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North Canoe Stempieces, Then and Now

Posted on December 04 2015


One of the more exciting projects we’ve been involved in had to do with the North Canoe you see in the photo above. While we were initially reluctant to undertake such an ambitious niche project, the enthusiasm of our friend Ron Frenette proved infectious. Under his initiative we not only completed multiple builds but shipped them to Italy, where our group of paddlers took them down the Po River between Milan and Venice.

The carved stempieces at either end of the canoe served as unofficial mascots, and anyone who sees photos of the trip usually comments on them. We thought it would be interesting to provide a little background, courtesy once again of Ron Frenette. Ron writes:

“In the modern North Canoes we built, the stem pieces served only as decoration and a recognition to the builders of long ago who had to invent the solution to a serious construction dilemma.

In the original North Canoes, constructed of the bark of the white birch tree turned inside out, one of the problems the builders encountered was how to secure and strengthen the ends of the canoes.

The curved stems were laminated from multiple thin layers of wood (most likely white cedar), soaked and possibly boiled, then shaped over the builder’s knee.

The stem was then secured in small mortices in the stempiece and the entire unit set into one end or the other of the canoe. This in turn was secured with wrapping of ‘watap’ or the root of the black spruce tree which was split longitudinally creating long half-oval-shaped binding material. The addition of the inner gunwales and outer rubbing strakes, again secured with watap, made for a strong construction.

Given that these canoes (either the 36 foot or 26 foot version—depending on where in Canada one was paddling) made a journey most of the way across this country in one season is evidence that the construction was sound.

In the North Canoes we built in woodstrip-epoxy construction, we added on the endboards as a decorative element:

Here is the guy in the bow end:


Named by our crew as Gaston Gavroche, he has one very sour visage. After all, who can blame the poor fellow who must spend months looking BACKWARDS. All he can see is what has come and gone. Now, our aft end companion, named Pierre LaRoche, is all smiles:


From his vantage point, he can see all that is upcoming. He knows when the canoe will plunge down the rapids or when the day’s end campsite is right there in front of the canoe.

Ah, to be always in the position of mon ami, Pierre LaRoche!”

Ron credits The Bark Boats and Skin Canoes of North America and a biography of Tappan Adney for the information above. Here's one last shot of Pierre on the water:


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