On North America’s Pacific Northwest coast, masterfully designed canoes of various sizes and shapes were created. They were the primary mode of transportation for the region’s indigenous peoples until long after European colonization. Canoe-making has been revived in recent years, and a few have been built by various native nations. They have proven to be as seaworthy as those made in traditional times.
The canoes are carved from solid logs, most of which are red cedar, but some are Sitka spruce or cottonwood. After a steam-softening process, the boats were typically widened beyond the original diameter of the log by spreading the sides. Spreading does more than just make the canoe wider; it also causes major changes in form throughout the hull, which the canoe maker must account for when carving the log. Straight and level gunwales bend out and down smoothly, while the ends rise, forming a graceful sheer and transforming a rigidly narrow, hollow trough into an elegant watercraft.
The hull’s walls are made incredibly thin in order to spread without splitting. When the hull is finished, water is poured into it to a depth of about six inches and heated to boiling with red-hot rocks. The resulting steam is contained by mats covering the open hull. To keep the water at a boil, the hot rocks are replaced as needed. The softened sides, heated by the steam inside and the fires outside, begin to move outward, aided by the weight of water and rocks pressing down in the centre. Spreading sticks are tapped into place between the gunwales, moved to the ends, and lengthened in the centre as the sides flare outward. When the canoe has reached the desired beam and form, it is allowed to cool, the water is removed, and the thwarts, bow and stern blocks, and gunwale caps are fitted and fastened in place.
Large travelling and war canoes were frequently painted with designs associated with the canoes’ names or the owners’ crests.
The canoes were used to transport people and goods up and down the coast. They were used for trade, as war canoes, in competitions, and as fishing canoes. Emily Carr, who grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, recalls a regatta where the Indian races were the highlight. The ten-person canoes, with a steersman acting as coxswain, “flash[ed] through their races like running fire.” The Kloochman (“wife” in Chinook Jargon) race was “even grander” than the men’s, with the women giving “every scrap of themselves to the canoe” and working in complete harmony.