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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XII. How to Build a Bark Canoe

Norman expected that they would be able to finish the canoe in about a week. Of course, the sooner the better, and no time was lost in setting about it.

The ribs or “timbers” were the first thing to be fashioned, and a number of straight branches of cedar were cut, out of which they were to be made.

These branches were cleared of twigs, and rendered of an equal thickness at both ends. They were then flattened with the knife ; and, by means of a little sweating in the ashes, were bent so as to bear some resemblance in shape to the wooden ox-yokes commonly used in America, or indeed to the letter U. The ribs when thus bent were not all of the same width. On the contrary, those which were intended to be placed near the middle or gangway of the vessel, were about two feet across from side to side, while the space between the sides of the others was gradually less in each fresh pair, according as their position was to be near to the stem and stern. When the whole of them had been forced into the proper shape, they were placed, one inside the other after the manner of dishes, and then all were firmly lashed together, and left to dry. When the lashing should be removed, they would hold to the form thus given them, and would be ready for fastening to the kelson.

While Norman was occupied with the timbers the others were not idle. Basil had cut down several of the largest and straightest birches, and Lucien employed himself in carefully removing the bark and cleansing it of nodules and other inequalities. The broad sheets were suspended by a smoke fire, so as completely to dry up the sap, and render it tough and elastic. Francois had his part to play, and that was to collect the resinous gum which was distilled, in plenty from the trunks of the epinette or spruce-trees. This gum is a species of pitch, and is one of the most necessary materials in the making of a bark canoe. It is used for “ paying” the seams, as well as any cracks that may show themselves in the bark itself; and without it, or some similar substance, it would be difficult to make one of these little vessels water-tight. But that is not the only thing for which the coinette is valued in canoe-building; far from it. This tree produces another indispensable material; its long fibrous roots when split, form the twine-like threads by which the pieces of bark are sewed to each other and fastened to the timbers. These threads are as strong as the best cords of hemp, and are known among the Indians by the name of “watap.” In a country, therefore, where hemp and fl ax cannot be readily procured, the “watap” is of great value. You may say that deer are plenty, and that thongs of buckskin would serve the same purpose. This, however, is not the case. The buckskin would never do for such a use. The moment it becomes wet it is liable to stretch, so that the seams would open and the canoe get filled with water. The watap, wet or dry, does not yield, and has therefore been found to be the best thing of all others for this purpose.

The only parts now wanted were the gunwale and the bottom. The former was easily obtained. Two long poles, each twenty feet in length, were bent somewhat like a pair of bows, and then placed with their concave sides towards each other, and firmly lashed together at the ends. This was the gunwale. The bottom was the most difficult part of all. For that a solid plank was required, and they had no saw. The axe and the hatchet, however, were called into requisition, and a log was soon hewn and thinned down to the proper dimensions. It was sharpened off at the ends, so as to run to a very acute angle, both at the stem and stern. When the bottom was considered sufficiently polished, and modelled to the right shape, the most difficult part of the undertaking was supposed to be accomplished. A few long poles were cut and trimmed flat. These were to be laid longitudinally between the ribs and the bark, somewhat after the fashion of laths in the roofing of a house. Their use was to prevent the bark from splitting. The materials were now all obtained complete, and, with a few days5 smoking and drying, would be ready for putting together.

While waiting for the timbers to dry, paddles were made, and Norman, with the help of the others, prepared what he jokingly called his ee dock,” and also his “ ship-yard.” This was neither more nor less than a long mound of earth—not unlike a new-made grave, only three times the length of one, or even longer. It was flat upon the top, and graded with earth so as to be quite level and free from inequalities.

At length all the materials were considered quite ready for use, and Norman went to work to put them together.

His first operation was to untie the bundle of timbers, and separate them. They were found to have taken the exact form into which they had been bent, and the thongs being no longer necessary to keep them in place, were removed. The timbers themselves were next placed upon the bottom or kelson, those with the widest bottoms being nearer to “midships,” while those with the narrower bend were set towards the narrower ends of the plank. Thus placed, they were all firmly lashed with strong cords of watap, by means of holes pierced in the bottom plank. Fortunately Lucien happened to have a pocket-knife, in which there was a good awl or piercer, that enabled them to make these holes—else the matter would have been a much more difficult one, as an awl is one of the most essential tools in the construction of a bark canoe. Of course it took Norman a considerable time to set all the ribs in their proper places, and fasten them securely; but he was ably assisted by Francois, who waited upon him with much diligence, handing him now the awl, and then the watap, whenever he required them.

Norman’s next operation was the laying of his kelson “in dock.” The timbers being attached to it, it was lifted up on the earthen mound, where it reached quite from end to end. Half-a-dozen large heavy stones were then placed upon it, so that, pressed down by these upon the even surface of the mould, it was rendered quite firm; and, moreover, was of such a height from the ground that the young shipwright could work upon it without too much bending and kneeling.

The gunwale, already prepared, was next placed so as to touch the ends of the ribs all round, and these ends were adjusted to it with great nicety, and firmly joined. Strong cross-pieces were fixed, which were designed, not only to keep the gunwale from spreading or contracting, but afterwards to serve as seats.

Of course the gunwale formed the complete mouth, or upper edge of the canoe. It was several feet longer than the bottom plank, and, when in place, projected beyond the ribs at both ends. From each end of the bottom plank, therefore, to the corresponding end of the gunwale, a straight piece of wood was stretched, and fastened. One of these pieces would form the stem or cutwater, while the other would become the stern of the craft. The long poles were next laid longitudinally upon the ribs outside, and lashed in their places; and this done, the skeleton was completed, ready for the bark.

The latter had been already cut to the proper dimensions and shape. It consisted of oblong pieces—each piece being a regular parallelogram, as it had been stripped from the tree. These were laid upon the ribs longitudinally, and then sewed to the edge of the bottom plank, and also to the gunwale. The bark itself was in such broad pieces that two of them were sufficient to cover half a side, so that but one seam was required lengthwise, in addition to the fastenings at the top and bottom. Two lengths of the bark also reached cleverly from stem to stern, and thus required only one transverse seam on each side. There was an advantage in This arrangement, for where the birch-bark can only be obtained in small flakes, a great number of seams is a necessary consequence, and then it is extremely difficult to keep the canoe from leaking.

Thanks to the fine birch-trees, that grew in abundance around, our boat-builders had procured the very best bark.

The canoe was now completed all but the “paying,” and that would not take long to do. The gum of the spinette had to be boiled, and mixed with a little grease, so as to form a species of wax. For this the fat already obtained from the buffaloes was the very thing; and a small tin cup which Basil had saved from the wreck (it had been strung to his bullet-pouch), enabled them to melt the gum, and apply it hot. In less than an hour the thing was done. Every crack and awl-hole was payed, and the canoe was pronounced “watertight,” and, as Francois added, with a laugh, “seaworthy.”

A small pond was near, at the bottom of the hill: Francis espied it.

“Come, boys,” cried he, “a launch! a launch!” This was agreed to by all. The great stones were taken out. Basil and Norman, going one to the stem the other to the stern, lifted the canoe from the “dock,” and, raising it upon their shoulders, carried it down to the pond. The next moment it was pushed into the water, where it floated like a cork. A loud cheer was given, in which even Marengo joined; and a salute was then fired — a full broadside — from the four guns. Francois, to complete the thing, seized one of the paddles, and leaping into the canoe, shot the little craft out upon the bosom of the pond, cheering all the while like one frantic. After amusing himself for some minutes, he paddled back to the shore, when they all looked eagerly into the canoe, and perceived to their gratification that not as much as a drop of water had leaked during the “trip.” Thanks and congratulations now greeted Norman from every side; and, taking their vessel from the water, the young voyageurs returned to their camp, to regale themselves with a grand dinner, which Lucien had cooked for the occasion.

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