A canoe filled with culture
Aug 31, 2007
RUTHERGLEN – Mike Gauthier is serious about preserving Métis culture. You have to be serious to spend a summer building a 32-foot birch bark canoe in your yard.
"I always had a vision," said the Calvin resident. "Every year it just gets bigger."
Gauthier started with a 12-foot canoe, followed by a 14-foot canoe. The latest and most ambitious of his efforts is an authentic recreation of a large Voyageur canoe, as it might have existed in the mid-nineteenth century. This style of canoe was used in the fur trade, hauling cargo on major waterways such as the Ottawa River. Gauthier's reproduction is 32 feet long, two feet deep and over four feet wide. He estimates the completed weight at around 800 pounds. The traders wouldn't have portaged this canoe. They built smaller canoes as the need arose, securing the big one until they returned.
"I get a lot of visitors coming over just to look at it and they're shocked," he said.
Gauthier began his project on May 8, and has worked on it full-time since then, and he expects to complete it sometime in September. He considers it a labour of love.
"It's about promoting the culture and having fun with it," he said.
When constructing a birch bark canoe, the first thing you need, naturally, is birch bark. The bark possesses qualities that make it ideal for building canoes. Most importantly, it is naturally waterproof on the inside. That is why the bark is used inside-out.
"Everybody asks where the whiteness is," said Gauthier. "That's on the inside of the canoe."
Surprisingly, birch bark is hard to come by. The problem is the lack of large trees, with a circumference of five or six feet. Birch trees appear to be dying off, and most in these parts are not nearly big enough.
"You've got to go north of Mattawa to find big birch trees," said Gauthier.
The bark itself is thick, up to a quarter of an inch thick, and responsible harvesting will not harm the tree. Gauthier said that you should never take more bark than you need, and if it is removed at the right time of year, it will grow back. The exposed tree will also develop a type of fungus that was very useful to the aboriginal people.
The canoe itself is built in a bed of sand.
"That's how the aboriginal people would have done it years ago, at the side of the river," said Gauthier.
As with other types of canoe, a wooden mold is made. It is laid on top of the bark, which has been soaked in water, and weighed down. Left overnight, the mold and bark will sink into the sand. The sides are brought up by soaking and bending the bark. Cedar ribs are added, along with wooden crossmembers, wales and headboards.
Not a single nail or screw will be found on the canoe. Everything is laced together, from the bark pieces to the structural members. As with the waterproof hull, nature has provided an ideal material for the job – black spruce roots. When boiled, the roots are easily stripped of their bark. Soaking a spruce root in water keeps it pliable until it is used, but once it dries, something very important happens.
"As it dries, it shrinks," said Gauthier. "As it shrinks it gets really tight and holds everything together."
Joints are sealed with another traditional material, a resin that acts much as modern-day caulking. Instead of latex or silicone, however, this sealant is made of bear fat, tree gum and wood ash combined according to an age-old recipe.
The tools, likewise, are traditional hand tools, although some compromises have been made where necessary.
A great deal of research has gone into planning this project, but much of Gauthier's knowledge comes from the oral history passed down in his own family. Gauthier's family is known for a number of traditional crafts, including moccasins, beadwork and vests.
His father, with a wealth of Métis lore, has provided guidance throughout construction. Indeed, Gaulthier's whole family has helped out. His 17-year-old son, Eric, has learned enough that he is building his own six-foot canoe next to the shelter that houses the Voyageur.
"The knowledge is being passed to my son, and I'm proud of that," he said.
Gauthier also passes on his knowledge through workshops and seminars, and plans to offer an instructional video for others who wish to build their own birch bark canoe.
Once this canoe is finished, he has a few ideas about what to do with it. Ecotourism is one possibility. He eventually plans to sell it, having invested considerable time and money in its construction. In the short term, Gauthier just wants to get it into the water.
"I'm anxious to go for a paddle with all my family," he said.
As for future projects, Gauthier needs to design a trailer to transport his canoe. After that, who knows? One thing is certain, his next undertaking won't be nearly as ambitious.
"I plan to get back to basics," he said. "That is to say, small canoes."
In taking on this one challenge, however, Gauthier has created something unique and valuable, not just in monetary terms but in terms of culture and history. It's also quite a thing to see.
"As of 2007, I believe this is the largest authentic birch bark canoe in Ontario," he said.