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1899 and After

Canoes and Skiffs

Canoe 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.

Model of a traditional northern canoeThe 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.

poling a york boatA 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 the skiff.

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 moss 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.

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