Building a birch bark canoe, collecting materials

Building a birch bark canoe is something very few folk in the world will ever get to do so I feel extremely fortunate to be helping my friend Jarrod Stone Dahl one of only a handful of folk left with the skills to make them. This and the next few blog posts will share some of the proceses involved. Here are some of Jarrods previous canoes.IMG_9318Our first job was looking for birch bark, at this time of year if you make a vertical slit down the tree the outer barl can be peeled away in a sheet. Here Jarrod’s wife April is showing my daughter Jojo how to peel bark. Bigger trees have thicker bark, this size is too thin and small for canoe bark but is ideal for baskets.

IMG_9258Here I am having my first go, no matter how many times you have seen this done on youtube or watched someone else do it there is nothing like doing it yourself to really feel what is happening.IMG_9265After making the slit we start to prise the bark away. I was tentative at first but you soon get a feel for how much strain you can apply.

IMG_9268And here is the result, gorgeous bark.

IMG_9270Sometimes it’s possible to get a second length of clean bark with the help of a ladder.
IMG_1806Here Jojo is peeling a beautiful tall section.
IMG_1812This is a tree that Jarrod peeled 2 years ago, the inner bark dries and braks away but a new layer of inner and outer bark has formed underneath, the tree remains healthy.IMG_1820This was our haul of basket making bark.IMG_9274

The next job was scouting for canoe bark. For this we needed much larger trees which have thicker bark. Birch is a short lived tree so trees of this size are unusual and coming toward the end of their natural life, it is still a big decision though so we spent a lot of time looking for the perfect tree. Each tree we found we cut a small section of bark, folded it and twisted it to see whether it delaminated or split easily.


This tree is definitely a possibility.IMG_9236

As we drove and walked we saw plenty of wildlife, this is a beaver dam, the lodge is on the left.IMG_9244

and beaver felled tree stumps.IMG_9251The next raw material to source was root for the stitching. Jarrod’s favourite stand of jack pine was being cleared so we had to find a new source. We found a dense stand of spruce with little understory or ground flors, perfect to alow us to dig root.

IMG_9294Having scraped the surface soil away the roots can be tugged and loosened then you follow allong pulling great lengths up.

IMG_9283And this is what we collected, bundles of flexible root. Note the small smouldering fire, that is to keep the mosquitos away, there were plenty of them.IMG_9300Back home we dropped the roots into boiling water for 30 minutes or so.IMG_9313The hot roots were fished out ready to be split and dressed.IMG_9321The first stage was splitting the root in half, this was surprisingly easy.
 IMG_9335Then the outer bark was peeled awayIMG_9344and the root cleft again down to a nice thin flexible fibre.IMG_9351This is me cleaving a root in half.

IMG_9365We bundled these roots up and tossed them in a bucket of water to keep them flexible untill we ready to use them.IMG_9357So we have a couple of weeks of work to go, tis was the first two days, it’s pretty exciting and at the end of the project we will be paddling a conoe out into the wilderness.


6 Responses to Building a birch bark canoe, collecting materials

  1. Alastair Dargue May 29, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    Fantastic experience, thanks for sharing.

  2. Steve Kubien May 29, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    I must say, I am surprised that you can remove the bark and the tree lives on.

    Have fun!

  3. Jackie May 30, 2014 at 8:38 am #

    Hi Robin…just found this, your amazing blog about constructing a birch bark canoe after reading a most interesting article about you and your work in the Homes and Gardens magazine. I will be following your tale of the canoe construction avidly. Great work and article in the H & G piece…hope to be purchasing some of your pieces upon your return. Hope you have a great time. Best wishes….

  4. Stephen Walker May 30, 2014 at 11:35 am #

    Hi Robin
    You and JoJo are indeed very lucky. That looks fabulous and I’m oh-so jealous.
    Have done the root splitting to make ropes and it’s a good skill to have.
    Can’t wait for the building proper!
    PS Live The Dream

  5. jd ware May 30, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    Hola Robin,
    What a great experience! John McPhee’s 1975 book, Survival of the Birchbark Canoe, was (and remains) one of my touchstones. It’s a short, fast read on the life and work of Henri Vaillancourt, who’s built birchbark canoes his whole life. Here’s a link to the publishers website with an excerpt:

  6. Brian Anderson June 7, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Very cool. The birch bark canoe has to be one of the most elegant examples of “ancient” technology out there. Humbling mix of form and function, grace and beauty.