astounded the new settlers. Using simple hand tools of stone, bone and wood, Cree and Montagnais, Abnaki and Malecite builders, and those of virtually every other tribe save some of the prairie Indians, could carve and lash together everything from a one man canoe to a large tribal boat. Hand-carved white cedar planking and framing formed a solid but flexible hull. Birchbark, the inside facing out, provided a waterproof and durable skin. The canoe was held together and given additional strength by pegging the bark to gunwales, themselves mortised to cross bars and ribs and end stems, with all the disparate parts lashed up with supple split roots of black, red or white spruce.
Bark canoes were the staple form of transportation during the era of the fur trade and the opening of land west of Montreal. A well-built and maintained bark canoe might last 10 years under hard use, and when age finally made it unsuitable for travel, compost gracefully back into the forest from whence it came.
Despite their ruggedness, bark canoes were not a favoured craft of the settlers of Upper Canada. Needing a more robust working boat and lacking the substantial birches of the forests of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, pioneers in the Ottawa and Otonabee valleys favoured the dugout canoe. Burned and scraped out of a single basswood or cedar log, dugouts were simple to build or inexpensive to buy from local Indians. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had reached the apex of their development and were surprisingly elegant craft.
And then something interesting happened. In science and technology and medicine, among other fields, they say breakthroughs occur at the frontiers. Generally they take place when a flash of brilliance enables someone to bridge the developments in one field with those in another, creating a synergistic new direction of exploration.
In 1857, in the industrious village of Lakeland, Ontario, watching the best of the dugouts racing against the best of the bark canoes at the Katchewanooka regatta, John Stephenson and Thomas Gordon wondered why smart boys couldn’t combine the finer elements of both craft. The result of that thought process set the stage for what would become the quintessential Canadian canoe, a craft that would spawn an industry, a pastime and some would say, a way of life.
The towns of Lakeland and Peterborough formed the centre of the Canadian canoe-building universe for the next half-century. The canoe that quickly developed in small manufacturing shops in the area morphed from Stephenson and Gordon’s first attempt to bend and shape milled basswood boards over a skeleton of thin ribs into the fine-lined, lightweight cedarstrip canoe made famous by the Peterborough Canoe Company.
At its height, just after the turn of the century, the cedarstrip canoe utilized narrow, thin shiplapped planks of western redcedar and yellowcedar running the length of the canoe, made rigid and held together by a web of fine, delicate, half-round ribs of oak spaced every few inches from bow to stern. Art and whimsy played a hand in the selection of fine woods for decks, gunwales and seats and the whole effect was stunning. Rich woodgrain, sleek lines, fine workmanship — functionality and beauty fit for a queen. Which may be why a canoe of similar design was chosen by the government of the day as a gift from the people of Canada to Princess Elizabeth on the occasion of her wedding.
Cedarstrip canoes were light and nimble, like bark canoes, rugged and durable, like dugouts, and their build-over-frame manufacture allowed them to be produced in sizeable quantities. But their milling, framing and fitting were labour intensive and required many skilled workers. When Harry and Henry Chestnut of Fredericton appropriated designs for cedar-canvas canoes popular in Maine, and somehow managed to receive a government patent on the craft, canoe building in Canada began to undergo a shift away from cedar strip to the less expensive and simpler construction of wood and canvas. And when Ole Evinrude invented the infernal, peace-shattering outboard motor in the early years of this century, canoe building was sucked into a downward spiral as factories were retooled to build popular runabouts.
Advances after World War II rendered wooden canoes of any design almost obsolete. Fiberglas became the material of choice for canoe building. Easy to lay up and capable of moulding to compound curves and sharp entry lines, early Fiberglas canoes were light, inexpensive and efficient craft. Until you hit a rock.
But compared to what was coming out of the Grumman factory, Fiberglas was a warm, fuzzy material. Light, cheap and shiny, and almost indestructible, aluminum canoes quickly became standard issue for boat rental concessions, canoe clubs, Boy Scout troops and hundreds of summer camps throughout North America. Despite having no soul, despite sounding like a metal culvert in a hail storm whenever you hit the gunwales with the shaft of a paddle, despite sticking to rocks like chewing gum to hot asphalt, aluminum canoes ruled the waters until advances in Fiberglas and plastics made those materials more durable, and, irony of ironies, led to the resurgence of cedarstrip construction.
New polymers of polyester and particularly epoxy resins, coupled with a complete rethinking of construction techniques, have fostered a renaissance of interest in wooden, particularly cedarstrip, canoes and kayaks. In 1983, Ted Moores and Merilyn Mohr published Canoecraft. The ideas and plans within its pages sparked a new interest or rekindled what had been a latent desire in many canoeists: a passion for the warmth and beauty of a handcrafted wooden canoe.
Enter Ron Berkner. In his small Pemberton shop, or large garage depending on how you look at it, Ron Berkner is bent over the upturned raw hull of a 16 foot canoe. Even from this unusual angle, the basic lines of the Chestnut brothers’ Prospector form are apparent. A small palm sander buzzes and vibrates across the cedar grain as he guides it across the hull, producing an outsized noise and loosing torrents of woodfibre that cascade to the ground or float free in shafts of early morning sunlight.
Covered in a light dusting of cedar, Ron takes on an appearance that belies his age. His long black hair — worn in early flashback style — and beard are prematurely salt and pepper. The lines of a happy man beginning to set at the corners of his dark eyes and grinning mouth are caked with fine sawdust, bestowing an almost thespian quality of theatrical makeup. Powerful, rough hands shake mine as he welcomes me to his shop: Berkner Boat Works.
I’d seen a bit of Ron’s handiwork at Loral Furniture in Funky Junky, an upright canoehalf bookcase. It was stunning, if painful, and made me wonder what one of his boats that hadn’t been sawed in half looked like.
Open to the sunlight provided by a break in our Wet Coast weather, Ron’s shop was a canoe fancier’s candystore. Cradled upright at the front of the shop was an all but completed 12 foot solo canoe. Inside and out, its thin red and yellowcedar hull shone bright through the Fiberglas and epoxy sandwich that protected it and gave it incredible strength while highlighting its complex, rich grain. Smooth ash outwales and scuppered inwales defined its sheer line. A wooden slat seat nestled in the bottom centre, a sculpted thwart doing double duty as portage yoke and backrest. Weighing just 40 lb., it looks sleek and fast and I’m certain will urge its owner to play hooky on sunny days with trout calling nearby.
Another upturned hull, the same size but made entirely of fine-grained yellowcedar, sat on its building form nearer the back of the shop awaiting its outside stems. Handcrafted paddles in various stages of finish, including a couple of doubleblade kayak paddles, hung from a storage mezzanine wall. Saw blades, handtools, children’s sleds and toboggans, milled and unmilled cedar planks and the assorted flotsam of a woodworker’s shop lined the walls and gave the place a crowded, homey touch.
Upstairs, a finished 16 foot canoe much like the one Ron was sanding, nestled in a cradle. Above it a much longer canoe sat. "That’s an outrigger canoe I built," Ron informed me. "We’ve had six people in that boat." Lying inside the boat was a frame that mounted amidships across the gunwales. Protruding some five feet on either side, cedar pontoons, looking like stubby wooden torpedoes, added sufficient balance to the craft for "the kids to dive off."
Cedarstrip canoe building was reinvigorated by a double insight: a whole new way of forming the hull and a simplified process for joining strips.
Earlier cedarstrip and wood-canvas canoes were built around a solid form. The mould looked like an upturned canoe and boats took shape around them. New construction techniques incorporate a strongback and stations to which thin strips of cedar are tacked and glued.
The strongback is a spine that holds the sections of the mould along a straight, hopefully level, plane. Think of it as an I-beam constructed of 2x10’s or other large dimension lumber. The strongback will, of necessity, be as long as the canoe to be built.
Attached to the strongback at intervals of about one foot are the stations. Stations are cross-sectional representations of the shape of the canoe at intervals along its length. Think of it this way. If you cut a canoe across its width in the middle and looked at the cross-section shape it would be the widest point of the canoe and roughly shaped like the letter "C" lying on its side with the open end at the top. If you cut a piece of plywood to that shape and attached it to the centre point of the strongback upside down. you’d have a good representation of the centre point of the hull of a canoe. Simple, eh?
If you did the same thing every foot or so along the length of the canoe, you’d have a bunch of stations, looking vaguely like vertebra, running the length of the strongback. Fortunately, you don’t have to cut up a canoe to figure the dimensions out. Station dimensions for a number of designs are readily available. Measurements plotted on the X,Y axis of graph paper, transferred to plywood and carefully cut will yield stations and stems — end pieces — for the boat of your dreams.
This moulding technique allowed anyone with rudimentary woodworking skills and enough space to construct a frame capable of forming the complex curves of a canoe. With a background in finish carpentry, Ron’s skills were up to the challenge. And with the experience he’s gained in constructing upwards of 100 boats, his confidence has led him to modify and experiment with hull designs depending on the effect he’s after. "This boat," he said, pointing to the 16 footer in progress, "is a Prospector design. But I’ve flattened out the bottom a bit to give it more capacity and stability."
With the mould constructed, the second innovation in modern cedarstrip canoecraft kicks in. Instead of the laborious and exacting shiplapped joints of earlier construction, cove and bead joints simplify the process greatly. Cedar strips one-quarter inch thick, one inch wide and the length of the canoe to be built, are shaped along one edge with a cove — a rounded, convex groove — and along the other edge with a bead or rounded shoulder. The bead of one strip fits into the cove of the one next to it. When glued together, this milling forms a strong, solid joint that provides considerable longitudinal strength.
To start the boat, Ron tacks a strip of cedar at the sheer line — the canoe’s top — of one side and, using a level, at the sheer line on the other side. With the cove facing up, it’s a simple matter of filling the channel with glue, tacking the next strip into place and working his way up. "It takes me about a full day to lay up a hull. I get about 22 strips of wood out of a 1x6 inch board and a hull will take just over three boards," Ron explains.
The tedious part of canoe building is filling gaps between seams, if any, planing and sanding the inside and outside of the hulls until they are smooth and blemish free. "At that point, I lay up six mil Fiberglas inside and out with three coats of epoxy resin," Ron said. The result is a wood core, Fiberglas sandwich of tremendous strength and overwhelming beauty. "People always say ‘I wouldn’t even put that in the water’ when they see me unloading one of my boats. But these boats are tough."
Ron’s customers can customize the finish detail on their boats. Gunwales, decks and seats can be crafted out of anything from ash, cherry, mahogany or any close-grained wood. A final application of three coats of UV resistant marine spar varnish finish the boats.
"This is such a rewarding job," Ron says, looking around. "I run my building maintenance business in Whistler two days a week now, but this is where I want to be. Working on the boats and especially putting my own boat in the water gives me a tremendous feeling of pride."
My own canoe is thin Fiberglas inlaid its length with cherry ribs, with additional half-ribs reinforcing the bottom. I didn’t build it, but it exudes warmth and serenity. It’s taken me places in my adopted country that look much as they did many thousands of years ago when the ice retreated, places that look almost exactly like they did three hundred years ago when the first adventurous explorers followed the land’s original inhabitants over waterways their ancestors had discovered.
Canoes and the Canadian experience are inseparable. Whether it be a paddle around Alta Lake, an evening cruise down the River of Golden Dreams, a multi-day trip in Tweedsmuir or Bowron, wanderings in Killarney in the wake of the Group of Seven, or a trip through muskeg toward the Arctic Ocean or Hudson’s Bay, Canada can best — and possibly only — be known from the seat of a canoe. If you glide silently, listen intently, you can almost hear the songs of the voyageurs in between the loon’s eerie cry.