Building a Birchbark Canoe :
The Algonquin Wabanaki Tciman

by David Gidmark

Review by Mike Saunders

Shooting a rapid with flung arrows flying past and war whoops echoing around. Traversing long rivers clad in buckskin. Easing along looking ahead for trout to spear. These are some of the thoughts that come to mind as you think of a birchbark canoe. Every once in a while, someone comes along and seemingly resurrects a “lost” art. This is one of those cases.

“Building a Birchbark Canoe” delves into not only the methods of construction, but also the history of canoeing by the Algonquin Indians of the northeast. The first chapter is a fairly exhaustive account of how birchbark canoes came into being. Not only is the reader brought to understand canoe building, but also a lesson in how to “take what you have on hand, and make what you can”. 

The following chapters are divided with General construction techniques first, and then four different builders actually build a canoe. The pictorial documentation is wonderful. Photographs of the process abound, but also a personal touch is there as you learn not only the methods that the builders use, but also learn about the builders.

The book is an easy read. David Gidmark writes the majority of it in a manner that makes you feel as if you were there asking the questions yourself. To be able to blend such an amount of technical material in a manner that doesn’t cause drowsiness is an indication of good writing.

The final chapter deals with a subject that most boatbuilders will appreciate. Making a paddle. The method used is strictly traditional and in keeping with the rest of the book. A portion of the chapter is also devoted to making your own “crooked Knife”, an essential tool if you ever decide to venture into the world of birchbark canoe building.

My final recommendations: Want to build a canoe? Read this book first. It may change your mind about the type of construction you choose.

Mike Saunders