The birch bark canoe

The transportation system of the NWC was based on the Algonkian birch bark canoe. The Ottawa River provided the regular channel for trade goods, which were carried in canoes. These canoes did not depart from Montreal but from Lachine, which had always been the point of departure for the upper countries. This town owes its name to the expeditions of La Salle, which were fitted out at this place, for the discovery of a north west passage to China, which Jacques Cartier initially hoped to find in 1534-35.

A large canoe took several days to build, unlike small canoes which were put together in a few hours. The canoe's frame was made of white cedar. Sections of bark fitted over the frame were sewn in place and all joints treated with resin to make the canoe waterproof. Spruce provided both the roots and sap. The high prow was decorated with a crude design painted in colors. Not all canoes were painted but it was usual to depict a flag, an Indian head, a horse or the logo of the company. In some cases, green and red lines were drawn on a white background along the sides. During the trip, gum had to be reapplied almost daily in order to prevent the canoe from leaking.

Voyaging by canoe was quite risky and uncomfortable. The voyageurs sat in the canoe for about 12 hours each day without casting themselves about or moving in any way. Obstacles such as rapids, rocks, cascades, floating tree trunks and shallow rivers were often avoided at the last minute. Drowning and other accidents were frequent, and if the crafts were not too damaged, they were repaired several times a day.

Each canoe leaving Lachine was manned by 6 to 10 men. Their freight usually consisted of 65 pièces of trade goods, as heavy as 90 pounds each. To this was added the weight of every man and of 8 bags of 40 pounds each, one of which every man had. Added to this were 600 weight of biscuit, 200 weight of pork and three bushels of peas for provisions. Each canoe was equipped with an ax, a towing line, a kettle and some gum, bark and watape for repairs. Watape was the fine roots of the spruce tree that was used to sew pieces of birch bark together. Each canoe also carried a roll of birch bark called "écorce", and a piece of fleecy sheepskin used as a sponge to soak up the water in the canoe. An oil cloth tarpaulin was kept to cover gear in rain and rough water. And so, while the empty birch bark canoe weighted about 300 pounds, it could sustain a total of 5 tons of crew and freight, with no nails and metal used in its construction.

Birch bark canoes were not the only crafts used by the NWC. In areas where birch was absent, canoes were constructed of hickory and elm bark, moose hide and buffalo skin. There were also the wooden dugouts or pirogues, commonly used in areas of no suitable bark. Some "bateaux" were made of planks of wood. They were sharp at both ends and had straight, flaring sided with a flat bottom. Dugouts, rowboats, rafts and other crafts could have replaced canoes on many waterways, but these crafts could not be carried on a man's shoulders. Also, bateaux and rafts could not shoot rapids skillfully and would not carry people and goods as easily.

Types of canoes

A canoe journey between Montreal and Athabaska took nearly 4 months. To make the trade more efficient, there were 3 types of canoes.

1) The "canot de maître" was used in the route between Montreal and Lake Superior. It could transport up to 90 pièces of 40 kilos or 90 pounds each as well as a crew of 8 to 12 men, their equipment as well as a few passengers. It measured up to 12 metres long, 2 metres wide and 75 cm deep. The "canot de maître" was too big for the small river of the interior.

2) The "canot du Nord" was used in the interior, for voyages starting on Lake Superior. It was 7 metres long, 1 metre wide and 20 cm deep. This boat was manned by 4 to 6 men and could carry 35 bales, for a total capacity of 1700 kilos or 4000 pounds. It did not last over 1 or 2 seasons, and so, up to 70 were built or purchased every year by the NWC. Here is an example of the contents of a north canoe in 1800:

5 bales of merchandise 1 bale of tobacco

1 bale of kettles 1 case of guns 1 case of iron works 2 rolls of new twist tobacco 2 bags of lead balls 1 bag of flour 1 bag of sugar 2 kegs of gun powder 10 kegs of high wine

3) The express canoes were called "canot léger" or "canot batard" and were about 5 metres long. These were used to carry important people, reports, and news to and from different posts in the Northwest. There were two expresses annually. The winter express left the farthest posts in the north about the end of November, passed through the whole country on sledges and snowshoes and reached Sault Ste. Marie in March. The summer express hurried down to Fort William with the results of the winter trade, in advance of the canoes with the furs.

Paddles were hand-carved from single pieces of wood. Different types of wood were used, such as cedar and spruce. Cedar offered strength and lightness without being brittle. Three sizes of paddles were used:

a) the milieux had short, common paddles that reached to chin level;

b) The bowmen and steersmen had longer paddles as they were often standing while navigating. Their paddles might be as long as 6 feet and 4 to 5 inches wide;

c) a still larger paddle measuring up to 8 feet long was sometimes used by the bowmen or foremen when running rapids or leaping small falls.

The blades were usually painted red with black and green markings. The voyageurs were particular about their paddle; no man in his right mind would use a blade wider than 5 inches, for anything wider could tire him quickly.

Navigation techniques

The great advantage of the canoe was its light weight: 2 men could carry one of average size with ease, yet it would support a heavy load and respond well to the twists of the rivers. The main disadvantage of the canoe was its fragility. The slightest error in judgment while running a rapid might throw it against a rock and rip a gash in its bottom.

In each canoe, the foremen and the steersmen were always on the lookout directing the passage of the crew. The foreman had the command and the middleman obeyed both the foreman and the steersman. Separate from these, a conductor, or pilot, was appointed to every 4 or 6 canoes, which they were all obliged to obey. A bourgeois was placed in charge of several canoe brigades, amounting to 20 or 30 crafts.

The usual paddling cadence on lakes was about 40 strokes a minute, which propelled the craft at about 5 miles per hour. At this rate, up to 100 miles, or over 200 km, could be covered in a day. Yet the navigation of the many rivers of the Northwest was broken by rapids. This means that several navigation techniques were used to by-pass these dangerous obstacles.

A portage was a stop where both the canoe and its load had to be carried overland. When a canoe was beached, it was unloaded and the bowman and the steersmen hoisted it on their shoulders, followed by the crew. During portages, the voyageurs carried the bundles of goods and furs with a tumpline, a leather strap that went across the forehead, then back and around the load. The method of carrying the canoe depended on which type of canoe was portaged. A canot de maître was carried bottom side by 4 men supporting the gunwale on a padded shoulder: 2 men near the bow and 2 near the stern. The North canoe required only two men in carrying it: the bowman and steersman. The average speed for a man on a portage was 3 miles per hour. At a portage, each voyageur was assigned to carry a minimum of two 90 pound bundles. If he carried more, he would obtain a cash bonus. Including loading and unloading, a 5 mile portage could take up to two hours!

The length of a portage was computed by voyageurs in a characteristic way. At approximately every mile or 10 minutes of walking, the voyageurs had a "posé" where the packs were set down and the men ran back to get more gear. Then, without resting, the men shouldered their packs and went on to the next posé. The portages came to be measured by the number of posé.

Sometimes it was not necessary to portage around an obstruction, but merely to remove some of the gear from the canoe. This was a décharge. To pass a décharge, it was necessary to tow the canoe by means of a rope or cable. Bad accidents occurred when a towing rope broke and the canoe was precipitated down the rapids or over falls. As during a portage, goods were carried on the men's backs in slings passing over the forehead.

Going upstream, when the current became too fast to paddle against and yet not strong enough to require leaving the water, there were two other navigation methods; if the shoreline was free of snags, the canoe was lined or tracked. A line of 60 to 100 feet long was attached to the canoe and pulled from shore while the steersman and gear stayed in the canoe. In circumstances when the shoreline presented several snags, the canoe was poled. Poling was accomplished with a long, 8 to 10 feet metal pole. The polers stood, and the technique demanded perfection in timing and balance.

When the shoreline was too cluttered for lining, the bottom too deep or too soft for poling and the current too swift for paddling a fully loaded canoe, the crew conducted a demidécharge. The men jumped in the water until their waists, and the canoe was unloaded in the water. Half the packs were taken out, the rapid was forced, the half load deposited and the voyageurs went back for the second half-load. Finally, in other cases, a crew may be willing to shoot the rapid. An experienced guide might decide that the canoe would safely go through. When the baggage became wet, or even damp, it was important to delay a day to dry the goods. Bales were unrolled and blankets, cottons, clothes were hung or laid on sand to dry.

On windy days, the men kept close, skirting the rocky coast. When the waves were high, the object of their maneuver was to avoid sending the nose of the canoe under the wave. When the wind was light, a sail was improvised with the oil-covered tarp. In such cases, the voyageurs believed it was "La Vieille", or "the old women of the wind", who blessed them with favoring breezes. The ritual to encourage light favorable wind consisted of throwing a little tobacco into the waters or scattering a little water from the blades of the paddles and uttering the formula: "souffle, souffle la vieille".

The symbol of the canoe

The canoe and its many journeys into the wilderness has been a consistent theme in Canada's history and folklore. There is a logic imposed by the early canoe routes: the border with the United States is not an arbitrary line as the watersheds flow away from it north and east. Following in the wake of the first explorers, fur traders, colonists and missionaries struck west across the continent by canoe, seeking out the waterways which would eventually lead them to the Pacific. Today, the canoe remains a symbol of Canadian identity. It provides people with a sense of wilderness and an image of the routes and lives of the past. It also serves as a symbol of navigation, alliance, grandure and territorial expansion. In 1935, Canada's first silver dollar was made for circulation. The reverse of the silver dollar was a modern design showing an Indian and a voyageur paddling a canoe by the islet on which there are two wind-swept trees. In the canoe are bundles of goods; the bundle at the right has HB, representing the Hudson's Bay Company. There are vertical lines in the background represent the northern lights.

Copyright © McGill University, 2001

Bill of lading of canoe
Source: McCord Museum/
Musée McCord