A Brief And (Mostly) Accurate History Of Canoes
Ah, the canoe…the backwaters station wagon. The Encyclopedia describes the canoe as, “a small boat, sharp at both ends, paddle-propelled by one or more persons and a propensity to tip unsuspecting paddlers into icy lakes and rivers with little to no provocation or warning.” (I’m paraphrasing).
North America is host to thousands of interconnected lakes, rivers, and watersheds, so it’s no surprise that many of our best hunting and angling opportunities are near bodies of water. Even today, the greatest way to get deep into the backcountry, away from hunting pressure and into pristine fishing waters, is the canoe.
“Once a vehicle of trade and an engine of exploration, canoes can be found in backyards, cottages, and camps throughout the country, signifying sunny days splashing around in the water to some. To others, canoes represent absolute freedom to roam the vast wilderness.”
The canoe, as we recognize it, is based on the deft designs Indigenous communities created to navigate the myriad interconnected waterways in North America.
When settlers showed up unannounced, they discovered that Indigenous communities had created a vast network of trade routes along well-established canoe routes. This surprised them, yet these canoe routes also contained (surprise!) canoes.
Two Distinct Lines
Canoes can be traced back to two different and distinct lines of development. The first includes lightweight natural materials like white birch, which was attached to the skin boat or kayak, and the log dugout, some of which reach 15 meters in length. All styles were well-suited to the local materials and the environment.
However, it was the birchbark canoe that really drew the attention of settlers, leading to the second line of development. These little vessels were maneuverable, carried buoyancy-defying loads, and were incredibly hydrodynamic. The settlers took one look back at their dumpy, heavy boats and decided they were going to appropriate the birchbark canoe shape.
After a successful run as the number one vehicle of the fur trade, people started to use the canoe as a means of recreation. In the 1850s, two English woodworkers who were admiring the vessels decided that there must be a less finicky and fussy way to build a canoe, so they started a company, and the modern hybrid canoe was born.
Without the help of modern materials like canvas, the cedar plank canoe relied heavily on flawless workmanship to ensure the boat actually stayed afloat. After completion, a canoe would be “seasoned” by weighing the canoes down with rocks and filling them with water. As wood is want to do, it would swell, making them watertight. Even with tight tolerances, the boats tended to get a little damp when being used.
The Canadian open canoe, which measured five meters long, 81 centimeters at its beam, and 30 centimeters deep, was built from cedar planks and elm ribs along the Otonabee River near my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. Due to the increased durability of the cedarplanked canoe, it was quickly adopted by recreational hunters and anglers. The popularity of the cedar-plank canoe was so high that during the final three decades of the 1800s, the little boat that could from Peterborough was exported all over the world.
The next major influence on canoe design were the British, who were stationed in major settlements in North America. Along with competing to see who could grow the most majestic mustache, British soldiers were fascinated with sponsoring aquatic competitions. Rowing and sailing races were popular, but the event that drew the most attention and (presumably) made the British ladies quake in their crinolines were the canoe races. This led to design tweaks and new materials being used. The popular canoe races also spread throughout Eastern Canada, and down into the Northern States, where the first U.S.-based canoe association was formed at Lake George, New York, in 1880.
Despite being the first American Canoe Association, at the very first regatta hosted by the ACA, a Canadian named T.H. Wallace handily laid a whooping on the Yanks. Despite the bitter loss, this event led to permanent peace and trade between the two nations forevermore.
When the fabric canvas was introduced, canoe design changed once again. Instead of using strips of cedar fitted together with shiplap joints and fastened with copper nails, builders figured out that canvas soaked in pine tar could solve the “wet pants” problem that plagued the cedar plank canoes. So, the canvas was added between two layers of planks to act like a waterproof membrane.
In 1907, a canoe-building legend was born. Walter Walker, from Ancaster, Ontario, began his woodworking career making furniture but quickly turned his attention towards boat building. Eventually, Walker earned the distinguished title of master canoe builder, which, I assume, earned him near-immortality as he continued to build canoes until his death at the age of 101. His canoes were so well regarded that the cedar strip royal canoe, which he built for Prince Andrew in 1977, was lovingly kept at Windsor Castle (where, I assume, Prince Andrew paddled it around the moat daily until 2006, when it was permanently loaned to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario).
Epoxy resins and fiberglass changed the canoe building game again in the 1900s, allowing builders to create a light, fully waterproof, elegant canoe that highlighted the beautiful cedar strips laid beneath the fiberglass. Arguably these designs came closest to the light weight and maneuverability of the old birchbark canoes.
Since then, canoes have been made from many different materials. Aluminum canoes are the slightly porky but tough friends of duck hunters and outcamps throughout North America. Where they fail in weight savings, they more than make up in the ability to ram them directly into a rocky shoreline without immediately plummeting to the bottom of the lake. Fiberglass canoes are entry-level canoe tripper favorites, given their durability and light weight. Fiberglass can also easily be patched, which is important if you run it aground one too many times.
On the higher cost end of the spectrum, canoes made of Kevlar are incredibly rigid and light weight, which makes them the favorite of back country paddlers that are confident they won’t be running any rocky white water.
Canoe designs have changed, evolved, and changed again, throughout the years, from flat bottom canoes which are stable on calm water but akin to riding a drunken bull in the waves, to round bottoms which will vehemently attempt to dunk you immediately upon entry but are surprisingly stable with a little practice. There’s a canoe out there to suit the taste and style of anyone interested in swinging a leg over the gunnel.
From the fussy and difficult-to-build cedar plank and elm-ribbed canoes of the 1850s, to today’s ultralight Kevlar marvels, canoes have evolved to include multiple hull shapes, each designed to excel in the multitude of waters found across North America. Once a vehicle of trade and an engine of exploration, canoes can be found in backyards, cottages, and camps throughout the country, signifying sunny days splashing around in the water to some. To others, canoes represent absolute freedom to roam the vast wilderness. To me, they are a remarkable way to get myself and all my belongings as wet as possible, as quickly as possible, and I love them dearly.
By Noel Linsey