Story by Virginia Barlow
Illustrations by Adelaide Tyrol
In June of last year, we sold the bark from about 30 paper birch trees in our
woods shortly before they were to be cut. The bark harvesters began at the
bottom of each tree and worked upwards. One after another, large sheets of
bark came crashing to the ground, intact after dropping as far as 40 feet. They
were destined to be made into knickknacks or appliquéd to furniture to make
it look rustic. In my opinion, the snowy-white bark of paper birches looks best
when it’s on the tree.
Paper birch is also called canoe birch, which I think might be a better name.
Birch bark canoes, built by Native Americans long before Europeans arrived
on these shores, are made with the white side facing in, just one of the many
nice things about riding in these boats. Unlike the bark of any other tree, birch
bark is strong, waterproof, flexible, comes off in big sheets in the spring, and
can easily be cut and sewn. All of these attributes come in handy when you’re
building a boat with only sharpened stones and animal bones for tools.
These canoes (the frames were usually made of white cedar) could be
produced more quickly after European colonists supplied Native Americans
with steel axes and knives, but the end product changed very little. Bark pieces
were still sewn together with the roots of black or white spruce and the joints
were sealed with spruce resin mixed with animal fat to make the canoes more
Edwin Tappan Adney, a journalist and artist, is credited with saving the art
of building bark canoes. In 1887, when he was about 20 years old, he traveled
to New Brunswick in Canada, planning to spend about a month. Instead, he
spent 20 months working with a canoe-builder from the Maliseet tribe named
Peter Jo. Adney built a canoe for himself and then more than 100 models of
different designs. Although he died before publishing anything about canoes
except for one short article, his abundant notes and detailed illustrations were
sorted out and published in 1964 by Howard I. Chappelle, a famous naval
architect and marine historian. Mostly because of Adney and Chappelle, several
people in the U.S. and Canada still make traditional bark canoes.
Paper birch is a cold-loving tree; its range spans the northern parts of this
continent, from Newfoundland to northwest Alaska, and overlaps the territories of many different Native American tribes. Wherever there were decent
paper birch trees, there were canoes. You might think that different tribes
would have built different-looking canoes – and to some extent this is true
– but a much more powerful influence on design was practical: lightweight
boats are easier to portage, a V-shaped hull holds a course in crosswinds, a
narrow canoe is fast, and a round-bottomed one can be turned rapidly in white
water. Tribes borrowed ideas from one another, and hybrids were common.
Henry David Thoreau, who travelled in bark canoes on his trips to Maine
in 1853 and 1857, has been called the first north woods tourist. Unlike tourists
today, he ate his meals from birch bark plates.