THE birch bark canoe was the most beautiful and ingenious of all the Indians' inventions. It was so broad that it could float in shallow streams, so strong that it could shoot dangerous rapids, and so light that one man could easily carry it on his back.
To make such a boat the Indians picked out a tall tree, with thick bark and with as few branches as possible. This they would cut down, care being taken to prevent it falling against other trees, thereby hurting the bark. The bark was then split along the length of the tree, and carefully peeled off in pieces the length and breadth of the canoe. They were very particular not to have any holes in the bark, which, during the season when the sap was in the tree, was firm and fine.
The bark was then spread on the ground in a smooth place, the inside downwards, and, in order to stretch it better, logs of wood or stones were placed on it. Then the edges of the bark were gently bent upwards to form the sides of the boat. Some sticks were fixed into the ground at a distance of three or four feet from each other, forming the curved line which the sides of the boat were intended to make. The bark was bent to the form which the boat was to have, being held firmly in position by the sticks thus driven into the ground.
With long paddles and strong arms, the Indians forced their craft along the river.
The ribs of the boat were made of tough hickory, cut into long, flat pieces, and bent to the shape of the boat, the wider ones in the middle, and the narrower ones towards the ends. When thus bent and tied in position, the ribs were placed upon the bark about ten inches apart.
The upper edge of each side of the boat was made of two thin poles, the boat's length, and put close together with flat edges to hold the bark between. These long poles, firmly attached to the ribs, determined the shape of the boat. The edge of the bark was now inserted between the poles on each side, and was sewed to the poles by means of mouse-wood, bark, or roots.
The poles were now sewed together at the end, and the bark was made water tight where it was joined by pounded bark of the red elm. Bands were placed across the top of the ribs of the boat to prevent spreading or crushing in, and boards were laid across the bottom to step on. The boat was then ready for use.
This was a frail structure, and had to be treated very tenderly. The sides were easily torn open by rocks and hidden branches of trees, and, therefore, the Indian was always on the lookout for danger. The bottom could be easily crushed through; hence the Indian went barefoot, and entered the canoe very gingerly.
But with such a canoe three or four persons could easily float, and in some of the war canoes even a dozen Indians could find space. With long paddles and strong arms, the Indians forced their craft over the lakes and along the rivers with great ease and speed. It was strong enough to hold a heavy load, so long as it did not strike a rock or hidden tree. Such a boat could shoot down a dangerous rapid, if it was directed by skillful hands. When the Indians wished to move from one lake to another, they lifted the canoe out the water, strapped it across the back of one man, who took it over the trail across country from one body of water to another.