After reading in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology about spruce and elm bark canoes I decided to give it a go. Though I have little doubt that you could find at least marginally usable bark for a canoe around where I come from, good spruce bark is much more abundant.
I searched for an afternoon and found several decent canditates, but there was one in particular. It wasn't an excellent tree by any measure, but it was damaged on one side, easing my conscience for taking such a big tree.
Skinning an upright tree isn't easy, but with stone tools you would definately have no choice. This canoe wasn't done with stone tools, of the simple reason that I didn't have time and because of that needed to take some shortcuts. This tree had another tree fallen against it a couple of metres from the ground, making it possible to skin without making a ladder. The sheet came off around 4m long and should preferably have been 2m longer. Because of the injury, the sheet also was a little narrow.
A few lessons to be learned in the skinning process:
- Make the ladder longer than the sheet, it will make it easier to remove the sheet without injuring it.
- Be at least two persons (we were two, my brother Arne and myself).
- Cut the outlines of the sheet completely so you can see that the bark is cut through all the way. This is to decrease the chance of ripping the bark. Lenghtwise cracks is a much greater issue than holes from dead branches.
- Make a spud to help prying off the bark.
- Have one person hold the top (think safety though) while making the final separating strokes from the tree.
- Transport the bark as short a distance as possible, it will obviously make the chances of cracking the bark smaller.
Try to choose a shady location for building your canoe. Otherwise the bark will dry too fast. Again it is from my own errors I say this. Also, the ground should be absolutely level to avoid that the canoe become twisted. Spend some time scraping down the bark, especially where you want the bark to be crimped to achieve a rocker and in the ends. All of these places will experience severe stress and if you don't do this properly, the bark will crack.
I cut the gores and tried to sew them shut. Forget such an idea. It works well on birch bark, since it shrinks a lot less, but on spruce you will just give yourself an enormous task in sewing and pitching the seams.
Make two frames (the inner gunwhales x2) and weigh one of them down with some rocks. Make sure there is enough bark on each side of the frame to make the sides of the canoe. Stake up the sides, fold the crimps and clamp the second innergunwhale to the top. Do the same on the ends. I sewed the canoe up at once. And that is ok if you want it only to use for a while, if you keep it wet, but after that it will become loose from the bark drying and everything will have to be resewed and repitched. More than likely without great results.
When the hull is dried, you can start the sewing. Try to reconstitute so you can carefully puncture the bark to sew the on the gunwhale with spruce roots. The method is the same as sewing a birch bark basket, a method that will be described in a later article. The ends are stiched around two pieces of wood, to make sure the seam doesn't split the bark. Pitch the seams before sheathing.
For a sturdy and lasting canoe you need sheathing and ribs. Sheathing is somewhat less imperative and can be replaced with a floor laid ontop of the ribs. Be very carful when fitting the ribs, dry spruce bark is absolutely inelastic and can not be fitted as tightly as on birch bark canoes. Of the same reason, I would be very careful of using a spruce bark canoe in a rocky river.
The spruce bark canoe I made was in service for only a very short time. The cracks required an enormous effort in pitching it, when it dried and cracked even more horrendously I simply gave up and retired it. I am not certain if I will make another attempt. Either I will scrape together enough good birch bark to make a decent birch bark canoe or I will make a currach from elk hides.
Below is a sad photo of the retired canoe, twisted and cracked the bark has now been stripped off and utilized as flooring in my brother Laje's hunting blind.