Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bark Canoe Observation

I had the good fortune to paddle a birchbark canoe a few weeks ago at a rather odd event called the Spring Running in Augusta, Maine. The event,which celebrates the annual return of herring to the Kennebec River (i.e., they "run" up river), is a rather sorry affair overall - uninteresting displays and events, dusty and inconvenient layout - but it did have one nice feature this year.

In the small waterfront park just below Old Fort Western, the Maine chapter of the
Wooden Canoe Heritage Association had a display with many beautiful boats, mostly canvas-on-cedar. Burt Libby, of Burt's Canoes in Litchfield, Maine, had a lovely display of large-scale canoe models (3-4 feet long?), showing the stages of the construction of a cedar/canvas canoe. The association had also borrowed a bark canoe belonging to the Penobscot Marine Museum, and allowed people to paddle it.

Penobscot Marine Museum had the canoe built for it within the past few years as part of a demonstration that occurred on its grounds in Searsport, Maine. I'm sorry that I don't know the builder's name, or have any info. on its "type" -- i.e., the cultural/historical style upon which it's based. It looked to be very nicely built and it was in apparently fine shape. The sheathing appeared to be very regular beneath the frames, which had surprisingly high cross-sections, which I imagine would have been rather difficult to bend. The seams between bark sections were very neatly done; I believe they were sealed with some kind of plastic sealant rather than a more traditional material like pine rosin.

I paddled the boat for only a few minutes, kneeling in the stern, with another paddler in the bow. The river at that point is flatwater, with a bit of current; I had very little opportunity to get a feel for the boat's performance or capabilities, but the impression I got was that it felt and behaved very much like any other wooden canoe of its size and design. It felt quite stiff in a structural (as opposed to a hydrostatic) sense. The high profiles of the frames made them rather painful to kneel on, but that's certainly no fault of design or construction -- it's indicative of the paddler not having a proper pad. Having been in storage for a couple years, the canoe leaked a bit, but not excessively, and I expect that the leak would swell itself shut with more frequent use. If not, then it's no great matter to seal it. Lifting it from the water onto the floating dock, it felt not particularly light -- comparable to what a heavily-built fiberglass boat of the same size would weigh.

Although the opportunity was very limited, it was still a thrill to paddle a fairly authentic bark canoe. Thanks to the Penobscot Marine Museum and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association for making it possible.

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