This blog post may be a little late, I apologize for that, but it’s been a very exciting time. The canoe I’ve been working on is finally complete. I finished it on June 3rd. And yesterday we tested it out in the river, and she floats like a dream.
There’s always a degree of uncertainty building a canoe. It’s something I’m becoming more comfortable with the more I do. You can do everything right, and choose the best materials, but a little too much force here, and the whole canoe might literally explode. Or too little pressure there, and everything collapses. I think that’s part of the fun though. Constantly you have to reassess the project in its entirety, always with the newest information, and then use that to anticipate upcoming problems and come up with a solution that minimizes those problems.
For me, it will always be putting in the ribs that causes the most stress. In my head, I think of canoes as similar in structure to a fish, except you build from the outside in. So that means that one of the first steps is the skin, in this case, the birch bark, followed by the floor, followed by the ribs. They tuck in under a lip in the gunwale which is basically the edge of the boat. The gunwale and the ribs give the canoe its shape, and the way they fit provides much of the strength of the vessel. You do have to be quite forceful getting the ribs in, you pound them into place, let them sit overnight and then pound them into their final resting place the following day. It’s such a challenge to cut them to the correct length and put them in, but it’s such great satisfaction to see the bark tighten around the ribs and the actual shape of the canoe emerge.
As much as I find the ribs to be the most stressful, the sense of accomplishment that follows makes all the stress completely worth it. I think the potential for disaster really lights a fire under me and makes me think and then re-think the best approach. By the time I’m actually ready for the ribs, I’ve gone over it so many times in my head, I already know exactly how it’s going to go, and then the biggest thing to keep in check is my confidence. The bark or the gunwale will tell me when there’s a problem starting, and if I pay attention, I can catch it before it has a chance to truly become an issue. If I’m overconfident and ignore the warning signals, well, that’s trouble.
I’ve only had a canoe explode on me once, and it was such a disappointment. It takes so much time to collect all the material, you need bark for sure, but you also need plenty of roots, you need trees with a flawlessly straight grain, cut and milled into various other parts, you also need spruce sap to turn into pitch. The list of needs before you can begin is very specific, and they take time and effort to collect. If you’ve missed the warning signs and a canoe explodes, you’ve wasted everything. Very little is salvageable after that, and you’re right back to square one.
That being said, the challenge is what makes the whole endeavour worthwhile. Every step of it is something I enjoy, from harvesting the materials, through to floating down the Yukon River. It’s a pretty cool sense of accomplishment building yourself a boat. Maybe in the future, a new style of boat will be on the horizon. I’ll keep you posted on that one.
And by the way I had a great little helper, my grandaughter Brayden, perhaps I can pass my knowledge on to her.