Chapter 14: Birch Bark Canoe Repair

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 Chapter 14: Birch bark canoe repair.

While the two scouting teams went out, Rejean Tiblement set himself to repairing canoes. The one that had gone over the rapids hadn't a mark on it. It had been empty after discarding Augier, and its buoyancy saved it.

Two others were slightly damaged and one, the Delestre-Dollard-Tiblement canoe, had a hole that nearly went through the bottom. Tiblement noticed that water had begun leaking before they pulled in. The bark was strengthened with ribs of thin white cedar. He flipped the craft and examined its bottom. Toward the stern was a short but deep cut.

The birch bark canoe is a perfect vessel: light, easily controllable, capable of great speed and adaptable to shoal, deep water, or rapids. They were made by the Algonquin and Huron in only a few days and were superior to the Iroquois' elm canoes. They were lighter, had no knots, and were more watertight. The Iroquois would have made birch bark canoes too, but the birch was not common in their country. Their elm canoes were heavy and tougher than the birch bark and could be constructed in one day but they were not as flexible and elm let in water.

The Huron taught the French how to tell what tribe was approaching from a distance, by the way the canoes rode in the water. If they rode low, the French headed for shore because it meant Iroquois elm canoes.

"This rent in the bottom of the canoe was made by something sharp," said Tiblement.

"Probably Dollard shifted position when we were going over ice. Just hitting a rock wouldn't have done it -- the canoes can easily handle that."

Jean Valets was looking over Tiblement's shoulder.

"Can you fix it?"

"Certainly. I'll need a fire made and a stick about a foot long."

"Right," said Valets, leaving.

"Rene," called Tiblement.

Rene Doussin walked over to the upturned canoe.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Can you get me some wide strips of birch bark? I've got to fix these canoes."

"Sure. Can I help?"

"You mean after you get the bark?"

"Oh ... right. Be back soon. Come on, Christophe," said Doussin.

Christophe Augier's reedy form was leaning forlornly against a tree.

"What?" he said.

"Come with me to get some bark for the canoes," said Doussin.

"The canoes have enough bark; they're made of bark," said Augier blankly.

"Christophe," Doussin spoke as if to a small child. "Christophe, there are some holes in the canoes. If we don't patch them, we will all sink and drown. Including you."

Augier did not move. His eyes, as usual, were half-closed. No one had ever seen their color.


The slouched form lurched forward, propelled by his back muscles pushing against the tree.

"Well, if it's serious..." he said skeptically.

Augier stepped on an ax head to make the handle rise automatically to his hand. As the handle flipped up, he grasped it.

"Let's go."

Rene Doussin shook his head and followed Augier into the forest.

"You're a very lazy person," said Doussin.

Rejean Tiblement's was kneeling, working on the canoe. His knife cut away some of the bark around the break, trimming the ends and cutting away the frayed bark on the surface and just under it.

"Aren't you cutting too much?" asked Valets, who had returned with the stick and was now preparing the fire.

"No. Most of the damage is near the on the outer layers."

"It looks like you're cutting a lot."

"That's because the bark is in layers. Don't worry, there's lots left. And anyway, I still have to patch it."

Tiblement got a container of pitch from a slender box of tools he carried with him. Valets had transferred some burning twigs from the fire to be used for the meal over to a place near the canoe. He piled on more twigs, fanning the flames until he had coaxed a constant fire from them.

When it was burning well, Tiblement put his pot of pitch on the fire. He returned to the canoe, cutting a small saucer like indentation around the break in the bark. He shaved about half the bark away like this.

Christophe Augier and Rene Doussin arrived with several long strips of bark. Tiblement rose from a kneeling position to receive the bark and groaned."Oouuff. Damn leg."

He had fallen while hunting the previous autumn, and his knee had never completely recovered. It bothered him while paddling, and it hurt when he shifted from a kneeling position. He took a piece of the bark, wrapped it around the stick Valets had brought and put it into the fire. When it was lit like a torch he applied it to the damaged section of the canoe.

"What are you doing?" Valets asked, alarmed. "You'll burn it!"

Tiblement carefully held the torch close to the bark, blowing flame towards the puncture.

As he did the bark changed color and became lighter.

"It's drying," said Tiblement. "If I don't do it this way it would take maybe two days to dry properly. And if it isn't completely dry the pitch won't stick."

"But it's dangerous," said Valets.

"Not very. The canoe is still wet. There isn't much chance it'd catch. But be careful the pitch doesn't get too hot. The whole thing'll go up like paper."

Valets turned his attention to the pitch pot. Tiblement took a strip of the new bark

He cut out a piece roughly the same size as the rent in the canoe. A little larger. Then he took the pitch on the edge of a flat stick and painted the damaged area completely with the hot pitch. He placed the new bark down on the hot pitch and with the flat stick he applied more pitch to the area, covering the bark entirely. As the pitch cooled he pressed it continually with his thumb and fingers, constantly wetting them in his mouth to keep them from sticking. When he was finished, he repeated the entire process with another carefully cut piece of the fresh birch bark, careful to fit the bark into the rent and make certain the grain matched well. He applied more pitch to the damaged area then placed the bark on it, then added more pitch, constantly pressing it as before.

When the new bark piece went on it was slightly higher than the original bark on the canoe. Constant, careful pressing of the pitch made a slight smooth black mound over the rent. It was clean and beautiful.

"That will hold," said Tiblement, satisfied. "Now, let's do the others. We can't travel further unless we repair them."

Tiblement told the others that when the Indian canoes were damaged, they fixed tears with repair bags of bark, strips of root and pine or spruce resin. A daub of ochre made the job watertight. They checked automatically upon disembarking since one canoe or other might be damaged at any time. This rarely caused a delay because the canoes then had the men's sleeping time to set. And the repairs were carried out during the day so at least they could see what they were doing.

"Which is more," observed Pilote, "than we can do traveling at night."