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2011 06 07

            WHEN MARTIN AUGER was four years old, his father died. As the young boy grew up, it was from his mother that he learned the ways of the Crees in the northern woodbelt of Alberta. He learned well. Martin is seventy years old now and living in Wabasca, a settlement of Indians and Metis two hundred and fifty miles north of Edmonton. He is one of the few remaining native craftsmen in a wide area ~ one of those who still possess great skill in crafts which will die with them when they finally join their ancestors. Recently we watched as he put one of his skills to work in the building of a birch-bark canoe.
            Martin brought his wife, Marie, and a small grandson with him to the place where he would build the canoe. So the first task on hand for both man and wife was setting up camp. This consisted of a conventional tent and a teepee joined together. And then, while Marie made camp comfortable by moving in the single bed and the few belongings which they had brought, making the square firepit in the center of the teepee, and carpeting the ground inside with fresh-cut fireweed, Martin set out to collect some of the necessary materials.
            He went into the bush with axe and hunting knife and, in his knapsack, a thermos of tea, a few strips of dried moosemeat and, his only concession to the white man, a bottle of mosquito repellant.
            Some six miles distant from camp, Martin found a good stand of large birch among the poplars and spruces that predominated in the area. He selected a tree which was healthy and had suitable bark stretching eight feet or so up the trunk. The bark which Martin preferred was free of knot marks, and had a minimum of the typical white, horizontal 'birch markings'. 'For,' as he explained, 'the bark cracks easily at those markings, and will leak unless pitched thoroughly later on. And that's a lot of extra work.'
            To find just the right bark, Martin tested a number of trees by making a slight cut in the bar ~ bending it back far enough to see the characteristics. If it was found wanting, the bark was carefully pushed back and the search continued.
            The bark was peeled off by making a single cut up the trunk and through the bark with the tip of the knife until there was enough space to grasp it with the fingers. The sheet was then carefully peeled off. The strips were about forty inches high, while the trees selected were all approximately sixteen to eighteen inches in diameter. This provided sheets of bark varying between three and four feet square. Nine sheets were collected from about half a dozen trees, two of which had to be cut down. After scraping the rough outer sides of the bark with his knife to remove moss and other materials Martin rolled the sheets with the outside in and opposite to the natural curl. A small piece of spruce root was used to tie the rolls, making them easy to carry.
            Near the stand of birches, a black spruce approximately eight inches in diameter with a straight and branchless lower trunk was located. This was cut down and the lower twelve feet or so hauled back to Camp with the rolls of birch bark. There a shallow hole abuot five feet square and a few inches deep was made in the ground. Great care was taken to ensure that the bottom was quite flat. The sheets of birch bark were unrolled and placed one on top of the other in the depression: then a board weighted down with some large rocks was placed on top to flatten and store the bark until it could be used. The moist earth on which it was placed prevented it from drying prematurely.
            The next day, Martin began work on the spruce log. He placed one end on a short stump which had been cut out to hold the log steady while it was being worked on. He explained that from this log he would make the longitudinal members of the canoe frame.
            He proceeded to hew the log with his axe until he had fashioned a timber about two and a quarter inches thick and about seven and a half inches wide. When he was satisfied with its uniformity and thickness he finished both faces with a plane. Then with a saw, he ripped nine pieces of lumber from it. Of these, four were shaped with the plane and a special tool which Martin had made for the purpose from an old knife; the ends were then curved by bending and tying them to blocks of wood which he had previously hewn and planed to the desired shape.
            Nearby, the old craftsman found a number of small willows about two to three inches in diameter. He cut them down and made from them a number of thick slats about two inches wide by one-quarter inch thick. These were bent to serve as the ribs for the ends of the canoe closest to the bow and stern. The two stem bands (one and a half inches in width and half an inch thick) were also made of this material. Willow was used because of the extreme curvature in the ribs at the bow and stern; spruce was to be used for the other ribs. The completed sets of ribs were left to dry on a crude tripod.
            A spruce about sixteen inches in diameter and with a very straight grain was required next. From it, the thin slats for the planking were to be made. The long fiber of the black spruce (Picea mariana) made it especially suited for that purpose because of its great strength. When asked how many of these slats he would need, Martin simply said with a careful smile 'Oh many.' As he plodded through the bush with the measured steps of the woodsman, he examined many trees until he finally located one which seemed to satisfy him. This was cut down, and a piece of the lower trunk about five feet long was sawed off. The old man spat in his hands, took hold of his axe, and set to work splitting this log with the aid of some wedges cut from a small poplar.
            When it was split at last, and Martin had examined the grain, he exclaimed, satisfied, 'Nee-ah'sun. Good.' The two halves were then split again to make four quarters. The centre was cut from these and discarded, making the pieces a little lighter and easier to carry back to camp.
            There, the task of splitting off the rough slats from the quarter logs was tackled by making a cut at the end of it with an axe, and carefully working the blade down until a handhold could be gained on the slat. It was then pulled off with great care not to cross the grain and lessen the strength.
            Approximately sixty-five slats were made. A number of these were carefully finished to about two and one half inches wide and one quarter of an inch thick. These spruce slats, in sets of three, were bent into shape to serve as ribs. The remainder were finished to uniform thickness but to more or less random width, and set aside for later use as planking.
            The last materials required were the roots to be used in sewing together the bark of the canoe's covering. The long, tough, pliable roots of the white spruce (Picea glauca) were best suited to this purpose. The best product can be obtained from roots dug in the spring or fall, but as Martin explained, roots of sufficient quality can be found at almost any time of year.
            A likely tree was selected and the ground prodded with a stick to look for the roots. When one was located, it was carefully followed to its end and dug up. Lengths of the spruce root may vary from three to twenty feet. Although the usual practice in preparing the spruce roots was to steam them to make the bark easier to remove, the aged artisan was able to accomplish this by simply soaking them in water; the roots he had selected were relatively thin. Once the bark had been removed, Martin split the root by biting the end to make a small incision, and then pulling it along his teeth dividing it lengthwise. He commented jokingly that because of his advancing years he was not as adept at this as he had once been; he had only a half dozen or so teeth left. The split roots were stored in a small bucket filled with water.
            Now all the required parts for the canoe had been assembled and construction could begin. But first, a shelter was made from a number of small poplars. Two were selected with forks, in which a third poplar about fourteen feet long could rest to give the basic frame for the lean-to. A number of leafy branches from some nearby birches were placed against the south side of the frame. This provided shelter from the sun, protecting the materials from drying too fast, and providing some comfort for the builder.
            On the ground, under the lean-to, two poplars of about four-inch diameter were laid. These were notched at intervals of about three feet to receive stakes which were driven into the ground on the outside of the two poplars. The space between was filled with earth to provide a working platform.
            On this platform of dirt were placed the sheets of birch bark, shaped into the approximate form the canoe would take by stakes driven into the ground; rocks placed on the bark forced it into the required curve.
            The main longitudinal members which had by now taken shape formed the inner and outer gunwales. The outer gunwales were ready for use just as they were. The inner gunwales had to be notched to receive the four thwarts which straddle the canoe. After placing the thwarts, Martin tied the two gunwales together, making the canoe's basic top frame. Two identical pieces to fit inside the bow and stern were made from spruce.
            Then, finally, the building of the canoe was begun in earnest. The gunwales were placed in position, a centre board about four inches wide and running the full length of the canoe came to rest on the bottom, and the inside bow and stern pieces just made were all set approximately in place.
            From this point, the work became a co-operative task for both man and wife, as the sewing of the bark took place. Once begun, work with birch bark had to be completed as quickly as possible to prevent drying, for once this happened, it was likely to crack or break when worked.
            The bow and stern were sewn together using alternate long and short stitches. They were bound off with a narrow piece of bark inserted between the gunwales. An extra strip of bark was inserted between the gunwales before finally fastening these together, giving a double layer at this point. The binding of the gunwales, through the bark skin, was done at intervals of about six inches for a length of two or three inches. Where the thwarts were located, the spruce root bindings were pulled through the thwarts in predrilled holes. The ends of the roots were fastened by pushing them through holes in the bark which had been made with an awl, pulling tight, and holding them by small wooden plugs.
            Three of the ribs were placed approximately in position in the canoe, and the spruce planking was laid in place. A top board, about two inches wide, was put in place first. Then, four-inch-wide planking made its way down to the bottom member of the canoe. The same was done up the other side. The planking varied from four to five feet in length, so it was placed in three sections; first the middle, then the two ends.
            When all the planking was thus laid in place, the ribs were put in and held in place by forcing them between the inner and outer gunwales on each side.
            Trimming the outside of the bark skin, and pitching the sewn joints was all that was needed to complete the canoe. Spruce pitch was scraped from trees where the sap had run down the outside of the trunk and hardened. Martin explained that in the days when much of this pitch was used by the Crees, it would be collected, as maple sap is still collected today in eastern Canada. It would take up to three or four years for the pails to fill with pitch. It was then put in a basket of root netting and thrown into a container in which water was boiling. The netting would retain all the pieces of bark, moss or twigs, that had fallen into the pitch, while the hot water would melt the pitch itself. It could then simply be skimmed off the top of the water.
            Martin boiled the pitch and skimmed off the impurities. It was allowed to cool and when it had hardened again, the water was poured off. The spruce gum was heated once more and a few spoonfuls of lard were mixed into it in order to render it less brittle and make it less subject to cracking after it had been applied to the canoe. The pitch was then spread over all the stitching, and every place where it seemed a leak might develop.
            To finish off the project and, of course, to make the canoe serviceable, two spruce paddles were made.
            Martin Auger worked leisurely. The completed canoe took about five weeks to build.

   Published in The Beaver summer 1973

  Photos by Eleanor Toshiko Hyodo


  Slats of black spruce for planking and ribs.


  Birch bark shaped by stakes driven into the ground at three-foot intervals is weighted down by rocks to force it into the requiredcurve.


  Ribs are put in place by forcing them between the inner and outergunwales.


  After stitching, the joints are sealed with spruce pitch.