Thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams are scattered throughout the landscape of the northwest boreal forest, and traditional Aboriginal cultures living in the region were quick to seize upon the advantage waterways provided in terms of travel between remote areas. Two main types of craft were built by traditional hunters and trappers when they wanted to get around on the water: canoes and skiffs.
The traditional canoe was an intelligently designed watercraft, light enough to be portaged overland if this was needed, but sturdy enough to carry a fair amount of cargo. While most canoes had a similar overall design, size mattered when it came to the task for which the canoe was intended. For shallow water, rat canoes were called for. Rat canoes, so named because they were often employed in the hunting of muskrats, were quite small, about three metres in length, and highly manoeuvrable, and easily paddled and portaged by one person. For tasks which required a lot of cargo to be moved over larger waterways, ten metre long freight canoes were employed. Two or more people would be needed to portage and paddle canoes of this type. A great many canoes would fall in between the rat and freight canoe sizes, usually being about five to seven metres long, and good for river and lake travel. Birchbark was the material of choice for making traditional canoes, though moosehide and canvas could also be used. Spruce sap was used to waterproof and seal canoes.
The skiff, or Chipewyan skiff, was a flat bottomed wooden boat with a square stern, making it ideal for use with an outboard motor. Spruce or pine was usually used to make the frame and hull of the boat, and then spruce sap or tar was used as a sealant. Typical Chipewyan skiffs were about five to seven metres in length. Skiffs were ideal for lake travel because of their broad hulls that kept them stable on lake waters and that allowed them to haul bulky cargo. Much larger skiffs, up to ten metres long, were used as freighters to carry large amounts of cargo.
As with the Chipewyan skiff, many watercraft used by northern hunters and trappers now employ outboard motors. As snowmobiles have done for overland travelers, so outboard motors or motor driven craft have allowed hunters and trappers to cover greater distances more quickly than they could by paddling alone. Still, to conserve fuel on longer journeys, outboard motors are sometimes used in tandem with paddling. Aluminum or fiberglass boats are also in much wider use, often used in place of the wooden canoes or skiffs, and purchased rather than made by the person intending to use them.