The Canoe: A Living Tradition
The Canoe: A Living Tradition
The Canoe: A Living Tradition The Canoe: A Living Tradition

* Book Type:

Not Available Online
Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: edited by John Jennings
Audience: Trade
Specs: 400 full color and black and white photographs, maps, bibliography, further reading, index
Pages: 288
Trim Size: 10 1/2" x 10 1/4" x 7/8"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20051003
Copyright Year: 2002
Price: Select Below


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The Canoe: A Living Tradition

Now in paperback: A comprehensive history of North American canoe traditions. Includes contributions from eleven experts, photographs, maps and step-by-step photographs showing the building process.

The canoe was essential to the early exploration of North America. Today, it is a vital link to the natural environment and vast wilderness, still widely used for recreation, transportation and sport.

The Canoe is the definitive history of the construction and use of the canoe, kayak, dugout and umiak in North America. The book covers the canoe's origins among Native peoples, its quick adoption by European settlers, its development from a working vessel to a recreational craft.

Rare archival images, maps, artwork and stunning photographs of vintage canoes are included. Produced with the support and collaboration of scholars and museums throughout the world, The Canoe also features:

  • High-tech sport canoes and kayaks used in contemporary Olympic Games
  • 400 beautiful images of canoe craftsmanship
  • Step-by-step photos and explanations for building a traditional bark canoe
  • Profile of the famous model-builder, Tappan Adney
  • Detailed maps, glossary, source list and index.


John Jennings is co-editor of The Canoe in Canadian Cultures and a professor at Trent University. With support from the Canadian Canoe Museum, he brought together 12 experts in canoe and kayak scholarship and culture including Eugene Arima, Hallie E. Bond, Steven C. Brown, David Finch, Don Gardner, Gwenyth Hoyle, Fred Johnston, John Jennings, Kenneth R. Lister, Ted Moores, Rick Nash, and James Raffan to create this book. He was one of the 2019 Appointees to the Order of Ontario.



The canoe is an enduring symbol of wilderness and freedom throughout North America. Hand-made vessels moved people and goods for centuries before Europeans arrived, providing an excellent and practical mode of transportation that developed regionally to serve the needs of the Native peoples. Canoes were used by hunters, travelers, traders and warriors. The canoes of various regions went through many transformations after the Europeans came. In the eighteenth century birchbark canoes grew larger and wider to carry big loads of furs in the exploding fur trade market. Then in 1865 the canoe was made smaller and fitted with decks to become the Rob Roy, a little canoe designed by John MacGregor to carry him on long trips across Europe. In the 1850s the wooden building form was invented, using an overturned dugout as a mold, to create a method of building wooden canoes in quantity to satisfy the growing market of recreational paddlers. Factories sprang up in Peterborough, Ontario, in Maine and in New Brunswick, supplying cedar-strip canoes for surveyors, missionaries, hunters, Mounties and campers. The canoe was made lighter and longer for racing and was sometimes fitted out with a sail. In the latter half of the twentieth century aluminum, Kevlar and fiberglass were used to make canoes and kayaks, and the designs changed once again to accommodate the new materials.

But the North American Native canoe went through many transformations long before Samuel de Champlain decided it was the best way to get around in the immense new continent he was exploring. Across North America different Native groups developed the canoe to suit their needs and environment, making their boats from the materials at hand. Birchbark was used in the wide path across the central and northern half of the continent where the tree grew in huge forests that covered the landscape. The inferior elm bark was awkwardly wrapped around a frame further south where birch trees weren't available. In the cold, unforested regions of the Arctic, driftwood, stunted trees and sealskin were used to build kayaks, with the distinctive characteristic of covered decks. Huge red cedars and gigantic spruce were felled to carve dugouts on the wet and rainy west coast.

The shape and size of Native watercraft varied according to their environment and purpose. The Mi'kmaqs on the east coast built carefully designed long birchbark canoes with inward sloping upper sides (tumblehome) to maneuver through the swells of the Atlantic Ocean on their fishing expeditions. The Algonquin, Montagnais, Cree and Ojibwa crafted beautiful, featherlight birchbark canoes that were easy to portage over the rough terrain between the rivers of the northeastern and central regions of the birchbark belt. Northwest of Hudson Bay, where trees were stunted, the Dogrib people built small, light canoes, often patching the bark together from birch or spruce trees, because the trees were too small to provide the large sections of bark used in canoe making further south. The Inuit hunted seals in the icy waters of the Arctic in sleek kayaks, boats that were easy to negotiate through the ocean, sturdy enough to carry home heavy loads, but light enough to transport over the ice. Another, lesser-known cousin of the canoe in the north, was the umiak, called the "women's boat": a large, wide boat built on a wooden frame lashed together and covered with sealskin or walrus hide. These were used for whale and big game hunting, war parties and transporting people and their goods over long distances. On the west coast the Native peoples designed their own forms of the ocean-going dugout for whale hunting, fishing and warfare.

When the French arrived in the early seventeenth century, they quickly adapted Native canoes to their own use. Soon huge, thirty-six-foot Montreal canoes were being paddled by teams of voyageurs across hundreds of miles, laden with beaver pelts to be made into hats and other products, bound for the European markets. With white settlement the canoe began to have a new role as a recreational vessel, and builders experimented with various methods to produce canoes in quantity. Canoe races were held at local regattas and the American Canoe Association, then the Canadian Canoe Association, were founded, and the classification of boats in races became a science. Many refinements and design innovations were developed to make the boats lighter and faster. The international sport of canoe and kayak racing was born.

Anthropologists and historians study canoes to understand the cultures that used them. The materials and building methods and the design of the boats can reveal valuable information about how the Native peoples survived in what was often a very harsh environment. In this book, twelve authors, each an expert in his or her field, write about different canoes, kayaks and umiaks in North America: how they were built, how they were used and how they affected the history of this continent. The design of these boats is described in detail in terms of their function, with the traditional methods of building the craft carefully explained.

By their very nature, canoes are transitory. Birchbark and animal skins deteriorate quickly when exposed to the elements. For a long time people did not consider them worthy of preserving, but in the twentieth century a movement began to conserve our history as embodied in the canoe. Two of the contributors to that history are Tappan Adney and Kirk Wipper. Tappan Adney was a scholar who single handedly recorded and saved hundreds of canoe designs. Working with decaying specimens, drawings and oral accounts, he built perfect models. Kirk Wipper, who ran a children's camp in central Ontario, began to rescue canoes from across the continent, and over nearly forty years he built up one of the largest collections of canoes in the world. When it outgrew the log building it was housed in at his camp, the Canadian Canoe Museum was created and a permanent home was found for the collection in Peterborough, Ontario.

Many of the vintage canoes from the Canoe Museum grace the pages of this book. Northern birchbarks, Naskapi crooked canoes, Salish dugouts, Greenland kayaks, Peterborough cedar strips and Old Town wood-canvas canoes drift through the chapters, perfect unto themselves, highly functional, energy efficient, lovingly crafted boats that all have a story to tell. Throughout the centuries and its many transformations in North America, the canoe has evolved and endured, a living tradition that continues to serve and delight the people who take it on the water.


The Native Craft

    Bark Canoes
    • The Realm of the Birchbark Canoe - John Jennings
    • The Canoe Frontier - John Jennings
    • Building Birchbark Canoes - Rick Nash
    • Light Craft from the Great Northwest - David Finch and Don Gardner
    • Vessels of Life: Northwest Coast Dugouts - Steven C. Brown
    • Building Dugouts - Eugene Arima
    • The Kayak and the Walrus - Kenneth R. Lister
    • Building Umiaks - Eugene Arima

The Recreational Canoe

    • From Forest to Factory: Innovations and Mass Production - Ted Moores
    • Paddling for Pleasure in the Northeastern States - Hallie E. Bond
    • Fast Paddles and Fast Boats: The Origins of Canoe Racing - C. Fred Johnston

Preserving the History of the Canoe

    • The Scholar: Tappan Adney - John Jennings
    • The Collector: Kirk Wipper - Gwyneth Hoyle

    The Canoe: A Living Tradition - James Raffan
    • Glossary
    • Sources and Further Reading
    • Contributors
    • Picture Sources
    • Index


    • Native Peoples
    • Growing Area of the Birch Tree in North America
    • Territory of the Hunter-Gatherer Peoples
    • The Fur Trade Frontier
    • Peterborough, Ontario and Surrounding Area
    • Northeastern United States and Canada

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