Qayaqs and Canoes

Athabascan Birch Bark Canoes

               The Athabascan birch bark hunting canoe was essential for pursuing animals in rivers and lakes in Alaska's interior until about 50 years ago, when it was replaced with aluminum models. It was also an important means of summer transportation. Its small size (one-person canoes are about 12 1/2 feet long) and light weight (25 to 35 pounds) made it possible for one person to carry it from lake to lake.

In the old days, people also made large cargo-carrying canoes, able to carry a family, their goods, and their dogs.

The canoe pictured above has a wooden frame covered with birch bark. Spruce roots hold the bark to the frame, and spruce pitch seals the boat, making it watertight. Grass or moss is gathered for cushions. This is generally called a "kayak-form canoe" and is still used by the Gwich'in Athabascan people in the Chalkyitsik area of Alaska. Its maker, David Salmon, named it "Tryah," meaning "Otter."

David remembered, "When I was a little boy, about seven or eight years old, I sit behind my father in the birch bark canoe and we go up-stream from the village, go up ten miles, look around hunting. We'd come back down in half the time. In that time he used arrow, used arrow for ducks. . . . In 1922, I was about ten years old. And I helped my father. I always helped my father to hold a stick here, hold this there. He told me to do this. That's Athabascan way of teaching the children about the canoe, you know."

Athabascan canoes are easily paddled over long distances. Their low profile allows hunters to get close to birds and animals. The bark canoe had another advantage: it could be quickly mended using materials from the woods. Dena'ina elder Moses Paul, who built the canoe pictured here, explained,

"If the canoe needed patching, you just stop anywhere, build a fire, melt down the pitch and patch it up there and go."

This canoe was based on the descriptions and instructions of Moses's father and grandfather. He named it "Chadaq Baqee," meaning "Grandfather's Canoe."

Birch bark canoes were the specialties of the Athabascan speakers, or Dene. They historically lived in Alaska's interior where lakes and rivers were both plentiful and the easiest travel routes. In this map, Alaska's eleven Athabascan languages are represented in reds and pinks. The languages share sound systems and grammatic features, but are so different from each other that they cannot be understood across language boundaries.

Alaska's interior is in what is called the "boreal forest," a forest made up primarily of birch, aspen, alder, willow, and cottonwood trees. The undergrowth consists of berry bushes and a variety of deciduous shrubs that make good browse for moose. Most of the land is hilly or mountainous with many lakes, ponds, and rivers. The climate is continental, reaching minus 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) and lower, and highs during the summer into the 90s. Summer lightening storms set off forest fires that periodically strip the landscape of trees, providing even better browse for moose.

Tom O'Brien, who helped David Salmon build the Chadaq Baqee canoe, explained, "The bark is cut from the trees in the spring of the year and rolled up. . . . The frame is covered with three pieces of birch bark which form the bottom, the port and starboard sides."

Debbie Charlie, the sister of Cindy (pictured here), explained,

"When you find the birch, you want some that doesn't have knots in it. It's the same for the baskets and the canoes. If the bark has knots, it's really hard to pull the bark away from the tree and there are holes in the bark. You take the bark in the spring, when the sap begins to run."

The bark is sewn together with split spruce root, pulled taught, and sewn to the gunwales with a wrapping of spruce root. The roots are dyed to enhance the canoe's beauty.

Birch bark has also been used for hundreds of years to make containers, such as this bucket (made by Dorothy Joseph). Baskets, like canoes, are an art form that show a mastery of both technique and aesthetics.