Before the Indians got steel axes from the traders, their stone axes and chisels would have made slow work of making a canoe. First there was the cutting down of a tall straight tree and cutting off a suitable length with no branches or decayed places. Then came the shaping of the ends of the log into a suitable pointed shape and hollowing out the hull. Nevertheless they did all this with considerable skill. In this construction enterprise, the “brave” took part as well as his woman.
They enlisted the help of fire. It was a slow method, and had to be watched carefully so as not to weaken the hull. However, it need not lengthen the process, because there was the long job of hewing the outside into canoe-shape to be done at the same time. When a suitable hollow had been burned out, a chisel-like implement could smooth off the sides. By placing a palm inside and a palm outside of the wall, the maker could measure very accurately the thickness of the wall, and work at it until the wood was uniformly thick, but as thin as possible to cut down the weight.
When the shape was satisfactory, the craft was propped up with stones or logs, and more than half-filled with water. Now large stones were heated in a fire and dropped into the cavity until the water boiled. Have you thought of the difficulty of lifting a large, almost red-hot boulder out of a fire and up over the side of the craft, without a modern shovel? Of course, one could dig a hole in a sandy bank (also without a shovel) and sink the hull, so that the boulders could be rolled into it, but there was still the problem of getting them out of the hot water for re-heating. Besides the hull could not be allowed to swell and spread. The Indians managed very well with long green poles and a nice sense of balancing the heavy boulder.
After the water had been kept on the boil long enough — working all night and all day — the wood became soft and quite pliable. At this point cross braces or “thwarts” would be placed across the craft while its top was spread apart. Seated in little notches already cut for the ends, these crossbars would spread a twelve- or fourteen-inch hull to sufficient width to allow a man to sit, and to carry a burden.
Now all that remained was to bail the water out, and let the craft dry out. Poplar wood shrinks when dry. The natural process would fix the thwarts in place as firmly as nails and glue.
Such a craft was very heavy to portage, especially after being in the water for some time. Sufficient time must be allowed on any journey to dry out the craft periodically. Wherever possible it was taken up and down portages by poling, or by “lining” it with ropes pulled by men on shore.
Poplar wood may twist and warp when dried out. Dugouts were no exception. In many northern travelers’ accounts of their adventures, a clumsy, cranky, or crooked dugout was mentioned, but probable more of these than spruce or birch canoes were used on our rivers in the early days when everyone carried an axe. An adze would be convenient but not necessary.
A dugout was used as a ferry on the Sukunka River at Twidwell bend in the early days. Until the building of the Peace River bridge at Taylor in 1943, a large, well made hulk of one lay halfway up the first high bank above river level on the North side just east of the old road. It was intriguing to wonder who had got it up or down there — and why.