Cook: The Romance of the Birch Bark Canoe

Photos by Ramona du Houx

 

By David S. Cook (in photo above)—author of Above the Gravel Bar: The Native Canoe Routes of Maine 

Many folks, when they hear melodious and ancient Maine Indian names such as Androscoggin or Penobscot, Kennebec or Kineo, wonder what they mean. For some, like me and perhaps you, they conjure up that time out of mind when Maine and the far Northeast were the dominion of America’s first human inhabitants whose presence began with the disappearance of the ice sheets over 10,000 years ago. 

Such names are linguistic relics and they are the “colored curtains” framing the windows through which we peer back to those old days. They are not the only relics, of course.

Stone tools, chipped from volcanic rock or made by arduous grinding, are often found where dropped beside a river or stream. Only one with a poor imagination is not stirred, when touching a prehistoric projectile point or stone axe, to dream about those long-ago people who made their homes here well before the ancient Greeks invented democracy or China’s Great Wall was constructed.

There is another cultural artifact that all are familiar with which can be a virtual “time machine” which will transport you back as close as you will ever get to those old days. I write, of course, about the canoe, and it can be a pure form of recreation. 

Maine is smack dab in the middle of the Maritime Peninsula, which is bordered in the south by the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy and on the north two hundred miles away by the mighty St. Lawrence River. It is still possible to travel by canoe directly through our forests and reach either place, if one has the time, skill and stamina. 

Native American canoes were originally made from birch bark held together by spruce root and waterproofed by a mixture of spruce pitch, fat, and charcoal—canoes today are more likely to be made from aluminum or a space-age material such as Kevlar or plastic. We see them atop cars and trucks or beached along a river or lakeshore without realizing where they came from and what we can learn about the folks who first devised them.

 

The birch-bark canoe was the most important technical achievement of Northeastern prehistory and, even though our modern canoes are no longer made of birch bark, when properly understood they provide a very powerful connection with those ancients who first created them thousands of years ago. Learning the way of the canoe is recreation, or “re-creation,” in the purest sense of the word.

Maine is at the southern limit of Betula papyrifera, more commonly known as “white” or “paper” or “canoe” birch, which stretches in a band one thousand miles wide across North America.

Maine and was, and still is, the habitat of white birch. This huge area is puddled by hundreds of thousands lakes and ponds, and is bisected by countless rivers and streams. With light and durable canoes, this vast region was traversed with relative ease while those afoot would find the watery terrain both difficult and even forbidding.

We do not know when humans in this part of the world began using the white birch for canoe construction, but it must have been thousands of years ago. Archeological sites in Maine’s interior reveal human presence for ten millennia, although we do not think the first people, called “Paleo-Indians,” had canoes. They moved onto a glacially scoured landscaped characterized by now extinct and relatively huge lakes and rivers swollen by melt water from glaciers originally hundreds of feet thick. Our modern landscape, including rivers and lakes, emerged between ten thousand and eight thousand years ago, and humans came to occupy such places and, at some point, developed the birch-bark canoe.

Coastal archaeological sites, because of a rising sea, only date back to around five thousand years or so, but that does not mean they did not have such watercraft. Professor David Sanger of the University of Maine, who has made a study of sites in Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, has stated that humans were crossing the Bay of Fundy for at least the last five thousand years.

Sanger, Maine’s preeminent archaeologist, visited colleagues in Nova Scotia in the 1990s on a working holiday. He knew of stone artifacts from the coast of Maine, made from a distinctive type of agate only found in Nova Scotia. When he met with his friends in Halifax, they presented him with a tray of artifacts made from Kineo felsites, which geologists call a “cryptocrystalline silicate,” dating back at least five millennia to the times of the “Red Paint People,” although that term is no longer used. Mount Kineo, the source of such material, is some two hundred and thirty miles distant from where the artifacts were excavated.

Dave told me that when he saw those relics, identical to those found in Maine from that period in both raw materials and manufacturing techniques, he thought his friends—archaeologists are a droll bunch—were trying to fool him. They assured him the points, plummets, ground stone gouges, and scrapers had been excavated in Nova Scotia, and no one was pulling his leg. That of course raised the question of how did the Kineo and agate artifacts come to be where they were discovered.

Some archaeologists argued that canoeing in the Bay of Fundy was impossible: “It’s got the highest tides in the world, there are miles of open water, and the weather in the bay is dangerously fickle,” some noted. Innocent of any real canoe experience, they posited that such materials were most probably lugged to their find spots by people who walked around the Bay of Fundy, a hike of some seven hundred miles.

If true, one has to wonder how such pedestrians crossed the many rivers emptying into the bay, rivers which are very wide in their estuaries. Do not forget that, on a clear day, one can, from hills in the Passamaquoddy Bay, see Nova Scotia, which is only fifty or so miles away by water.

In 1998 I was part of a crew of “forensic archaeologists” who paddled a thirty-foot canoe from Passamaquoddy Bay to Whale Cove, Nova Scotia, via Grand Manan Island, demonstrating such a trip was not only feasible but, given the archaeological finds and the distances, most probable. Check out DeLorme’s Atlas and Gazetteer and try to count the number of places on the peninsulas of Maine’s ragged coast labeled Carrying Place Cove. It will take you awhile, believe me. Such carries allow the canoeist to avoid the dangerous waters around the capes by very short routes, which keep the paddlers in safer waters.

Today, we can use our canoes on Maine’s interior waters to gain many important insights into a vanished life style. 

Birch-bark canoes, all canoes really, have three great qualities, which must be understood. First, they were constructed and repaired by easily obtained materials, mentioned above. Second, they are portable. When one comes to an obstacle such as rapids or waterfalls, they are easily carried past such places. (In Canada, they say “portaged” in Maine we say “carried.”) This also includes carries between watersheds. Names such as Carry Pond, Carry Brook, and Portage Lake in Aroostook County refer to canoe travel, and direct translations of their old Indian names reveal their utility to canoe travelers.

Maine’s rivers are like the trees in our dense forests. The main channels are like the trunks of mighty trees, which may be far apart on the ground but whose tributaries/branches are practically intertwined in the headwater regions, as the trees do in the forest’s canopy. Like the squirrel who wants to go to a nearby tree and hops from branch to branch, a canoeist carries, not hops, between the tributaries of say, the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers at many places.

The Sebasticook, (which means “almost through route”), is a good example that connected the Kennebec River (at modern Winslow) with the Penobscot watershed at several important places: one route was to the Piscataquis (“a branch of a river”) near Dover-Foxcroft, a principle Penobscot tributary, which joins the main Penobscot at Howland; or to the Kenduskeag (“place of water chestnuts”) which enters the main river at Bangor; or via Souadabscook Stream (“the rocky place”) which runs into the Penobscot below Bangor. For people at either river these were well-known routes. There are many such examples all across our region. 

The large rivers of Maine and New England, Quebec, and New Brunswick empty into the ocean many miles from each other, but it is possible for a man to walk between their headwaters where they rise in Northern Maine/Quebec in half a day.

The third and last great quality of the canoe is that it can be propelled upstream in very shallow water by using a “setting pole,” ten to twelve feet long, depending on the water’s depth. Poling, a skill which is making a comeback in the last few years, is used to navigate in shallow and rapid water only inches deep and impossible for the paddle. Poling is my favorite way to travel, and I can average around two miles per hour, faster than one can scramble afoot along the banks or in the woods.

A modern canoeist confronts reality the way it was experienced by birch-bark canoe people for thousands of years. When you crunch into a rock, you have just bumped into an age-old reality. Likewise, when you are sweating and swatting flies as you portage your canoe around a dangerous place or to a different watershed completely. 

The places which I find commodious for camping, a level well-drained shore near a source of good drinking water, a good canoe landing, or at the junction of important waterways are the same places my paddling and poling and portaging predecessors used for millennia. Often, when coming to such a place, a careful examination of the ground and banks will reveal ancient evidence in the form of fire-cracked rocks from old campfires, chipped stone of weapons-grade felsites or cherts (another volcanic rock prized by prehistoric hunters), or sometimes even bits of clay pottery. 

They tell me I am following in the wake of other canoe people who, like me, traveled in a very old and very elegant means of transportation which, while obsolete for many folks today, nonetheless connect me directly with those hundreds of generations who used their “agwiden,” an Abenaki word which means “floats lightly,” to quietly and gracefully travel the multitudinous waterways which are as much a blessing to us as they were to countless people over thousands of years. That is re-creation in the purest sense and it makes me feel that I am just behind them on the carry trail or the river and I know I am not alone.

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