Canoes in BC History

Canoes have played a large role in the history of Canada and especially British Columbia. Up until the Fraser River gold rush, canoes were the main mode of transportation in British Columbia.

Fraser River Camp by James Madison Alden (Beinecke Rare Book Library)

People travelled in many different canoes, whether it was a dugout canoe made of cedar or deciduous wood or birch bark wrapped around a wooden frame. Canoes were the mode to traverse the waterways that linked one end of the country to another.

Pierre Berton wrote:

“…we are a nation of canoeists, and have been since the earliest days, paddling our way up the St. Lawrence, across the lakes, over the portages of the shield, west along the North Saskatchewan through the Yellowhead gap and thence southwest by the Columbia and Fraser rivers to the sea.”

David Thompson and Simon Fraser followed the rivers by canoe in their search for an ideal route for the fur trade. Canoes were given names just like ships. Simon Fraser named his lead canoe Perseverance.

“Canadian Express” by Arthur Heming

Canot du Nord

In time, canoes brought voyageurs to British Columbia through the route navigated by David Thompson.

The 7 metre long canot du nord, illustrated in this painting by Arthur Heming, was used in the west because of the rugged rivers and many portages along the way.  The voyageurs supplied their own paddles and also brought long 8 foot iron-tipped setting poles to propel the canoe upstream where the river bottom was shallow.

Singing as they paddled towards the pays d’en haut (the northwest), the voyageurs must have been a memorable sight. Here is a brief clip of one of their favourite songs, En roulant. Thomas Moore was inspired to write the Canadian Boat Song after experiencing a ride with the voyageurs:

Faintly as tolls the evening chime
Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time
Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time
Soon as the woods on shore look dim
We’ll sing at St. Ann’s our parting hymn
Row, brothers, row, the stream runs fast
The rapids are near and the daylight’s past
The rapids are near and the daylight’s past.
Why should we yet our sail unfurl
There is not a breath the blue wave to curl
There is not a breath the blue wave to curl
But when the wind blows off the shore
Oh, sweetly we’ll rest the weary oar
Blow, breezes, blow, the stream runs fast
The rapids are near and the daylight’s past
The rapids are near and the daylight’s past.

The canoe was even more important west of the Rockies, where the geography was so challenging:

“Horses are not procurable here, nor if procurable, is the country suited for their subsistence. The navigation of the Falls at high water cannot be accomplished; nor indeed, is the upper portion of the [Fraser] river to be navigated without difficulty at that stage.
At the lower, stage, these difficulties are so far modified that they may be overcome by portages; but it is to be premised that a certain amount of skill and experience in canoe navigation is a necessary condition of the undertaking.”

(from The Hand-book to The Gold Region of Frazer’s and Thompson’s Rivers” by Alexander C. Anderson – late Chief Trader Hudson Bay Co’s service 1858)

Canoes figured prominently in BC First Nations mythology.

Raven’s Magical Canoe (Cdn Museum of Civilization)

There is a myth that Raven had a magical canoe that could shrink to the size of a pine needle or expand to hold the entire universe.

In his notes on secret rituals, Edward Sapir wrote:

Cedar trees have spirits that take revenge on those who fell them, so the canoe-maker must uusimch (prepare themselves spiritually) to make the cedar spirits friendly and not harm him. When a canoe-maker cuts down a tree, he immediately turns away from it – he just goes home and does not come back until the next day. If he does not turn away, he may see the cedar spirit leaving the tree. This brings death.

Canoes were dug out, steamed, shaped, carved and sometimes painted.  Each region had a unique way of canoe building.

Freshwater Canoe

Freshwater Canoe from Interior of BC

This dugout type was called a River Canoe. It was usually made out of a soft deciduous tree trunk such as cottonwood, and was both poled and towed by ropes from the river banks as much as it was paddled.

The photograph below shows the distinctive profile of a sturgeon-nose canoe made with canvas. These were used by the Ktunaxa on the Arrow Lakes. In the right of the photo, a man fishes from another canoe which is held steady by poles set into the lake bottom. Three Ktunaxa tepees are in the background.

sturgeon nose canoes on the Arrow Lakes

Here, a Coast Salish carver creates a dugout river canoe. Note the two fires burning on the ground beneath the canoe. Both photographs are from “Images from the Likeness House” by Dan Savard.

Making a dugout river canoe at Sardis (Dundas Todd 1911)

Haida Canoe

Haida Canoe

The Haida Canoe was commonly used by the Kwakiutl people living on Northern Vancouver Island and the Haida Gwaii.     Designed for long journeys over open stretches of ocean, the northern tribes needed a large craft with a high prow and vertical cutwater to throw off the waves.  It also has flaring sides and a rounded bottom for buoyancy and speed. These Northern Canoes usually had a beam of between 5- and 9-feet.  Characteristically, all of these canoes curve and swell near the bow, and the prow gracefully curves up from the water and can be adorned with elaborate crest carvings, while the stern is long and overhanging.

Coast Salish Canoe

Coast Salish Canoe

The canoe type developed by the Salish peoples was a light, sleek craft with a long, tapered bow and overhanging stern.  It was primarily constructed for use in the sheltered waters of the Salish Sea, and the hundreds of inlets and bays in Salish territory where there are no large swells coming in off the Pacific Ocean and wind-driven waves and chop are small.  It had a more gently sloping bow than the Northern Canoe, and a rounded bottom.  The gunwales of a Coast Salish Canoe terminate in a concave flare with the wood being only one finger-width at the edge, two finger-widths on the sides, and three finger-widths on the bottom.

Coast Salish Canoe on the Cowichan River (Frederick Dally 1866)

Above is one of the earliest surviving photographs of a salmon weir. In his diary, Frederick Dally wrote:

During the salmon season an Indian will remain seated as depicted in the view with the trap door of the weir up both by day and also by night, as soon as a salmon enters he lets down the trap door and spears the fish which cannot possibly escape when once inside.


Nuu-Chah-Nulth Canoe

Nuu-Chah-Nulth Canoe

The Nuu-Chah-Nulth people live on the west coast of Vancouver Island on lands facing the open Pacific Ocean and the often-fierce westerly winds.  The sides of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth canoe flare out about 30 degrees for much of their length, giving them exceptional stability as they pitch in oceanic swells.  As this canoe started to be traded to the Salish people, it ultimately came to be known as the Chinook canoe, which was a name that indicated that it was excellent for use as a freighter.


Canoes at Nootka Sound 1778 (John Webber)

Here are some excerpts from a 17-page article handwritten in 1957 by August Murphy, an elder of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation. The original manuscript is in the Archives Deschatelets, Ottawa titled, “Livelihood of Indians of Nootka.

At Nootka about the year of 1872 to 1888 I was told later on that the population of Nootka was over 600 people, and about 1895 in my time, over 500 people.

In the different seasons of the year we were always on a move. For the purpose of moving, big canoes were needed.  My grandfather had owned two big canoes. I remembered twice that we had to pull down all the cedar boards of our house and loaded crosswise on the two big canoes and part of our belongings was on the deck made of boards and also in bottom of big canoes.

Since then when fur traders came more frequent or once a year, they had nails for sale. So, no more of taking boards to the seasonal different places, house was nailed together more firmly. But the moving was still going on, as the seasonal foods was more or less handy for going after fresh foods in certain places.

In the season of Spring about month of April, Everyone and all was ready to move to Tsh-sis, Ea-as (Bajo point) and Chi-tist, west coast of Nootka Island. These places are more close to the halibut grounds included many other species of fish to be caught, and for women going after sea foods are more handy to go for clams or mussels, sea eggs and other sea foods. And young sprouts was picked too.

Nootka Canoes

Season of spring was the best time for going after or hunt sea otters. This was young men’s business. For sea otter hunting was made preparations during winter time. The outfit for sea otter hunting was consisted of the best made canoes, about 17 or 18 feet in length and 3 or 3 1/2 feet in width , carefully burned the bottom of canoes. Best made paddles, a lance and spear and bow and arrows were furnished.

There were some very good weather men to watch the sign for good and bad weather. These men were praying and watching closely for the best calm weather for going out. When they were sure of the calm weather, before dawn they went to all the houses of hunters knocking on sides of their houses to wake them up and bring the good news of fine weather for their hunt.

About the year of 1896 or 1897 , at that time there were 24 small canoes, special made for sea otter hunt. Each canoe had 2 or 3 men.  When all 24 canoes were ready, all stood gathered in front of the beach, waiting orders from leader We-yak.

Hunting for Sea Otters (Curtis) 1913

In that season, 12 sea otters was caught. Large size was worth $400.00, medium size $300.00, small $200.00 very small $150.00. Sea otters was getting, scarce, and in those days, it was very hard for Indians to make money on any kind of work they did

About the month of June from the three Spring camping places, people moved to Friendly Cove, to spend summer there. From there, young and older men were fishing for dogfish. Dogfish liver was made oil, and sold the liver oil at $.25 a gallon. And some of the men would some times fish for halibut and troll for cohoes. Little money was made on dogfish oil and women folks had big job of slicing up halibut and cohoe’s meat and and sun dried fish.

Good old Autumn was coming on with its supply of salmon, namely Fall Taye salmon cohoes and chum salmon. So, every one and all were on a move to their Fall fishing places to Tasis, Tswin, Clois, Ois, Hisnit, Ts-ko-a, Ta-atis, Mowacha and Nesak.

Our two big canoes and three small one were pulled on the beach, everyone of my parents, grandparents, uncles aunts were busy packing things in cedar baskets and boxes and first thing early morning we all were carrying all our belonging loading in to the five canoes about forenoon, all aboard for Hisnit. Friendly Cove is about 12 miles to Hisnit, and we were all in the two big canoes, towing the smaller ones. We must have been making very slow progress. That day we did not reach Hisnit. We dropped anchor at Ka-to-wis and was there over night. Early next morning we only had two miles to go and landed at Hisnit. All hands busy carrying all our things in to our smoke house.

Old winter was creeping along with its beautiful sparkling frost and pure white snow covered the mountain. It was very nicely decorated, but talk about cold winds and later on Mr. Winter some times was real mad, brings his gale southeasterly winds with real heavy rains. Not so good for hunters and fishermen to buck the winds with their only paddle for traveling.

At Friendly Cove invitations was called for all Nootka people to go there for feasts and (Cloquina) wolf dances. Again we were moving with all our lots of things packed into our two big canoes and the 3 smaller canoes, off we were, on our way to Friendly Cove. Arrived there, lots of young men helped us pack our things in to the house of our chief Omeek.

Bella Coola Canoes: admirably adapted

In 1862, Lieutenant Palmer of the Royal Engineers was sent to survey a route to the Cariboo gold diggings from Victoria to Fort Alexandria by way of North Bentinck Arm. In his report, Palmer mentioned the canoes used on the Bella Coola River:

The arm is navigated by large canoes of the southern pattern, but those used on the Nookhalk [Bella Coola River] are of a different description, and admirably adapted for the dangerous and difficult character of the navigation. The largest kinds of these are about 25 feet in length and 2 1/2 feet in breadth, built of cottonwood, that wood being more easily worked than the cedar, with flat floors, and sides nearly straight from stem to stern, in a form which facilitates the work of poling. On raised platforms in the bow and stern stand  two natives on whom principally depends the guidance of the canoe, and the unerring skill and nerve with which heavily laden canoes are propelled through dangers of no trifling description is worthy of admiration.

Forest Canoes: Where the Giants Lay

Forest Canoe

The forest canoe is a mysterious object and a reminder that canoes are an organic part of nature, a forgotten part of our past.

Louis Matthews, a resident of Clo-oose, (now a part of Pacific Rim National Park) discovered the remains of an exceptionally large ‘forest canoe’ on land he had recently purchased from the West Coast Development Company. Matthews installed the bow of the canoe in his house as an oversized arm chair. It just cleared his twelve foot ceiling. Later, he shipped both prow and stern to England where they were placed in an ethnological museum in London.

This canoe was said to have been carved by a Ditidaht man named Odiu, or Oodioo from a giant cedar with a circumference of almost 40 feet at the base. It took him three years to build this canoe that was fifty-six feet long, had a nine-foot beam, and was three feet deep in the centre.

After Odiu died, his relatives hauled the canoe up on dry land and, in accordance with custom, chopped a hole in the bottom of the canoe so that no one else could use it.

further reading: Scott, R. Bruce (1974). ‘Odiu, Indian Canoe Builder’. People of the Southwest Coast of Vancouver Island. Victoria: self published, p.66-69