The dawn of the modern history of the canoe can be traced, apparently, to the summer of 1856, when four guys from Peterborough, Ontario, embarked on a camping trip lugging a 200-pound dugout. After two 3-mile portages, they swore that there had to be a better way.
One of those men was lumberman John Stephenson, who set about to build a canoe that improved on the options then at hand — lighter than a dugout and more durable than a birchbark. What became his 16- to 18-foot-long “board canoe” breakthrough was an instant sensation, selling as a fast as his three shops could make them, and launching Peterborough, for decades to come, as the de facto center of the canoeing world.
Another pivotal canoe trip almost 90 years later, this one in upstate New York, would have a similar impact. It, too, involved the schlepping of a heavy, sodden canoe — this one made of wood and canvas. One of those campers in 1944 was tool engineer William Hoffman. He thought: Aluminum! His employer, Grumman Aircraft, had lots of it, along with declining postwar demand for aircraft. Thus was born the canoe of the masses — the light, cheap and almost indestructible Grumman. It wasn’t beautiful, but it sold like crazy.
It is stories such as these that enliven “Canoes: A Natural History of North America,” a new University of Minnesota Press book from a couple of paddling professors: Mark Neuzil of the University of St. Thomas and Norman Sims, retired from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. With deep history, they span the centuries, from the crudest dugouts through the most elegant cedar strips to featherweight polymers of today, with hundreds of color photos and a score of profiles of the people who made and paddled them.
It is, more than anything else, the origin story of the American Indian canoe, an invention of such pure engineering insight that it has endured, unchanged for 600 or 700 years, in forms of bark, wood, canvas and plastic.
“Really, the only thing that changes is the material, not the form,” Neuzil, 58, said in a conversation about the book. “It is both simple and complex. What could be simpler than making a canoe from one tree? But, hey, try it.”
And people have tried it, for centuries, creating human history’s most personal and portable boat. Its historic holy lands are in the north country of what is now the United States and Canada, a countryside of adventurous native peoples, lots of water, and endless trees and bark to build boats. How long have people been canoeing in, say, Minnesota? Neuzil and Sims remind us of the people who were building a dock on Lake Minnetonka during a drought in 1934. They found a dugout canoe in the mud that, in carbon-dating tests in 2014, was found to be more than 1,000 years old.
Ultimately, over all those years, the history of the canoe always goes back to bark — specifically Betula papyrifera, the paper birch. The authors include a map of the tree’s range in North America, across Canada and in the U.S., from Minnesota’s Red River Valley, across the Great Lakes and through New England. With bark of that birch, the native peoples of those lands found a revolutionary answer to their transportation problems — an abundant, durable, workable material that could create light, fast boats, sewn together with the split, pencil-thin roots of black spruce.
Early explorers were amazed, with the first report coming in 1534, as a Frenchman watched indigenous tribes hunting seals from birchbark canoes. There were early reports of 12-footers that weighted 20 pounds. Birch canoes were regularly sunk, with stones, to hide them from enemies or preserve them over the winter. Birch bark was so valuable that more southern tribes sent teams up into northern forests to harvest bark so they, too, could have the amazing boats.
Amazing — and also a touch fragile for everyday use in the 19th century as the nation awakened to boats as mere fun, recreation. And, as John Stephenson would tell you, the answer was not a return to dugouts.
Yachts of their day
Reading Neuzil and Sims’ book, it is easy to view this 19th-century era as the golden age of canoes — the age that gave us the most beautiful wooden boats whose materials and designs endure. From the primitive board boats emerged cedar-ribbed, longitudinal-stripped, tongue-and-groove, or shiplap, canoes that evolved into the cedar-strip beauties so coveted today.
But handsome wooden canoes were not cheap — $70 to more than $100 in an era when craftsmen could be paid $2 a day. Canoes were the equivalent of a yacht. That changed late in the 19th century with the wood-and-canvas boats from Old Town Company, among others, in Maine. Old Town’s 16-footers were priced as low as $30, and sold through catalogs, with boats leaving town in boxcars. By 1913, there were 18 canoe manufacturers in Maine, and Old Town was itself selling 6,000 canvas boats a year.
Boats were no longer just for work and the wealthy. And the nation went canoe crazy. There was camping and general recreation, of course. But Neuzil and Sims also report that places such as the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis and the Charles River in Boston were choked with “courting canoes,” in which couples engaged in, yes, “canoedling.” In 1912, Minneapolis issued 1,200 canoe docking permits, and found it necessary to enact (if not necessarily enforce) a midnight canoeing curfew.
Let history decide if in the decades to come the more industrial-grade aluminum and Kevlar boats took some of the romance out of canoeing. But, again, with these new materials on the ancient form, canoeing grew once more. Grumman sold 10,000 metal canoes in 1946 starting at $157. The next year, Henry J. Neils founded the Alumacraft Boat Company in Minneapolis. It was a new day: Grumman was selling 20,000 metal canoes a year by 1960, while Old Town was selling 200 canvas boats.
There have been noble efforts to entice the canoeing public in with various plastic and fiberglass boats, but Neuzil and Sims confirm that contemporary canoeing is defined by Kevlar generally and Minnesota’s Wenonah Canoe company in particular. Outdoorsman and canoe racer Mike Cichanowski took his Winona fiberglass repair business into one of the world’s largest makers of featherweight Kevlar canoes. In doing so, he unburdened a generation of paddlers and graciously extended the canoe-camping lives of many thousands of graying canoeists.
All this matters because of the intimate and ancient alliance of people and their canoes. Neuzil and Sims include, in the form of an inspired introduction, some delightful writing by the author John McPhee. McPhee and his buddies spent most of their youthful summers at camp in canoes, and they were forever changed.
“We were like some sort of crustaceans with our rib-and-planking exoskeletons, and to this day I do not feel complete or safe unless I am surrounded by the protective shape of a canoe,” wrote McPhee.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.