The Canadian Canoe Museum:

The Canadian Canoe Museum:

Preserving International Canoeing Heritage

from the Canadian Canoe Museum
from the Canadian Canoe Museum

By Brian Burton

“Let my canoe and my paddle be the only mark over my grave”
‘Mon Canoe d’écorce’ (‘My Bark Canoe’) translated by Frank Oliver.

The world-famous Canadian Canoe Museum (CCM) is making headlines once again. The museum, located in Peterborough Ontario has made the top of the list as the most fascinating museums in the Canada named ahead of Prince Edward Island’s Potato Museum, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and the Canadian Spy Museum.

Also making headlines for the CCM was the recently discovered 250 year old canoe found stored in a barn in Cornwall England. (The boat was discovered in 2 pieces however all things considered it is in relatively good condition.)

It is believed to have been built by the Maliseet Indians, a native culture from the East Coast of New Brunswick and historians believe that Lieutenant John Enys brought the boat back to the UK after visiting the area. (After being exhibited at the National Maritime Museum in England the boat will eventually the donated to the CCM.)

The CCM is North America’s only canoe museum and the history of canoeing and kayaking is recorded and displayed with remarkable detail. With more than 500 canoes and kayaks and 1,000 related artifacts, the Museum’s collection is the largest of its kind in the world.

The word “canoa” or “canoe” appeared in the earliest writings about the First Peoples of the New World, and was adapted from the Arawak language of the Native Caribbean.  While the word simply referred to a boat or vessel in its original meaning, it has largely come to refer to a specific craft which is familiar to many people today.

The amazing collection features examples of Aboriginal craft that span the continent of North America ranging from great cedar whaling dugouts of the West Coast, fine bark canoes, to the skin kayaks of the Arctic.

Canada is not the only nation with a canoeing heritage. Indigenous inhabitants of countries like New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Scotland, Brazil and most of the countries in Africa and Asia have used canoes and kayaks for transportation since antiquity.

The Museum houses historic wooden canoes, many examples of international craft from Senegal, Africa, Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, and Polynesia, dugout craft with outriggers, and unique sewn plank canoes.

The Museum recently introduced an “Adopt-a-Canoe Program”.  James Raffan, the Executive Director of the CCM, is credited with coming up with the idea. “We were aware of several other museums around the world that were using the same sort of concept and we quickly created what you can now see on our website,” reports James, adding that, “it was definitely a team effort.”

“We are hoping the “Adopt-a-Canoe” program will create way for people who are unable to regularly access the exhibits to connect to the collection and to the museum – In that sense it is a form of membership”

Skin Covered Sea Kayaks

Sea kayaks that were made seaworthy by covering the boat structure in animal skins are excellent examples of a technology developed over centuries of experimental refinement and everyday use. Geographical boundaries, cultural needs and individual craftsmanship made each kayak design unique to its region.

These craft were constructed with wood frames lashed together with sinew and covered in skins. The craftsmen did an amazing job of designing and constructing kayaks, many with complex shapes, using only the limited materials available to them. Kayak designs flourished throughout the Canadian Arctic using distinctive designs that evolved at approximately the same time in many parts of the South Pacific. These boats had an extremely high cockpit and were specifically designed to give the paddler a dry ride – even in rough conditions.

Load-carrying kayaks had a very stable, flat hull with flared sides while others were short and wide with multi-chined hulls and high crowned decks. These boats had tremendous storage capacity for their length. They were stable, efficient and very easy to use.

The Aleuts designed and built fast, seaworthy kayaks. These cruisers were long and narrow with multi-chined, rounded hulls. In order to increase seaworthiness, they often carried ballast of up to sixty pounds. A unique forked bow design was created to maximize the efficiency of slicing through waves while maintaining sufficient buoyancy in rough conditions.

Natives developed a multitude of kayak designs. Each design reflected the needs of its people and their fine artistry. Some modern day kayak designers have drawn upon this rich heritage to develop today’s recreational sea kayaks.

Skin kayaks have a distinctly “live” feel on the water, especially if the frame has been built with flexibility in mind. Such boats are responsive in ways that their hard-shelled counterparts are not, especially in absorbing wave action. This flexibility is not inherent for all skin boats, but must come from how the frame members are sized and joined.

18th Century Canoes

Early 18th-century commercial interests demanded that Europeans venture deeper into the North American continent, where they discovered extensive Aboriginal trade networks already in place along established canoe routes.  Moreover, they found that their own heavy boats were not suitable for plying the lakes, rivers and portages.  Knowledgeable river guides and canoe builders were engaged to support their own expanding trade relations.

Perhaps the most celebrated figure of this early commerce was the voyageur: that colourful paddler who remains enshrined beside the birch bark canoe in Canadian folklore today.  By the late eighteenth century, large bark canoes paddled by voyageurs and used for distance transport had connected the businesses of the St. Lawrence valley with the Mississippi, as well as the western and northern reaches of the continent.

Canadian Canoe Museum

The CCM contains a vast store of information and by visiting their website you can go to learn more about the heritage of skin covered boats and their modern day cousins.

Kirk Wipper, a Canadian who has a remarkable passion for history and canoes, had the idea to create a museum of canoes and kayaks and there is a story behind every canoe in the collection, which he had been building since he received an ancient dugout canoe from a friend in 1955. In 1990 Kirk turned over his impressive canoe collection to the CCM.

Situated on an 8 -acre site in 2 re-furbished buildings totaling 140,000 square feet. The collection is displayed according to a historical sequence illustrating the European experience since they reach North America. As the British and French explorers gradually discovered the extensive aboriginal trade networks that were already in place along established canoe routes and they also learned about the amazing range of watercraft constructed from available natural resources.

The exhibits are professionally designed to demonstrate the unique relationship between aboriginals and Europeans, and the development of the canoe over time as it was used for different purposes. Visitors can also understand the extent of aboriginal ingenuity and adaptability and their environmentally sustainable approach to life.

Maoris Canoes in New Zealand

The canoes that Maoris arrived in traditionally gave rise to the different tribal groupings: the genealogy of Maori culture derives from each of the canoes of their ancestors. The fleet was, according to tradition, inspired by Kupe, the great navigator who, according to who tells the story, either discovered New Zealand intentionally, or was blown away from Hawaiki, and accidentally discovered New Zealand some time around 925. Either way, he returned to Hawaiki and brought back his people to this new land he named “Aotearoa” or “Land of the Long White Cloud”, inspired by the clouds that hovered over the length of the Southern Alps.

Aboriginal Canoes in Canada

There is an ancient and rich diversity in canoe shapes, construction and purpose, a knowledge that Native builders have refined over the past centuries.  Some canoes were elegantly carved and formed from the massive trees of the northern Pacific coast for trade, war and for hunting the great whales.  Other builders carved smaller canoes, well suited for travelling rivers, creeks and small waterways.  In the harsh treeless Arctic landscape, the generosity of the ocean and rivers provided Inuit builders with animals and driftwood, from which they perfected the seaworthy shapes of their covered hunting craft.

The canoe of the Aboriginal Peoples is the ultimate expression of elegance and function in the world of watercraft. Each tribe being defined by the distinct shape of its canoe or kayak and they were not only the principal means of transportation, but was also critical to almost every facet of life; canoe and kayak builders were revered in their societies.

Throughout much of the rest of Canada, the rind of the White Birch tree helped Native builders to overcome the challenges of overland and coastal travel. Builders of bark canoes removed the supple skin from these trees, tailored them into carefully proportioned vessels of their own traditions, and lined the entire craft with a lightweight wooden frame. In a land crisscrossed by a myriad of rivers and creeks, the birch bark canoe provided the traveler with a craft that could carry a great load, was light enough to be carried as the need arose, and which could manage the rigours of early travel.

Perhaps the most celebrated figure of this early commerce was the voyageur: that colourful paddler who remains enshrined beside the birch bark canoe in Canadian folklore today. By the late eighteenth century, large bark canoes paddled by voyageurs and used for distance transport had connected the businesses of the St. Lawrence valley with the Mississippi, as well as the western and northern reaches of the continent

At once simple and elegant yet at the same time a tribute to the ingenuity and strength, the canoe is a truly enduring symbol of Canadian culture, of native invention and French and English adaptability. The importance of the canoe in Canadian exploration, early trading commerce, and its widespread use and recreation has left an indelible mark on the Canadian psyche. The image of the canoe whether depicted in art, on silver, paper, or springing from personal memory evokes a wide range of senses from excitement to solitude, and a legacy of history and adventure

About the Author: Brian Burton  raced  flat water single blade canoes for many years and won several Canadian Canoeing Championships that are staged every year by the Canadian Canoeing Association (CCA).

He is considered a skilled war canoe* “coxswain” and also represented Canada at the World Dragon Boat Championships.

(*War Canoes are uniquely Canadian boats, which hold  a total of 15 paddlers.)

To learn more about the Museum visit

You cannot copy content of this page