The history of the canoe

Back in the early 1970s I wrote a monthly outdoors column for an Ontario outdoors magazine. One evening, after a day spent hunting moose, we pulled the canoe up on the sandy shore of an island and started a small campfire a short distance from our tent. I was with my hunting buddy, Dan Thomey, the founding publisher of Ontario Out of Doors magazine. He pointed to the canoe that had carried us through so many years of fishing and hunting and suggested I write the history of the canoe. I said I would whip up a piece within the month. That month lasted more than two years. In that time, I learned one of the most interesting lessons about whitewater trips.

If you have ever wondered if there is such a thing as the perfect canoe, you are not alone. My curiosity led to me using one every weekend for 10 solid months. My preferred routes were along the whitewater rivers in the northern waters of  Ontario’s Muskoka district. Water temperatures were barely above 33 degrees F and it couldn’t have been done without the help of my three sons, Kim, Kevin and Dave. They took the pictures and got soaked in the bow of many a canoe.

In the end, what was meant to be a simple story on the canoe became the most interesting research and a wild adventure I’ll never forget. Canoe manufacturers would send me a canoe and my sons and I would run their boats through crazy white waters to see what punishment they could take and how they handled it. A couple didn’t make it, breaking up in the runs. Those that survived were donated to Boy Scout troops.

Eventually, after two years of studying the different canoes, I took what I knew of canoe history and combined it with some of my own ideas to build a 17-foot canoe from Kevlar. It weighed 36 pounds, had a high Ojibwa bow and stern, and a semi-rounded tumblehome around the body to add to the greatness in whitewater.

Partway through testing a number of types of canoes, I found I needed to know just how the canoe came to be. The modern canoes used in my research were made from fibreglass, aluminum, Kevlar and other such modern materials. They were smooth in construction, but it seemed as though something was missing. On the other hand, the construction of the bark canoes were laced together with tree roots or strips of deer and moose hides, then decorated by the hands of their creators. In all, it gave the old canoe a feeling of depth and mystery. The drawings on the old birch bark canoes were not just idle drawings but rather told stories about the people who built these marvellous canoes centuries ago.  

If it was possible to go back in time and cross the nation’s frontiers from the Atlantic to the Pacific and to the far north’s Arctic waters, one would be able to identify the First Nations involved by the way they built their canoes, the way the planking was laid out, the lashing of the gunwales and of, course, the very design of the canoe.

The earliest written record of the canoe dates to 1535, when a French explorer by the name of Jacques Cartier logged “two bark canoes carrying a total of 17 men was seen.” Champlain was the first to add any description of the bark canoe when, in 1603, he recorded one that measured approximately 20 feet long, 40 inches at the beam and approximately 30 inches deep.

The early settlers were fast to recognize the swiftness of such canoes. They could easily outdistance the best of the short landing craft of larger ships. It was not long before the explorers adopted these light swift canoes, which ultimately became the most-used mode of transportation in exploring and opening the pathways to the new world. Since then, engineering technology has subbed in many of the above-mentioned materials for birchbark, but there has never been a better design than the original for a canoe. A great deal of thought was put into designing a canoe for a very specific use.

The Ojibwa, Cree, Malicites, Micmac and Algonkin (Algonquin) built their boats to fit their needs. The canoes were made from birch, as well as spruce, elm, or whatever trees were available. Waterways also determined the type of bow a canoe would have. Ojibwa canoes included high bows to shed the high waves. The rolled-back bow had a noticeable rocker, which served a dual purpose. It shed waves and, when turned upside down on dry land, it provided good shelter for the overnight traveller.

One of the more outstanding designs to come out of central Canada was a combination of the canoe designs of the eastern Cree and Ontagnais. High rocker bows and sterns made for a canoe that could handle the best of what any whitewater could provide. The very look of the canoe, gave it the name “crooked canoe.”

The Algonkin (Algonquin)  bow was recognizable due to its more horizontal pointed bow design. This was generally found on all Algonquin canoes. The Hudson Bay and Ottawa River Fur Trade canoes were exceptionally large. The fur trade of the north developed around this canoe. The large 25 to 30-foot canoes were used to transport cargo and passengers to and from different outposts.

Buying Your First Canoe

Here are a few things to consider when buying your first canoe: Will the sole purpose be for children paddling around the lakeshore? Will the canoe be used in lake travel? Will the canoe be used for hunting or fishing? Will the canoe be used for whitewater trips? Will the canoe be used for wilderness trips where portaging will be part of the daily routine?

Once this has been determined, we will deal with length, width, depth and the material used in the construction of canoes. If the canoe is to be used for children around the cottage or lake shore, then a more flat-bottom canoe is recommended, along with a triple keel and no more than 15 feet long.

If the canoe is to be used for open lake travel, a low bow and stern is recommended, with a single deep keel. The low bow, stern and keel will help when crossing open water when you have winds.

Now we move into 15 to 17-foot canoes. Many paddlers would hesitate in using anything other than a 16-foot canoe, regardless of use. Generally, the 17-foot canoes will carry more cargo and offer more stability in the water. The longer the canoe, the more free board, or distance the canoe sits out of water at midship with the same total cargo weight. It is suggested that if you will exceed 800 pounds total cargo (cargo and people) for a three-day trip, you should move to at least a 17-foot canoe, or longer. The factor here is that for every foot over 16 feet, you should add one inch to the depth factor.

So a 16-foot length calls for a mid-beam width of 36 inches and a mid-beam depth of 16 inches. A 17-foot canoe calls for a mid-beam width of 37 inches and a mid-beam depth of 17 inches. An 18-foot canoe calls for a mid-beam width of 38 inches and a mid-beam depth of 18 inches.

This simple formula compensates for the additional material weigh of the canoe at the manufacturing level, and in the comparison of volume capacity of the canoe in relation to the free board factor.     


The keels are very important, depending on the purpose of the canoe. The keel has three main purposes, including being to help keep the canoe on course in open, windy waters, to strengthen the construction of the canoe, and to help protect the bottom from rocks and stones. If used strictly for whitewater, then the keel is not necessary unless the keel is a single keel and very narrow and thin. The reason here is, the smaller the keel, the easier it is to maneuver the canoe in fast waters. For general cottage use, a double keel will help save the canoe from damage when pulling it up on shore, over stones etc.

If it’s your first canoe, I would suggest you ask the dealer to allow you to try it out. Take along some extra weight and place it at mid-section between two paddlers.

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