Birch Bark Buccaneers and Prairie Paddlers: An Illustrated Look at Alberta’s Early Boating (Part 1)

It takes patience to fold steaming hot birch bark into a canoe and it takes power to hammer the planks of a lumbering sternwheeler. The products of Alberta’s early boat building were vessels that delivered families safe and sound to hunting grounds, glided fishermen over teaming shoals, and carried trade goods in an economic system that forged our province. This is the first of two blogs about some of the unique evidence of early boating in Alberta. The first blog explores First Nations boats and the second discusses early Euro-Canadian vessels from the adoption of the birch back canoe to steamboats.

Dug-outs and Bull Boats

First Nations’ boats on the plains were often made of buffalo hides stretched over willow or pine frames. This ‘bull boat’ was a small, circular craft quickly built from tipi hides and recycled shortly after. It enabled safe river crossings but wasn’t designed for long trips. Like tipis, bull boats were traditionally the property of women who built and paddled them.

Figure 2a. Historic photograph
The bull boat was said to be as maneuverable as a bathtub and when asked why sturdier boats for long distance travel were not more common among the Blackfoot, the historian Norman Henderson wrote that a canoe on the prairies was as helpful as a horse in the muskeg. Prairie rivers meander so much that people moved faster on open plateaus than by canoe. It also made sense to stick to grasslands where buffalo could be monitored. The historical impact was large; when Anthony Henday tried to engage members of the Blackfoot in the fur trade in the 1750s, he was rejected because they couldn’t paddle to distant trade posts and had little incentive to do so. On the unobstructed grasslands, dogs, and later horses, were the main means of moving goods.

Figure 3. Canoe compilation blog
Above are a few of the First Nations boats used in Alberta along with two of the Euro-Canadian adaptations of the birch bark canoe

In the boreal forest, rivers are often the only relief from dense trees or muskeg and here a niche was carved for dug-out canoes. Dug-outs were formed by chipping soaked or partially burned logs with stone axes. The final gouging was done with a clever tool borrowed from nature’s furry carpenters: beaver teeth. Early boat builders used chisels made of beaver incisors tied to wooden handles. With use, beaver tooth dentine is worn away, which exposes new sharp enamel ridges. The result is a self-sharpening chisel that was used by Cree and Dene across the boreal forest.

Figure 4. Beaver tooth blog


Bark and roots

The birch bark canoe was made of sheets moulded into place then sewn together with tree roots. Holes were glued shut with sap or, in Northeast Alberta, bitumen. Great skill was needed to harvest the right bark, steam the sheets, and bend the frames. But, canoe construction was far from a purely functional task, it was sacred. It often involved ceremonies or songs to nurture the development of a canoe that would in turn take care of its paddlers. A canoe could also transport souls. To some Chipewyan, the journey to the afterlife is in a stone canoe: if the soul is pure, it floats to a land of plenty but if it is wicked, the boat sinks to the depths.

The birch bark canoe turned endless tendrils of water into interconnected arteries of movement. It expanded social networks, was a conduit for information, and opened new worlds to exploitation. People used canoes to hunt big game at water crossings and to set fish nets. Torches mounted on the ends of canoes at night attracted fish for spearing. And when game failed, people could move long distances to find relief.

The Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The scene below is by Jason Carter who grew up in northern Alberta in the Little Red River Cree Nation. The painting highlights the legacy of boating in Alberta and captures the adventure and beauty of paddling in northern waters. The canoe is an iconic symbol of our identity and continues to be enjoyed by paddlers across the province.

Figure 1. Jason Carter canoe



Click the following text to view past paintings in the Heritage Art Series and their interpretive stories:


Fishing in Alberta

Volcanoes and their impact in Alberta

Early Cabins in the West

An article about early boating in the West by the current authors appeared in the April/May, 2015 issue of Canada’s History Magazine.

Written by: Todd Kristensen (Archaeological Survey) and Mike Donnelly (Freelance Historian)

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