Bark Canoe

26 June 2007
Is it possible that in the spring and early summer
pre-settler Virginia Indians easily and quickly
made canoes of bark (other than birch or elm),
used them to cross flooded rivers, then
discarded them to quickly decay and leave no
evidence that they ever existed?

I posed the question to six friends and we met at
my log cabin on Massanutten Mountain in the
Shenandoah Valley in June 2007 to see if we
could demonstrate how it might have been done.
I had made three models, and I was convinced
that it was a remarkably simple process, so we
proceeded to try on June 26.

Northern Indians often took the bark directly from
the standing tree, folded the ends into points,
sealed seams and leak points with pine or spruce
pitch, sometimes just mud, and they were ready
to paddle. We did demonstrate that taking the
bark from the standing tree was indeed practical
and fast, but an ash tree turned out to be a bad
choice. The grain was straight, knot free, and
very near our work site but turned out to be too
thick and brittle for the folds and bends we
needed at each end.
The first model. A maple bark
canoe. March 2007
The second model, hickory
bark. June 2007
The third model, hickory
bark, much larger.
We abandoned the ash and chose a hickory farther from the worksite, 38 inches
in circumference and about 75 feet high. We decided to saw it down and snake
the first 20 feet of it about 300 yards to the cabin for the convenience of tools,
and supplies. There we sawed away four feet of the log to get the clearest bark
possible, removed 16 feet of bark in a single sheet the shape of the tree trunk,
and trimmed off another 3ft damaged bark or knots. We learned how to manage
the folds and bends we needed as we shaped the ends and set temporary
spreaders and lashings to hold the shape of the craft.   

The result is a canoe shape 13 ft long with no lashings, no nails or metal
fasteners of any kind, no ribs, no stem piece and no headboard or deck. The
depth from bottom to top edge of the bark was 13 inches. If it drew four inches of
water, I estimated it would leave eight or nine inches of free-board, enough to
support a paddler.  Except for three spreaders (crude thwarts) it was a one
piece canoe weighing more than 100 pounds and required two men to move it
under the protection of the shop shed.

It took less than an hour for three men to remove the bark. At one end, we made
a cut from the corner of each side inward about two feet long, drew the sides
together and  raised the under-flap. That proved very difficult and by nightfall we
were ready to set it aside for a new start the next day (Saturday).

We started the day by trying to strap on  gunwales to give us more management
of the bark, but that was counter-productive. The gunwales simply drew the bark
downward instead of together in the bow-point we wanted to form.  Two of us
worked on it most of the day before we finally had the points in place and the
under bark flap drawn up and around the sides without the devilish gunwales.

The next morning, having gained some experience, we repeated the process at
the other end in considerably less time than it took for the first one. Next came
the sealing of seams and any damaged places. For that, the Indians would use
pine pitch, a material abundantly available in the pre-settler period. We had
done such a good job of removing the bark in one piece without damage that  
there did not seem to be a lot of sealing necessary. That was about to change

It was time to shut down and return to our homes. Sealing and launching would
have to wait. We set three temporary thwarts, and although it was almost more
than the two of us could lift (maybe 120 pounds), moved the 13 foot canoe
under the shop shed roof, secured the work site and left.

Summarized and eliminating all the mistakes, the process came down to axing
two circles to define the length of the canoe, cutting a straight line between the
circles to open the bark, removing the bark and folding and sealing the ends.   
L-R: Nathan Epps, Ed Barnes,
Chris Biswurm. Barking a very
large ash tree.
Inside the bow.
The bow fold.
After 30 days drying out.
                  July: A Month Later

I came back to the work site July 26. Happily, the end bark folds and bends had
curled inward frozen into the shapes we had formed at the bow and stern. There
was no need for sewing, strapping, lashing or additional fastening. The result was
rock hard and unyielding. However, the drying and curling along the length of the
canoe so stressed the bottom that several long splits up to a half inch wide raked
the bottom and sides. The three spreaders held, but they should have been
spaced six inches apart along the entire length. The bark simply curled and froze
between the spreaders and reduced the free board by about five inches. I tried
harvesting new inner bark (bast) to cover the splits but found it had already
adhered to the wood of the tree and almost impossible to separate.

Instead, I set a large pot to boiling and immersed scrap bark left from the last work
site and use it to plug the openings. Still, there was not enough time to complete
the seals, something the Indians would probably not have been bothered with
since they would have launched the canoe the same day they made it long before
splitting started. They would have used it to move their cargo and themselves
across, then abandoned it. On the other hand, if they were returning in a few days,
they might have set spreaders and lashings as we did, and hid it to make it
available for the return crossing.

The repair work proceeded nicely, but my time elapsed before I was half done, and
I had to leave it for more attention next month, maybe mid-August. Thinking the
drying process was largely complete, I did not replace the temporary
thwarts-another bad mistake.

         SEPTEMBER 20, 2007

I arrived at the site on Thursday, 20 September to find two surprises. First the
canoe had lost so much water in the additional drying that I could lift it
alone-maybe fifty lbs. Secondly, the sides of the canoe had curled so far down I
estimated only four or five  inches of free-board remained. The additional drying
had split more bottom area. Forcing the bark curls straight simply wasn't an option.
The bark would split before it straightened.

Determined to see if it would at least float I began caulking with ravels of three
quarter inch polypropylene twisted rope, and I sealed with troweled on roofing tar.  
It took about ten hours of steady work to complete. Finished, I looked at it in
amazement,  one single piece of bark, no fasteners, pointed, turned up ends. So
simple a project that, any man of normal strength could have made it with a
hatchet or a tomahawk. A group of
experienced men could have made it quickly,  
and did in the north where elm and birch were plentiful. Here in Virginia, it remains
unproven, and, given the rapid disintegration of bark, archaeological digs are not
likely ever to produce the proof.

On the other hand, it may well be possible to demonstrate. My neighbor offered his
pickup truck and help. We loaded the canoe, and headed for the South Fork of the
Shenandoah, about two miles, September 22, 2007.

Please see Bows for details on harvesting bow staves (for bows and arrows) from
the hickory log we had left after the canoe bark was removed.

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Too Much Mac
A Canoe of Hickory Bark: Made in