Birch Bark Canoes – History

ambience: Rushing water


Native peoples once maneuvered the lakes and rivers of North America in canoes made of bark. Today, the art of building these boats is still alive, in the hands of a master. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont. Jack Minehart is one of the few people in the world who knows how to build a canoe using birch bark, which he calls the perfect outer layer for a boat.

“It keeps the water out. There probably isn’t any tree that is better adapted as a covering. It’s a good deal like leather, when you take it off the tree. And it’s easy to form, it’s quite plastic and elastic, and it’s just about as close to ideal as any natural material I can possibly think of for the use we put it to.”

At his workshops in Minnesota and Iowa, Minehart has replicated just about every style of canoe ever made. He follows detailed drawings of traditional styles to make sure that he stays true to the original.

“Every area, every region of North America where birch and cedar were plentiful has its own building tradition. They’re all a little different, flat-bowed, high-bowed, very broad, very narrow, whatever the case happened to be, there was some local reason for them building them that way. A canoe that would be good on say the rivers, going through the rapids, plunging over beaver dams, a high-bowed canoe, wouldn’t be suitable on open-water work, where those big bows would catch the wind and go all over the lake. By the same token, the Indians themselves rarely. built very large canoes. Gathering wild rice was the most important thing that they did with it. It was their way of getting out on the lakes, and getting into the rice fields, and harvesting the rice, which was their principal source of protein. But the fur trade demanded much larger canoes.”

We’ll follow Jack Minehart as he builds a birch bark canoe, in our next program. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.

Birch Bark Canoes - History

The Native American tradition of crafting birch bark canoes is being kept alive by a master builder.
Air Date:10/11/2000
Scientist:
Transcript:

ambience: Rushing water


Native peoples once maneuvered the lakes and rivers of North America in canoes made of bark. Today, the art of building these boats is still alive, in the hands of a master. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont. Jack Minehart is one of the few people in the world who knows how to build a canoe using birch bark, which he calls the perfect outer layer for a boat.

"It keeps the water out. There probably isn't any tree that is better adapted as a covering. It's a good deal like leather, when you take it off the tree. And it's easy to form, it's quite plastic and elastic, and it's just about as close to ideal as any natural material I can possibly think of for the use we put it to."

At his workshops in Minnesota and Iowa, Minehart has replicated just about every style of canoe ever made. He follows detailed drawings of traditional styles to make sure that he stays true to the original.

"Every area, every region of North America where birch and cedar were plentiful has its own building tradition. They're all a little different, flat-bowed, high-bowed, very broad, very narrow, whatever the case happened to be, there was some local reason for them building them that way. A canoe that would be good on say the rivers, going through the rapids, plunging over beaver dams, a high-bowed canoe, wouldn't be suitable on open-water work, where those big bows would catch the wind and go all over the lake. By the same token, the Indians themselves rarely. built very large canoes. Gathering wild rice was the most important thing that they did with it. It was their way of getting out on the lakes, and getting into the rice fields, and harvesting the rice, which was their principal source of protein. But the fur trade demanded much larger canoes."

We'll follow Jack Minehart as he builds a birch bark canoe, in our next program. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.