Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Black Creek Village Birchbark Canoe

During a recent family outing to Black Creek Pioneer Village, a recreated 1800's community in northwest Toronto, we stumbled upon a birchbark canoe on display. It was found hanging from ceiling beams in the village's fully functional water-powered flour mill. Here's a shot of the boy and I gazing at its beauty.

I spent some time examining the workmanship. Nice clean lashing and a graceful sheerline with quite steep stem curves. What immediately caught my attention was that some sort of sealant (varnish perhaps?) must've been applied to the hull bark and interior woodwork. A closeup of the bark shows the aging sealant drying up giving the whole thing a cracked eggshell appearance.

The centre yoke was carved in the traditional manner with notches for a tumpline. I also noticed what looked like leather lace used to lash the yoke into place.

Centre yoke and lashing

The richly sealed interior had some very neatly spaced ribs and an antique looking paddle lashed up for a portage carry. The straight sided blade with recurved shoulders is an example of the so-called voyageur design, the first antique version I've ever seen first hand. I couldn't gather the wood type given that the grain & original wood was masked with a faded blueish grey paint on the blade and red paint on the shaft. The grip was just a small, squarish bobble which looked like more of a stopper than an actual grip.

Paddle stashed away

Blade closeup

Bobble grip

After unsuccessfully trying to get some info on the canoe from the on-site staff, I received a courteous a detailed message about its origins. While the exact date is uncertain, it was made by the Algonkians at Maniwaki, Quebec between 1951-1977. The single piece bark hull has some additional side panels and the lashing apparently included deerskin rawhide in addition to spruce root. Sure enough, it had been varnished at a later date to "preserve it" and prevent leaks.

All these years living in the city and I never knew a bark canoe was on display locally.


Ted Behne said...


In the 1951-1977 time frame the foremost builder of birchbark canoes in Maniwaki was William Commanda. He is still alive, in his 90s, and still lives on the Algonquin Reserve at Maniwaki. He is revered by his people as a spiritual leader and guardian of traditions. The builder of the canoe in your pictures was obviously very skilled. It could be Commanda's work, but it lacks one clear indicator: Every Commanda canoe I've seen has winter bark etchings. This one has none. Still, it could be Commanda's work, perhaps before he began decorating his canoes.

Ted Behne

Murat said...

Many thanks for your insightful comment Ted. Unfortunately the village records on the canoe neglected to mention any specific builder by name, but if it is a Commanda canoe, it would make it very special. The workmanship was definitely very skilled on this one.

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