The light canoe is commonly called a
rat canoe in the bush lands,
because it is used to hunt muskrats in the shallow waters of sloughs,
marshlands and in the delta regions of lakes. It usually measures 2.5 - 4
m in length and is light enough for one person to carry if a short
overland portage is required. It is also transportable in larger boats or
on toboggans. A paddle is used to propel a rat canoe.
Small boats were convenient for small jobs, but larger jobs - like
hauling freight - required boats that were much larger. Some of the larger
boats were freighting canoes. Others were built of lumber and called
skiffs if they were small or scows if they were still larger. Originally,
freighter canoes and scows were propelled by people using oars.
Large freighter canoes and skiffs were the most common styles of water
transport for freight and passenger service in the northwest bush land.
Although freighter canoes, skiffs and scows were considerably bigger and
heavier than rat canoes, they were generally limited in size and weight
that a single trapper could manage to pull onto shore.
The skiff was an excellent shallow-water river boat. It was a smaller
version of the freighter scow and was built of local lumber. It became
very popular in the latter part of the eighteenth century, particularly in
the region of Fort
Chipewyan, and for this reason it became known there as
a Chipewyan skiff. A skiff that was 6 - 7 m long had a carrying capacity
of approximately 1400 kg. The skiff, a square-sterned boat, became even
more popular with the advent of outboard motors. Such boats were built
locally by the trappers themselves or by experienced boat builders in the
trapping community. Skiff building was among the first entrepreneurial
enterprises undertaken by local trapper-hunters in the northwest.
The standard Chipewyan skiff is 6 - 7 m long and 1.5 m wide at the
centre. They vary in size and capacity according to need. For example,
some of the larger skiffs used as heavy freighters are more that 10 m
long. A Chipewyan skiff is pointed at the bow and narrow and blunt at the
stern. It is flat bottomed, with sidewalls as much as a metre in height.
The frame of the boat comprises a series of ribs to which the bottom and
sidewall boards are nailed. Some builders overlap the boards to give added
strength and a good seal against water. Boards that are not overlapped may
have gaps, and these are sealed with caulking compounds that expand when
soaked with water. Soaking may be done by submerging the skiff in shallow
water for a few days before the first trip in the spring or by letting the
caulking compounds expand and seal while the boat is in the water on the
first trip. This results in some water seeping into the boat at the
beginning of the journey, and that water must be bailed out - a rather
tedious job for someone, usually the driver of the boat. Seats for
passengers are built across the skiff, and they serve also to stabilize
and support the side walls. Very little hardware is needed to build a
skiff - just a few nails and/or screws.
The basic design for a Chipewyan skiff is thus that of a flat-bottomed
boat that is usually completely open. Some designs, however, have a
front-end cabin for shelter.
As this boat is specially designed for hauling heavy loads in shallow
water, it is particularly well suited to river travel and can be safely
operated in all but the most severe weather. Trappers are experienced and
skilled at reading both weather and water conditions and are proficient at
handling boats. It is not unusual for trappers to travel by boat
during darkness without lights. They are acutely aware of the
characteristics of the river system in their own region. The major hazard
of night time travel is that of running into dangerous floating debris,
typically tree debris.
A skiff may be paddled or poled through shallow water, and it may also
be driven by a small outboard motor. The stern of a skiff to be powered by
an outboard motor is usually reinforced to support the extra weight and
thrust of the motor. With the advent of such motors in the last century,
skiffs became popular, and as the motors improved so did the popularity of
Thus, the traditional power of paddle and oar or drifting with the
current of the river have now been completely replaced or at least
supplemented by high-powered outboard (and inboard) motors driving locally
made skiffs, barges and boats. In addition, modern, commercially built
fibre-glass and aluminum work boats and speed boats have been introduced
into the bush land economy.
Boats have been universally used for the transport of freight and
people during the "open" seasons, but they are of no use when
the rivers and lakes are frozen over. In the winter season, therefore,
trappers traditionally relied on using the frozen lakes and rivers,
as well as the frozen surface of the land, for all travel.
Much of the bush land is swampy and boggy in the summer but frozen hard
in the winter, and it is covered with snow most of the time. Thus,
overland travel routes are more usable in the winter than they are in the
summer. Wetlands ranging in size from less than a hectare to hundreds of
hectares are covered with muskeg. Muskeg is peat bog, a mixture of
and water in ground hollows a metre to tens of metres deep. Over-land
travel in the summer is possible only on solid ground, mainly land ridges,
so these wet muskeg areas must be skirted in summer. They make good travel
routes, however, after the ground is frozen and humps of grass and moss
are covered by snow. Winter travel, although difficult, is virtually
unlimited over ice and on trails cut through the bush. Thus, overland
travel in the summer is possible but limited; but in the winter travel is
possible everywhere - highlands, lowlands, muskeg, rivers and lakes.
Reprinted from Bush Land People
with the permission of the author. Copyright Terry Garvin, 1992-2002.