John Summers


here’s nothing like being in a room with more than 400 canoes to start you thinking. To walk through the storage facility and galleries of the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, is to listen in on a host of simultaneous conversations amongst the members of a large, closely knit yet wide-ranging family. But what if you pulled back a little and thought of the shapes of the canoes and left their histories aside for the moment? And what if you narrowed your focus further and only considered the shape of the ends of the canoes?

To explore this further is to follow the evolution of parts and influences in which different canoes across many years and cultures come to similar conclusions. Unlike a work of literature, which is usually tasked with arriving at only one, a canoe must come to two: one at the bow and one at the stern. With apologies to both literary critic Frank Kermode and novelist Julian Barnes, each of whom has used this phrase as a title, it could be said that “the sense of an ending” is therefore important to canoes.

It is the ends of a canoe that draw our greatest attention: sometimes to their shape, sometimes to the decoration, and in some cases both. The shape of the end can be determined by the congruence of a number of factors, among them cultural tradition, regional style, individual aesthetic preference, the materials used for construction, the needs of the user and the conditions in which the canoe will be operated.

The beau idéal of the canoe in North America is made of birchbark. In use for thousands of years on waterways throughout the continent, the birchbark canoe reached what was perhaps its most widely known form in the service of the fur trade. Driven by the demands of European commerce, fur traders enlarged existing models of the bark canoe to develop the six-fathom (36-foot) canot de maître to carry manufactured items inland to trade for furs. These great canoes have loomed large on the water and in the public imagination ever since and have had a much longer existence as symbols, metaphors and cultural markers than they ever did as working watercraft. So strong is the persistence of the image of the bark canoe that when the artist of an early twentieth-century postcard valentine was looking for an image, he had only to reach into this visual repertoire to find an amorous view of a modern sweetheart drifting through a paper heart in a bark canoe loaded with flowers.

In the Kawarthas region of south-central Ontario, European settlers took a common dugout and began to refine the shape and shell thickness to produce a unique variant. These mid-nineteenth-century dugouts gave rise to a local construction technique that evolved into industrial-scale production whereby a dugout canoe at the end of its useful life could serve as the form or pattern for a new manufactured model. Builders created a new hull by nailing ribs and planks to the outside of the original dugout. Because the ends were not yet closed in, the nascent hull, at that point composed only of keel, ribs and planks, could be spread open and prised off the form to be finished. By substituting built-up wooden forms for the dugout hull, Peterborough builders were able to scale up production and manufacture tens of thousands of canoes that brought the city worldwide fame. In this model one can also see the beginnings of what would become a characteristic local style: an almost gothic peak produced by the conjunction of a nearly plumb stem and a sharply upturned sheer line. Seen end-on, the breathtaking sharpness of the curvature, and the fineness of the bow, are even more striking.

The end shapes of aboriginal bark watercraft recur frequently in our canoe family, travelling from Algonquin-style canoes through many hands to appear almost unaltered in the famous Chestnut “Prospector” model, albeit made by a different process.

In contrast to the slightly arced verticality of the Peterborough area stem profile, another strain of end shape from the same region is based on a full and rich curve. Once again beginning with bark canoes this line was taken up by nineteenth-century sportsmen as a mark of authenticity linking their manufactured canoes to aboriginal origins. Extrapolated and exaggerated in an evolution reminiscent of the growth of automotive features such as tail fins, the curve was folded back upon itself even farther in models with names such as “Indian Maiden” or “Indian Girl,” variants of which were offered by most commercial builders. In the early years of the twentieth century, the re-curving stem profile reached its peak in the “Torpedo style.”

By taking a few steps back from the facts and forms of history, we can arrive at an engagingly formalist reflection on shape, offering yet one more way to appreciate the enduring appeal of this global watercraft form.

John Summers is a maritime historian and General Manager of the Canadian Canoe Museum, a national heritage centre that explores the canoe’s enduring significance to the peoples of Canada. The world’s largest collection of canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft offers an unparalleled perspective upon the canoe, its design, and its part in the shaping of Canadian identity.

Old-style Algonquin birchbark canoe,
mid-20th century,
attributed to Paul and Louis Matchewan in Lac Barrière, QC.
4.19 m x 96 cm.

Wide-board rib and raised-batten canoe,
built by the Herald, Gore’s Landing, ON.,
early 20th century.
4.64 m x 84 cm.