Spruce gum and bear fat: Building a bark canoe by Rick Whitehead

Whitehead paddling his newly built 14-foot birchbark canoe on its maiden voyage at Alex Mathias' cabin on Obabika River.




Whatís an Englishman doing living with a First Nations family in the bush in Northern Ontario?

Years ago I wanted to make a boat, a canoe, something of grace, of beauty. Something with clean simple lines, something that had honesty about it, a simple honesty that didnít seem to exist anymore. This summer I lived that dream. I built a birchbark canoe, a weegwas cheemun, in the time-honoured, traditional way, with a crooked knife, hunting knife, axe and handmade moose-bone awls. There are no how-to manuals for building birchbark canoes and very few people alive whoíve built them.


I met Alex Mathias, an Ojibway elder, last year during a wilderness canoe trip with my wife that was serendipitously guided by his daughters. I got to live in the bush this summer because of his good grace and courtesy. I got fed sumptuous meals, looked after, cleaned up after, and generally made to feel like one of the family returning home after a long absence. Even the dogs treated me that way.

This was a canoe of the woods, made from the woods, that belonged to the woods. Birchbark was its skin, ash its gunwales, cedar its sheathing and ribs, yellow birch its thwarts, spruce root its lashings, and spruce gum and bear fat its caulking.

Photo: The birchbark form, after 800 pounds of rock removed, ready for the ribs to go in

The birchbark form, after 800 pounds of rock removed, ready for the ribs to go in.

                                                                PHOTO: ALEX BROADBENT

You donít have to go far for these. And that becomes the point. When you live in the bush, everything matters. Conservation of resources, your own personal resources and those around you, is paramount. It doesnít take long to appreciate the importance of this. When itís up to you whether or not you have food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and a means to acquire these where there are no shops, it brings everything sharply into focus.

You want to build near your launch site, where thereís a plentiful supply of water, of firewood, of food.


Where thereís shelter, where you donít have to carry far the 400 pounds (or in my case, we reckoned, it was nearer 800 pounds) of rocks that held the building frame in place.

Somebody asked me why spruce root was used for the lashing, why not sinew. Well, you could sharpen the root to a point to aid pushing it through the birchbark as you were lashing, or sewing, so you didnít need a needle.  It was also readily available, you didnít have to hunt very far to get it. It needed little preparation, just de-barkIng, splitting if it was too thick, and boiling. When you boiled the root, you could use the hot water to soften the bark to make the sewing easier, and you have just made refreshing spruce root tea, a valuable source of vitamin C.

Building a birchbark canoe in the woods, allows you to more fully appreciate the interconnectedness between things. How, many of the plants and trees that are around us have so many facets, so many uses, that we can depend on, that are ours to use and respect. For me the birch is the tree of life. You can make shelter (teepees and wigwams), you can make waterproof containers and carry baskets, a mode of transportation (canoe), light fires, make writing tablets from its bark alone. From the inner cadmium layer it offers the potential to make bread flour and herbal medicine to cure inflammation, psoriasis and eczema. The semi-seasoned wood will burn all night. Even its leaves can be used for herbal teas. And its sap, in spring and autumn can be tapped and drunk straight as a healthy sugary drink, or brewed into wine.

Photo: Whitehead gumming the bow stem

Whitehead gumming the bow stem.


To leave behind a world thatís governed by measurements is hard. When your everyday is dictated to by fractions; fractions of time, of space, of distance. Itís very hard to stop, and then step outside those confines.

A birchbark canoe isnít made with a tape measure; it isnít made with tools from the 21st century. Itís gauged, by eye. Itís as long and as wide as you need it. And itís handmade. The wood that makes it is split, not sawn. Its beauty is that it isnít like modern canoes, its lines follow slightly irregular paths. Its shape isnít so linear, instead it follows the natural curves and grain of the wood. How long did it take to make? As long as it needed.

A birchbark canoe smells of the forest: the scent of the bark, the cedar, the spruce root and gum, and the bear. It wasnít purely a physical experience, building a canoe. There was a very deep spiritual need to build that canoe in that location. A connection that went back through lifetimes.


Somebody asked me how I made it, how I knew what to do. All I can say is, intuitively. Sure Iíd read some books, Iíd seen some films, but trust me, that doesnít equip you to make a canoe. I felt I had been shown before. That someone had told me that theyíd show me only once, and it was up to me to get it right. I felt I was being watched as I put the canoe together. I could feel them there, sense their eyes upon me, feel their expectations, sense their hope that I would get it right this time. They were there in the trees, but you couldnít see them. Alex knew.

The first time the canoe went in the water was a make-or-break moment Iíll never forget. I knew it was going to be one of the finest moments of my life, or one of my most embarrassing. As fortune had it, it was one of the best, it paddled.  Sure there were a couple of leaks, nothing a bit of bear fat and spruce gum couldnít overcome. And as I paddled it I came to see another beauty, a beauty from within, a timeless, ageless grace that all canoes share.

The spirits of many generations were smiling. I still feel it. I feel that there are other canoes to be made in the woods there.

I canít thank Alex enough for helping me gather the materials, for welcoming and encouraging me. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the trees and the bear who gave up their lives to become part of something else. Meegwetch.

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