History of Boats

Learn about the rich watercraft history of Canada’s north!
Our ancestors know what they were doing.

Seal Skin Qayaq

Natchiit amingi
With skin from the seal
Moose Skin Boat

Dzísk’u dáxh dùk tín
With skin from the moose
Birch Bark Canoe

K’i ch'um yi ts’ets’i nálát
With bark from the trees
Northern Tutchone
Spruce Dugout Canoe

Às têxh’ tûdáxh
From the heart of a treee

Seal Skin Qayaq

Natchiit Amingi – With Skin from the Seal

Inuit migrated across the Canadian Arctic from Siberia and Alaska over many millennia, with some arriving in the Inuvik region just after World War II. Travelling on land and water they were and are highly skilled dwellers in the far north, utilizing sparse Arctic vegetation, marine and tundra animals and moving across vast regions in the harshest conditions.

Skin qayaqs varied from 17 to 30 feet, with small boats for a single hunter and larger ones holding a family of five. Children would lie flat on the floor with older people on top. Travel could be precarious in rough water or stormy weather. The larger umiaks can be up to 60 feet and can hold several families plus gear.

Simple and practical qayaqs were light to carry across portages and near silent in frigid waters. A sealskin qayaq is especially stealthy as it gently glides through the water. Men hunted seals and beluga whales from qayaqs, travelling as groups of 3 – 10 up to a mile from shore. Pautiks are double-ended paddles that were used for maximum speed and maneuverability. The hakapik, clubs, firearms, and hooks or gaffs are tools used in the seal hunt and ensures that seals are harvested in the most humane way.

Motorized boats replaced qayaqs in the 1920s. Factory made wooden and metal boats carried more people and equipment from camp to camp and distant trade centres. In the 1930s Inuvialuit bought small schooners to extend their range, coming to Herschel Island through the 1930s.

Today Elders who know traditional Arctic lifeways work with young people to document the art and science of building and travelling in qayaqs, ensuring the survival of this unique watercraft.

Qayaqs are one of the large, iconic symbols of the North. Keeping the oral tradition, history and culture alive by sharing these skills is soul feeding

Moose Skin Boat

Dzísk’u dáxh dùk tín - With Skin from the Moose

In days gone by our families gathered everything they needed from the lands and waters around them, travelling to different places for specific resources throughout the seasons.

Moose hunting was a prime activity in late summer and fall with large extended families working together to harvest meat and hides for survival through winter. Every part of the animal was used for some purpose – as food, clothing, tools and transport – nothing was left behind.

Everyone worked together when it was time to move camp. Women scraped and sewed as many as 5-14 moose hides together to make a 3-9 metres (10 – 30 foot) boat, using moose sinew and a special stitch for waterproof seams. Men built a wood frame from spruce or birch, then stretched the hides over it to build a boat for up to 5 extended families, with dogs and belongings. A bag of moose grease hung from the bow to re-seal seams along the way. The boats generally were used for downstream journeys, being too heavy to paddle upriver. Upon arrival at their destination, the hides were removed from the frame and prized by women as the best material for making moccasins, mukluks, mittens and other winter garments.

Motorboats and other innovations flooded the North after World War II with the building of roads and increased air transport. People no longer relied on moose skin boats but still built them when circumstances required.

People of today are rediscovering the elegant simplicity of their ancestors’ moose skin boats. Culture camps teach youth the skills of hunting, tanning and sewing so these techniques will survive to inform all future generations.

Our ancestors tanned moose hides to make clothing, shoes, shelters and boats. Nothing was wasted or taken for granted ~ giving it life beyond what it was.

Birch Bark Canoe

K’i ch'um yi ts’ets’i nálát ~ With Bark from the Trees

From earliest times our stories speak of travel on the water. One of our oldest narratives tells how Äsùya (Smart Man or Beaver Man) dreamed the design of a canoe, then paddled in it down the Yukon River, making everything safe for humans.

Great stands of birch from the Pelly-Yukon confluence and tributaries down to the Pacific Ocean provided bark for canoes built by Yukon and Alaska peoples. They were long, narrow and extremely light for portage, with bow and stern tapered to a 30-degree angle point to maneuver in fast waters. Larger cargo canoes up to 10 metres (30 feet) carried whole families and belongings. Smaller hunting canoes of 3 – 5 metres (15-20 feet) held one or two men, with a bow storage deck to protect gear and carry a smudge to keep flies away.

Building canoes was a collaborative effort with men cutting strips of birch bark in spring and women gathering spruce roots to sew them together. They built frames in winter on flat ground near a river using black and white spruce or birch ribs attached to a sturdy flat bottom with a solid wood stem to carry the load. Paddles had one flat end and one pointed for navigating open water. A double pointed pole was used going upstream through shallow eddies. Canoes were highly valued, lasting for a decade or more.

Massive changes during the gold rush and the arrival of wood burning sternwheelers depleted birch trees along the Yukon. New goods including canvas replaced Indigenous materials and northern birch bark canoes disappeared by the 1920s.

Today young people seek out Elders who remember their grandparents’ ways in order to rekindle the spirit of birch bark canoe building and the skills to travel northern rivers in them.

Northern birch bark canoes are among the most elegant watercraft in the world ~ technically difficult to construct, feather light to carry, beautiful to see gliding swiftly on water.

Spruce Dugout Canoe

Às têxh’ tûdáxh ~ From the heart of a tree

For thousands of years our ancestors relied on cottonwood, cedar and spruce trees to create beautiful vessels for transport and inspiration. Dugout canoes permitted long journeys on the ocean and on swift river waters. Yukon people travelled down the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers in dugout canoes to trade and visit with relatives on the coast. Lives depended on their sturdy construction and capacity to withstand waves and winds.

Large cottonwood trees were used in the southwest Yukon for building dugout canoes, while spruce and cedar served the same purpose on the Pacific coast. Ranging from 5 - 9 metres long (16 to 28 feet), the Yukon dugouts resembled the coastal design known as a head canoe, with square bow and fin shaped stern. Men hollowed out the log with stone adzes, and later metal axes and adzes, sometimes using fire to finish the work.

People knew the land where the best trees were to be found. They pruned cotton wood trees to promote larger trunks – thinking 40 to 50 years ahead and the needs of their grandchildren.

Today dugout canoe builders in Alaska and Yukon are reviving the techniques and tools of their ancestors. Youth paddle the new dugouts to celebrations, on journeys of discovery and to honour their heritage.

A traditional dugout glides through the water and is designed to work organically with ocean and river currents. The ancestors knew what they were doing.