Bark canoes

Last week was largely spent in an aside, looking at traditional boats of the Pacific. The whole thing was fueled by the sudden appearance of a fleet of ocean going canoes.

Outside of our field trip, we also spent quite a lot of time studying the traditional boats and maritime lifestyle of the Pacific Islands. As luck would have it, our local library managed to produce a great resource book called ‘Fishing for Islands.’ It explores a whole range of different types of traditional boats, showing the relationship between design, purpose and available materials. It also covers how these boats developed from very simple bark canoes used to navigate swamps and quiet rivers.

My oldest boy in particular seems as impressed as I am by simple technologies. He has explored bark as a roofing material, made a stone blade, had a look at ancient fish traps, tried his hand at weaving grass, and just today, he hafted a shard of glass onto a length of wood to make a clovis point spear.

He really wanted to make a bark canoe based on a design from Arnhem Land. Making it out of bark was a bit beyond us, but we do have lots of Bangalow palms growing at our place. The leaves are always falling off and the base gives a large waterproof sheet which is just perfect for the job.

We hunted around until we found one which was still green. As they dry out, they become brittle, and crack if you try to bend them. I did most of the work on the actual canoe, with the boys mostly just passing me things as I needed them. In the background though, they were busy cutting, stitching and tying their own creations.

The closest thing I had to an awl was a phillips head screwdriver. I would cut the leaf with secateurs, fold it as I needed, and then use the screwdriver to drill a hole in it, as well as to push a piece of string through the hole. I was using heavy jute twine. Partly this was just because it was strong enough to do the job, and partly it gave an authentic feel to the project.

Stitching the bark canoe

The back was stitched together straight up and down. The front needed a bit more work, being folded and stitched into a point for pushing through reeds. At this stage, although nearly finished, it still does not look like much. Here it is against the picture we were using for inspiration.

Bark canoe with reference book

We trimmed a piece of the leaf stem, and then stitched a couple of lengths across the boat. These spreaders stop the sides either folding in or spreading out flat.

Spreader on the bark canoe

Of course, two boys need two canoes. For a moment, I thought we had run out of materials, but we managed to find a fresh, very large leaf hidden in a corner of the garden. Here they are, fully decked out with their respective crews.

Two bark canoes

A couple of days later, we used a similar method to make a simple bark hut. We tied a basic framework together, then cut and folded some leaves over to make a roof. We weighed the bases down with rocks to hold them in place. The boys also hammered a post into the ground to moor their canoes up to.

Moored bark canoes

The largest of these canoes is about a 1/3 scale of the real thing. I enjoyed making it every bit as much as the boys did.

About Blokeschool

I am a homeschooling dad with a wife and two boys. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing, so I feel compelled to write it all down. In my spare time, I work as a manager for the local health district, drink too much coffee, and am an overenthusiastic martial artist.
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10 Responses to Bark canoes

  1. Maryam says:

    These look great! My kids would love to make boats, but I’m not sure what we’d use around here (PA, USA). Maybe softening up birch bark somehow, before stitching… I love how homeschooling can suddenly mean a week of boat study 🙂

    • Blokeschool says:

      Traditionally, the sheet of bark was laid over a fire built with green wood and lots of leaves. Its not very hot, so the bark doesn’t catch fire, and its makes lots of smoke, but more importantly it also makes lots of steam, which softened the bark before shaping. If you are feeling adventurous, I guess a modern equivalent might be the largest cooking pot you can find filled with boiling water.
      Certainly the ability to shift focus at short notice is a great advantage of home schooling.

  2. This is brilliant Dave! I love how you have followed the interest of your children and used a combination of books and hands on learning. I also love how the learning has just progressed so naturally.

    • Blokeschool says:

      Thanks Suzie. I am great lover of books myself, but there is nothing quite like experience to really understand how the theory works. I have also found that alternating between books and related activities really keeps interest levels and engagement very high for long periods of time.

  3. hicamie says:

    Those canoes are amazing!

  4. These look awesome! I am going to have to show this to my man and son; they would love this! 🙂

  5. tashsmiles says:

    Love it, Dave! Where else would they get this kind of an education? They’ll never forget these projects. Thanks for sharing.

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