The Native American Wabanaki tribes, or “People of the Dawnland,” have inhabited the coastal and riverine environment of this region for at least the last twelve thousand years. Their primary means of transportation, the birchbark canoe, is a reflection of their intimate knowledge of the woods and waters through which they traveled. The superbly adapted craft is sturdy and flexible enough to be handled offshore or on the big lakes, yet light enough to be carried by one person.
In the spring of 2017, the DRA and Lincoln Academy offered a special program to construct a birchbark canoe using traditional Wabanaki methods, with master boatbuilder Steve Cayard and two interns, Dan Asher and Tobias Francis. Support for the project also came from LincolnHealth, providing housing for Steve Cayard, and from a private foundation.
The canoe was built at Lincoln Academy’s Applied Technology and Education Center (ATEC), where students participated in the building process throughout the month.
Cayard builds birchbark canoes in the traditional style of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet builders of Maine and New Brunswick dating from the early- to mid-1800’s. The boatbuilder has spent years gleaning information from research on old canoes in museums, old photos, and written accounts. He works closely with native groups, sharing building techniques to help revitalize this traditional craft.
The construction process included soaking and steaming the cedar ribs and birch bark skin in order to bend them into shape, stitching pieces of birchbark together with split spruce root, weighting the gunwale frame to create the right curvature, installing planking and ribs, and fitting the headboards. Each step used technology the Wabanaki would have used, with very little help from modern manufactured tools.
“The idea behind the project was to help connect students to the local landscape through hands-on experience with natural, native resources,” said Sarah Gladu, Education Director at the DRA. “We were extremely fortunate to have a community that fully supports this endeavor, bringing Lincoln Academy, DRA, LincolnHealth, and skilled craftspeople together to benefit local students. Seeing a project like this come together was a rare chance to experience our local history.”
“Sharing this process with the students was a way to preserve and sustain this traditional craft, which so perfectly combined the talents of humanity with the gifts of the forest,” reflected Cayard.