8 Day Course
Instructor: Randy Brown
Saturday, June 29 – Saturday, July 6, 2019, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm each day
In this class we will work as a group to build a 20′ Athabascan kayak-form birch bark canoe.
Kayak-Form birch bark canoes were built by Native people in northwest North America, including those living along the Yukon River drainage in Alaska. The style is characterized as having a narrow, flat bottom, hard chines, and flaring sides. It has a fixed bottom frame, widely spaced narrow ribs, and partial sheathing along the sides. As such, it does not require bark as wide as required for those built in the northeast and Great Lakes regions, which had a similar appearance to the modern wood and canvas canoes. The Kayak-Form canoe was ideal in form and function for the northwest environment, where the rivers were large and swift, and where the birch trees didn’t grow as consistently large as in the east.
In this class we will work as a group to build a Kayak-Form birch bark canoe as described by Tappan Adney and Howard Chapelle in their classic book on “The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America”. This book was originally published in 1964 by the Smithsonian Institution Press and reprinted in 1983. It is a great resource on the diversity of canoe building styles across North America, and may be the only one that details the Kayak-Form canoe. “The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America” is available on-line for those who may be interested, although it is not required for the class.
We will start the class on Saturday, June 29th and I expect the canoe will be finished by the end of Saturday, July 6th. We’ll first gather and discuss canoe design and size so we all have a similar idea of the canoe we’ll build together. It is our intention to build a full-size canoe around 20 feet long. We’ll then begin fitting and shaping the wood frame pieces used for the gunnels, thwarts, bottom frame, sheathing, ribs, stem and stern pieces, and flooring. These pieces will be made from white spruce that will be available as boards or quarter sections requiring shaping, splitting, fitting, steaming, and bending. These pieces will be made into their final shape with the use of draw knives, spoke shaves, and shaving horses. We’ll use modern hand tools but the canoe will be built with the same natural materials that were used in the past.
After the wood pieces are ready we will prepare the building bed, assemble construction materials, collect spruce roots for sewing the canoe together, and gather spruce pitch to seal the seams. The building bed will be a flat, level piece of ground where the canoe will be assembled. Construction materials will include stakes to hold the bark in position, clamps to squeeze the gunnels tight around the top edge of the bark in preparation for sewing, heavy stones to weight the bottom frame during construction, and other miscellaneous items. Collecting spruce roots and pitch will require a group to wander through a large spruce woods digging roots from under moss and chipping dried pitch bubbles from cracks.
Once the wood pieces and building bed are ready, we will harvest the birch bark and assemble it with the gunnels into the final shape on the building bed. Birch bark is very flexible right after it comes off the tree and becomes progressively more difficult to work with as it dries. As a result, there is strong incentive to establish the sharp bends along the chines and clamp the top edges between the gunnels immediately after the bark is harvested. The shape and symmetry of the canoe is determined during this step. Once we are satisfied with the shape, we’ll start sewing the canoe together with the spruce roots. The gunnels must be sewed to the bark first, then the various panels of bark will be sewed together along vertical and horizontal seams. Finally, the bark will be closed around the stem and stern pieces.
The sewing should proceed relatively quickly with several people working on it. Once the sewing is complete – gunnels sewn in place, all horizontal and vertical bark seams bound, and the bark fixed to the stem and stern pieces – the canoe will be ready to have the ribs pounded into place. The ribs are wedged between the inwale and the bottom frame with a mallet, forcing them into vertical position and drawing the bark tight. This process transforms the canoe into final form and makes it moveable and rigid. Bark decks can be added to the fore and aft regions of the canoe and the flooring planks will be set in place over the ribs, held in place with spare rib pieces. At this point the canoe will be turned over and hot spruce pitch will be applied to the seams and the boat will be ready for use. We will launch the canoe in the Chena River and everyone will have an opportunity to paddle it around.
In 2013 Randy held a similar class for The Folk School. The class built an 18′ canoe that is now on display at the Morris Thompson Center downtown. Click here to view a photo documentary of that class.
Randy, our instructor, is a master birch bark canoe builder as well as a student of bark canoe history and a patient and talented teacher. Working on a project like this with Randy is a transformative experience. Seeing a bark canoe go together is a glimpse into the creative, resourceful and ingenious character of those people who lived here long before us.
Note: The canoe will be constructed in front of The Folk School Workshop. Students should be prepared for inclement weather, but we will have tarps up.
Limited need-based scholarships are available for this course. Please contact Kerri Hamos at email@example.com for more information.
Location: Pioneer Park – Workshop