Looking Closely: Treatment of a Birch Bark Canoe. (Part One)

The Canadian Canoe Museum has taken the first steps in the conservation of an 18th century birch bark canoe. This canoe has only recently returned to its country of origin after laying in Cornwall England for over 200 years. Through a Fleming College internship placement from the Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management program, the museum has put intern Lauren Tregenza to work on the preliminary stages of this project. This is an important first step for closer analysis and treatment of this historic birch bark canoe.

The closer I looked at this 18th century watercraft, the more questions and mysteries arose. When I first encountered the canoe I remember being struck by how beautiful the damaged remains were. The canoe appears almost skeletal, revealing glimpses of the inner rib structure. The bark has faded to a pale tone which gives it an almost ghostly feel. After this initial impression, I began to look more closely at the condition of the artifact and recorded these observations in what museums call a ‘condition report.’ This stage feels like detective work. I use various tools such as a magnifying glass, a handheld microscope and macro photography. This first step in conservation treatment can aid in the understanding of an object through careful inspection, documentation and analysis.

This act of looking is informed by knowledge of the materials that the object is made out of. In this case the materials are birch bark, cedar, spruce, iron, resin, pigments, canvas and potentially other unidentified materials. The more materials an object is composed of the more complicated is its condition. Each material has its own tendencies and vulnerabilities. All these factors play upon each other and have influenced the current state of this birch bark canoe.

In addition to these shifting components are all of the scrapes, fractures, holes and stains that the object now carries. Some of these elements can be improved upon, some may be irreversible and some illuminate secrets concerning manufacture or use. Full restoration is not always desirable, as this can harm the aged materials of the object and erase the stories that old scars may provide. Treatment details will be discussed in Part Two of this series.

Birch bark canoes are ephemeral objects if left exposed to the elements, which is why there are not many old examples. This canoe could potentially be one of the oldest examples available at over 200 years old. When looking at construction techniques, the canoe also has many stories. Traditional birch bark canoe building techniques were used to build the original object.  Not all aspects are traditional however. The ends have been repaired and covered in canvas which has been skillfully painted to match the bark in colour and texture. There is another repair where a thick canvas patch has been wrapped around a portion of the hull. All these elements are now a part of the history of the object.

 Tune in for part 2 of this series which will detail the conservation treatment of this canoe.


Key to dimensional changes diagram.

a.     Gunwales: Want to straighten to their original form, are no longer held in place by lashings.

b.     Spruce root: Will become brittle and loose the necessary strength to bind the structure. This causes the gunwales to separate from the structure.

c.     Ribs: Are expanding horizontally over time, since there is no pressure being exerted on them by the now fractured gunwales. This action pushes out the gunwales and stresses the birch bark cover.

d.     Birch bark: Will curve in upon itself as moisture moves through the bark.

e.     Previous Repairs: Canvas covered ends and older repairs near the centre.

f.      Sheathing: As the canoe unravels, large sections of sheathing are loose. Sheathing should be held in place between the ribs and bark cover through pressure.

g.     Thwarts: They are missing. They would have helped to counteract the force of the ribs pushing on the hull. 

Giving Tuesday - A Day of Global Giving

Giving Tuesday is a global day of giving that happens each year after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This year it will be taking place on November 29th.

It is a time when Canadians, charities and businesses come together to celebrate giving and participate in activities that support charities and not-for-profits. Last year, over 4,700 charities and business’s participated and over 5 million Canadians showed their support.

After a tremendous effort from our members, volunteers and supporters, The Canadian Canoe Museum was unfortunately not selected to be a finalist in the AVIVA Community Fund project this year. However, the staff and volunteers at the Canoe Museum are still working towards raising the funds necessary to purchase our very own van, trailer hitch package, and enclosed trailer. With Giving Tuesday quickly approaching we are asking for your help to get there!

Museum staff and volunteers portaging canoes in downtown Peterborough

Museum staff and volunteers portaging canoes in downtown Peterborough

Our dream van for outreach programming!

Our dream van for outreach programming!

The purchase of a van, trailer hitch package and enclosed trailer will assist with the transportation of children to summer paddling day camps and multi-day canoe trips, travel to schools to provide outreach programming, transport of artifacts to stage exhibits at partner museums, transport of watercraft and interactive educational opportunities to community events and to tow a enclosed trailer to camps and canoe trip launch sites.

The Canadian Canoe Museum is committed to leading locally, reaching out nationally, learning from and with First Peoples in Canada and bringing our collection of watercraft to life to share the historical and cultural importance of the canoe.

On November 29th, support the Museum by donating on our Giving Tuesday webpage. Or give us a call at 705-748-9153 to make your donation.

2017 Artisan Workshops Announced!

Our Fall workshops are in full swing here at the Canoe Museum! We’ve had a great year so far and have seen some beautiful cherry paddles, leather journals, beadwork, moccasins and more!

Wet-felted scarf workshop

Wet-felted scarf workshop

Leather-bound journal workshop

Leather-bound journal workshop

Although workshops for the year will be coming to a close soon, we are already looking forward to our (just released) 2017 lineup, which includes some brand-new additions that we are very excited about!

Our 2017 workshop lineup has something for everyone to enjoy. We will see the return of some of our traditional favourites where you can carve a canoe paddle, learn the basics of finger weaving and weave your own pair of snowshoes. Some exciting new additions have been added too including three more beading workshops where you can choose to bead a barrette or bracelet on a loom, or make a pair of beautiful beaded rosette earrings. For winter enthusiasts, learn how to make your own anorak, winter mittens, and even a trail toboggan! If you’re already looking forward to the summer months, we will also be offering a new natural dyeing workshop in June. Dye your own fabric with all natural materials- from plants, to bugs to minerals!

Canoe paddle carving workshop

Canoe paddle carving workshop

Winter moccasin workshop

Winter moccasin workshop

Beaded rosette workshop

Beaded rosette workshop

Canoe restoration workshop

Canoe restoration workshop

Remember, if you are a member you will receive 10% off all Workshops. If you are not a member, sign up here to get member pricing. You will also receive free admission to the museum, discounts on store items, and be the first to know of special events taking place at the museum.

A workshop makes a great gift and does not require any previous experience. If you would like to take a day (or two) to learn a new skill and meet new people, consider signing up for a workshop at The Canoe Museum.  Click here to see our full lineup with links to register today!

Thank you for your support. 

Help us win AVIVA Community Funding to purchase a van and trailer!

The Canadian Canoe Museum is competing to win AVIVA Community Funding and you can help.

Vote online October 11th to 28th for the museum’s project – funds to purchase a vehicle and trailer for outreach, public and educational programming. Help us reach schools in groups in-need that can't afford access to bussing.

The Canadian Canoe Museum has been connecting with Canadians from coast to coast to coast with stories and activities that are bringing Canadians closer together in this nation of rivers and this river of nations. Not least are our on-water programs that require road logistics in support of paddling activities to move people and boats from one place to another. Amazingly, to now (for the past 19 years) we have managed those road logistics with rented busses for people and staff vehicles for canoes. Love to have all 18 of your votes for this fun fundraiser that would make a world of difference for getting even more folk paddling with the CCM. Please help push this project into the AVIVA winners' circle." - James Raffan

The Canadian Canoe Museum has successfully submitted a project into the 2016 AVIVA Community Fund, an initiative that has been investing in charitable community initiatives across Canada since 2009.

The museum has applied for resources to purchase a van, trailer hitch package, vehicle wrap and enclosed trailer. These items would see the museum’s award winning, on and offwater programming become more accessible to schools, community groups, outreach events and the general public. This new equipment would transport children to summer paddling camps, it would allow the museum to travel to schools and other locations off-site to deliver educational programming and workshops, transport the museum’s public paddling fleet for use on-water, and would also enable transport of artefacts to exhibits at partner museums.

From October 11th to the 28th, Canadians can vote online to help the museum become a finalist in the competition. To vote visit https://www.avivacommunityfund.org/voting/project/view/16-484 Each registered participant has 18 votes they can use at any time and can vote for the same idea more than once and/or for multiple ideas.

The 15 ideas that receive the most votes in each of the two funding levels (small ideas, and large ideas) will become finalists. Winners are picked from the finalists by a panel of judges and announced on December 6, 2016. Judges will rank ideas based on the following criteria: longevity and sustainability, votes, impact, originality, likelihood of success and submission quality. If you support the museum’s project and want to help, invite your friends, families and coworkers to also vote for the project and join the project’s Facebook group.

There will also be a voting kiosk set up in the museum’s lobby.