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Ch. 12: Canoes

I suppose I have paddled about every sort of craft in use, and have found good qualities in all. Now that I am called upon to pick out one of them and label it as the best, even for a specific purpose, I must confess myself puzzled as to a choice. Perhaps the best way would be to describe the different sorts of canoe in common use, detail their advantages, tell what I consider the best of each kind, and leave the choice to your own taste or the circumstances in which you may find yourself.

Practicable canoes are made of birch bark stretched over light frames; of cedar; of basswood; of canvas, and of canvas cover over stiff frames.

The birch bark canoe has several unassailable advantages. It is light; it carries a greater weight in proportion to its length than any other; it is very easily mended. On the other hand it is not nearly so fast as a wooden canoe of sweeter lines; does not bear transportation so well; is more easily punctured; and does not handle so readily in a heavy wind. These advantages and disadvantages, as you can see, balance against one another. If it tends to veer in a heavy wind more than the wooden canoe, it is lighter on portage. If more fragile, it is very easily mended. If it is not quite so fast, it carries more duffle. Altogether, it is a very satisfactory all-around craft in which I have paddled many hundreds of miles, and with which I have never been seriously dissatisfied. If I were to repeat some long explorations in the absolute wilds of Canada I should choose a birch canoe, if only for the reason that no matter how badly I might smash it, the materials are always at hand for repairs. A strip of bark from the nearest birch tree; a wad of gum from the next spruce; some spruce roots; a little lard and a knife will mend a canoe stove in utterly.

In selecting a birch bark canoe the most important thing to look after is to see that the bottom is all one piece without projecting knots or mended cracks. Many canoes have bottoms made of two pieces. These when grounded almost invariably spring a leak at the seam, for the simple reason that it takes very little to scrape off the slightly projecting gum. On the other hand, a bottom of one good piece of bark will stand an extraordinary amount of raking and bumping without being any the worse. If in addition you can get hold of one made of the winter cut of bark, the outside shell will be as good as possible. Try to purchase a new canoe. Should this be impossible, look well to the watap, or roots, used in the sewing, that they are not frayed or burst. The frames should lie so close together as fairly to touch. Such a canoe, "two fathoms," will carry two men and four hundred pounds besides. It will weigh about fifty to seventy pounds, and should cost new from six to eight dollars.

Getting ready for another day of it.

A wooden canoe, of some sort, is perhaps better for all smooth and open-water sailing, and all short trips nearer home. It will stand a great deal of jamming about, but is very difficult to mend if ever you do punch a hole in it. You will need to buy a longer craft than when getting a birch. The latter will run from twelve to fourteen feet. A wood canoe of that length would float gunwhale awash at half you would wish to carry. Seventeen or eighteen feet is small enough for two men, although I have cruised in smaller. Cedar is the lighter material—and the more expensive—but splits too readily. Basswood is heavier, but is cheaper and tougher.

The folding canvas boat is an abomination. It is useful only as a craft from which to fish in an inaccessible spot. Sooner or later it sags and gives, and so becomes logy.

A canoe is made, however, and much used by the Hudson's Bay Company, exactly on the frame of a birch bark, but covered with tightly stretched and painted canvas. It is a first-rate craft, combining an approach to the lightness of the birch bark with the sweeter lines of the wooden canoe. All ordinary small tears in its bottom are easily patched by the gum method. Its only inferiority to the birch rests in the facts that it is more easily torn; that a major accident, such as the smashing of an entire bow, cannot be as readily mended; and that it will not carry quite so great a weight. All in all, however, it is a good and serviceable canoe.

In portaging, I have always had pretty good luck with the primitive Indian fashion—the two paddles lengthwise across the thwarts and resting on the shoulders, with perhaps a sweater or other padding to relieve the pressure. It is possible, however, to buy cushions which just fit, and on which you can kneel while paddling, and also a regular harness to distribute the weight. I should think they might be very good, and would certainly be no trouble to carry. Only that makes one more thing to look after, and the job can perfectly well be done without.

The Indian paddle is a very long and very narrow blade, just as long as the height of its wielder. For use in swift and somewhat shallow water, where often the paddle must be thrust violently against the bottom or a rock, this form is undoubtedly the best. In more open, or smoother water, however, the broader and shorter blade is better, though even in the latter case it is well to select one of medium length. Otherwise you will find yourself, in a heavy sea, sometimes reaching rather frantically down toward the water. Whatever its length, attach it to the thwart nearest you by a light strong line. Then if you should go overboard you will retain control of your craft. I once swam over a mile before I was able to overtake a light canoe carried forward by a lively wind.

On any trip wherein you may have to work your way back against the current, you must carry an iron "shoe" to fit on a setting pole. Any blacksmith can make you one. Have it constructed with nail holes. Then when you want a setting pole, you can cut one in the woods, and nail to it your iron shoe.

The harness for packs is varied enough, but the principle remains simple. A light pack will hang well enough from the shoulders, but when any weight is to be negotiated you must call into play the powerful muscles lying along the neck. Therefore, in general, an ordinary knapsack will answer very well for packs up to say thirty pounds. Get the straps broad and soft; see that they are both sewed and riveted.


When, however, your pack mounts to above thirty pounds you will need some sort of strap to pass across the top of your head. This is known as a tumpline, and consists of a band of leather to cross the head, and two long thongs to secure the pack. The blanket or similar cloth is spread, the thongs laid lengthwise about a foot from either edge, and the blanket folded inward and across the thongs. The things to be carried are laid on the end of the blanket toward the head piece. The other end of the blanket, from the folds of which the ends of the thongs are protruding, is then laid up over the pile. The ends of the thongs are then pulled tight, tied together, and passed around the middle of the pack. To carry this outfit with any degree of comfort, be sure to get it low, fairly in the small of the back or even just above the hips. A compact and heavy article, such as a sack of flour, is a much simpler matter. The thongs are tied together at a suitable distance. One side of the loop thus formed goes around your head, and the other around the sack of flour. It will not slip.

By far the best and most comfortable pack outfit I have used is a combination of the shoulder and the head methods. It consists of shoulder harness like that used on knapsacks, with two long straps and buckles to pass around and secure any load. A tumpline is attached to the top of the knapsack straps. I have carried in this contrivance over a hundred pounds without discomfort. Suitable adjustment of the headstrap will permit you to relieve alternately your neck and shoulders. Heavy or rather compact articles can be included in the straps, while the bulkier affairs will rest very well on top of the pack. It is made by Abercrombie & Fitch, and costs two dollars and seventy-five cents.


Stewart Edward White

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