“There are a lot of boat builders in my family,” said Chesley d’Entremont.
“My Grand-Père Oscar built hundreds and hundreds of lobster boats and Uncle Blaise and cousin Jimmy. It’s supposed to come naturally, I’ve got native blood,” he smiles.
Over the past 25 years he’s listened to others who said they were going to build a birchbark canoe. He says they never built them.
It took about a week for d’Entremont to construct the roughly-14-foot craft. He started by laying the first piece of birchbark down and pouring hot water on it to make it soft. He placed a frame he’d made on top of the bark and began overlapping bark pieces, sewing them together with lengths of soaked spruce roots after making needle holes with an awl.
When sections of the bark began bulging because of the positions they were being forced into, he’d take out his knife and slit them vertically.
He says that because this area doesn’t have bark suitable for making canoes, he collected pieces from friends. Some of the bark came from Alaska via New York; other pieces are from Cape Breton and Gilbert’s Cove in Digby County.
Once the birchbark shell was completed, the inwales and outwales were added. These pieces of ash pinch the bark between them and run along the top of the canoe. Wooden pegs were used to help fasten where necessary and d’Entremont’s wife Jacklyn helped to lash the bark tightly to the gunwales with spruce roots. (She also helped to dig them.)
Thin pieces of sheathing were laid on the bottom, overlapping like shingles. Ribs held these in place and were made with tapered ends to notch into the gunwales.
D’Entremont says he wishes he had of used bigger sheathing.
“Instead of having three pieces I’d have one piece. When you try to put it on, all of a sudden you’ve got pieces moving and they’re jammed tight and you don’t feel like taking them back apart,” he said.
He jokes when people ask him if he made any mistakes while building the canoe.
“This canoe has not one mistake in it. That there – he points to a section - is not a mistake. It’s a learning experience.”
When observers draw attention to something they don’t think is right, he has a ready response.
“Good, the next one I make can I copy off yours?”
Silicone was applied to the seams between the birch pieces. In olden days it would have been a mixture of bear fat and spruce gum.
D’Entremont is confident the boat won’t leak. During its construction he often poured hot water into the canoe to keep the birch soft and flexible. The water remained. His theory is if it doesn’t leak out, it won’t leak in.
Jacklyn took the canoe on its maiden voyage in a nearby pond recently and says the only water in it was drips from the paddle. There are other paddlers eager to try.
“If I let everyone have a paddle in it that wants to, they’d wear it right out,” said d’Entremont.
Historic birch bark canoe
In 2010, a 250-year-old birchbark canoe was discovered in a British shed, where it had been stored alongside discarded bathroom fixtures. A British soldier who fought in Quebec during the American War of Independence transported the boat from Canada to England. It is believed to be the oldest surviving boat of its kind.