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Ancient Canoes

November 30, 2021 in Uncategorized


Just how old is a canoe? Some boats have serial numbers stamped on their hulls somewhere that include a clue to the date. Commercially built canoes from Peterborough, Lakefield or similar may come with a company plaque that may have this information nailed on to the deck. Even rowboats built by commercial builders of Muskoka would stamp the date under the deck.

But a birch bark canoe or a home built boat might have no such information. How do you ever tell when or where this kind of canoe was built? Some clues come from the design and construction methods and materials. It is almost expected that a museum in Muskoka should have at least one birch bark canoe.

The Muskoka Lakes Museum and the Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre both have several bark canoes.

While we enjoy cruising effortlessly along the rivers and lakes of Muskoka in modern power, these were the first highways, used for countless generations by Indigenous peoples and then by fur traders and surveyors. The birch bark canoe was the only way to travel.

The bark canoes at both museums have origins that are difficult to nail down. They show modifications that weren’t authentic to Indigenous construction methods, such as the use of nails, tar for sealing, wire and varnish. Nevertheless, they give visitors some idea of how the bark canoe was made. Subtle designs were specific to different Indigenous cultural groups, such as how the topwale and ribs were sewn into place and the use of a piece of bark for a deck vs. an open weave of roots.

A canoe exhibit from the Canadian Canoe Museum came to the MSDC some years ago with an excellent sampling of traditional Indigenous craft.

By Tim Du Vernet

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